The Center for Constitutional Rights’ story begins in the Mississippi Delta working together with Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the most powerful figures in the Black Freedom Struggle. Throughout her life, Fannie Lou Hamer resisted the injustices of poverty, anti-Black racism, and the specific racialized gender violence faced by Black women in the South. In 1961, Hamer was sterilized without her consent when she went to a Sunflower County hospital for a minor procedure to remove a tumor. She was given a hysterectomy, then called a “Mississippi appendectomy,” a cruelty inflicted often against Black women in her home state. “In the North Sunflower County Hospital,” Hamer said, “I would say about six out of the 10 Negro women that go to the hospital are sterilized with the tubes tied.” The forced sterilization would compel her to fight for human rights throughout her life.
Born in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, as the twentieth child of two sharecroppers, Hamer joined her family picking cotton at age six. Because of her ability to read and write, she was given the position of “time-keeper” in a sharecropping system designed to keep Black workers in debt. In 1962, the summer after her forced sterilization, Hamer attended a meeting led by civil rights activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group that used civil disobedience to fight white supremacy in the South. Years later, when recalling that first meeting, she said, “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d a been a little scared.” Instead, she volunteered to go to the courthouse the next day to try to register to vote. Once there, she was required to take a literacy test, created to dissuade Black people from voting. The clerk asked a question about the state constitution dealing with “de facto” laws. “I knowed as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day,” Hamer said later. She failed the literacy test but told the clerk she would be back.
When Hamer returned home that day, the plantation owner demanded that she withdraw her application to vote. Hamer refused, stating, “I didn’t go down there to register for you. I went down to register for myself.” In retaliation, he fired her from her job and confiscated much of her and her husband’s property. She later recalled, “What was the point of being scared? The only thing the whites could do was kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.” In 1963, Hamer attempted to register for the third time. Among other things, the registration required her to disclose where she worked and lived, information the Ku Klux Klan often used to find and intimidate Black people who attempted to register to vote. Undeterred, Hamer finally passed the test.
Several months later, in June 1963, Hamer was on her way home from a voter registration workshop in South Carolina when her bus stopped in Winona, Mississippi. Five passengers got out and tried to get service at a segregated lunch counter. A highway patrolman ordered them to get out. As Hamer climbed down the bus, an officer spotted her and arrested her, taking her to the county jail. “After I was placed in the cell,” Hamer would later recount, “I began to hear sounds of licks and screams… And I could hear somebody say, ‘Can you say, “Yes, sir,” nigger? Can you say, ‘Yes, sir’?” Then three white men came to her cell and warned her: “We are going to make you wish you was dead.” Hamer would later share the horrific details of the assault that followed in an address that would shake the nation. The brutal attack left her with lifelong injuries, including kidney and leg damage and a blood clot in her eye.
In 1964, Hamer’s stature in the Civil Rights Movement gained national recognition as she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) so that Black people in Mississippi would have an alternative to the Democratic Party, which excluded them. In 1964 she ran for Congress as an MFPD candidate against the Democratic incumbent, stating in a campaign speech, “My opponent has done nothing to help the Negro in the Second Congressional District. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Hamer and other MFPD members attended the Democratic National Convention that year, seeking recognition as an official delegation. They also demanded mandatory integrated state delegations, challenging the all-white Democratic delegation from Mississippi, which included in its ranks many avowed segregationists. Even though the MFDP got more votes than the Democratic Party in the Mississippi primaries, the national party refused to seat MFDP delegates at its convention.
President Lyndon Johnson, who would eventually sign the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, sent political advisers to persuade Hamer not to make her appeal to the credentials committee. When she refused, Johnson decided to call a news conference at the same time in order to stop national television networks from covering her testimony live. “All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America,” Hamer said. “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” Johnson’s attempts failed, as Hamer’s testimony was repeatedly televised later and entered history as one of the most memorable speeches of the Civil Rights Movement.
The MFDP’s struggle and Fannie Lou Hamer's moving testimony about her beating won support all over the U.S. and were partly responsible for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This Act guaranteed federal protection of the right to vote and made it illegal to deny adult U.S. citizens this right. The Center for Constitutional Rights had its genesis in civil rights litigation to uplift voices like Hamer’s in the U.S. South, where we represented her and the MFDP in the historic case of Hamer v. Campell. The lawyers who would go on to found the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1966 recognized that the role of lawyers was to stand with marginalized communities and speak out against oppression. After many setbacks, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Hamer and others were discriminated against by being denied the right to register to vote. The elections were then overturned based on discriminatory election practices.
We remember and honor the legacy of Black freedom fighters like Fannie Lou Hamer, who remind us that when a crisis comes, “I’m gonna be standing up, I’m gonna be moving forward, and if they shoot me, I’m not going to fall back, I’m going to fall 5 feet 4 inches forward.”