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“I Didn’t Know Anything About Voting:” Fannie Lou Hamer On The Mississippi Voter Registration Campaign

Fannie Lou Hamer, the last of 20 children and a Mississippi tenant farmer, leapt to national prominence during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, when she eloquently challenged Mississippi’s segregated Democratic primary on national television. In 1962, she had become a leader of the African-American voting rights movement in Mississippi that culminated in 1964’s Freedom Summer. Forced off her land when her landlord demanded that she take her name off the voter registration list, Hamer was repeatedly jailed and beaten during her voting rights activities. “The only thing they could do to me was kill me,” Hamer said, “and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

Listen to Audio:

HAMER: Well, I didn’t know anything about voting; I didn’t know anything about registering to vote. One night I went to the church. They had a mass meeting. And I went to the church, and they talked about how it was our right, that we could register and vote. They were talking about we could vote out people that we didn’t want in office, we thought that wasn’t right, that we could vote them out. That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it. I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote. . . .

Well, when I first tried to register it was in Indianola. I went to Indianola on the thirty-first of August in 1962; that was to try to register. When we got there—there was eighteen of us went that day—so when we got there, there were people there with guns and just a lot of strange-looking people to us. We went on in the circuit clerk’s office, and he asked us what did we want; and we told him what we wanted. We wanted to try to register. He told us that all of us would have to get out of there except two. So I was one of the two persons that remained inside, to try to register, [with] another young man named Mr. Ernest Davis. We stayed in to take the literacy test. So the registrar gave me the sixteenth section of the Constitution of Mississippi. He pointed it out in the book and told me to look at it and then copy it down just like I saw it in the book: Put a period where a period was supposed to be, a comma and all of that. After I copied it down he told me right below that to give a real reasonable interpretation then, interpret what I had read. That was impossible. I had tried to give it, but I didn’t even know what it meant, much less to interpret it. . . .

Well, when we got back I went on out to where I had been staying for eighteen years, and the landowner had talked to my husband and told him I had to leave the place. My little girl, the child that I raised, met me and told me that the landowner was mad and I might have to leave. So during the time that my husband was talking about it, I was back in the house. The landowner drove up and asked him had I made it back. He [my husband] told him I had. I got up and walked out on the porch, and he [told] me did Pap tell me what he said. I told him, “He did.” He said, “Well, I mean that, you’ll have to go down and withdraw your registration, or you’ll have to leave this place.” I didn’t call myself saying nothing smart, but I couldn’t understand it. I answered the only way I could and told him that I didn’t go down there to register for him; I went down there to register for myself. This seemed like it made him madder when I told him that.

Source: Interviewed by Neil McMillen, 4/14/72 and 1/25/73
Courtesy of Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive McCain Library and Archive, University of Southern Mississippi