Fannie Lou Hamer: A Political Bright Light that Still Shines

By Glynda C. Carr

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 If Fannie Lou Hamer were alive to celebrate her 100th birthday this past October 6th, she would certainly take pride in the way Black women continue to push this country toward honoring its promise of freedom and equality for all. From founding movements such as Black Lives Matter to our status as the country’s fastest-growing segment of small business owners, Black women have historically been at the forefront of this country’s political, economic and human-rights advancement.

It’s been 53 years since Hamer, a former share cropper who was instrumental in organizing Black voter registration in the south, led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s (MFDP) delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ. There, she stood toe-to-toe with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was seeking reelection.  She demanded that he and other party leaders let the delegates, who’d been elected by more than 80,000 Black and poor White Mississippians, be seated and allowed to exercise their right to vote during the party’s nominating process.

Like so many Black women before and after her, Hamer was initially dismissed as inconsequential by Johnson and other party powerbrokers. But she refused to back down. When the MFDP was denied participation in the party process, Hamer stood in front of the TV cameras and told the world the truth about how Blacks were treated in the south. She spared no detail about how they were being killed, beaten and denied work just for attempting to exercise their right to vote. Her testimony grabbed the nation’s attention and nearly upended Johnson’s nomination.  
 
That same year, Fannie Lou took her activism to the next level and ran for Congress in the Mississippi Democratic primary against the incumbent, a white man.  When asked why she ran for office she said, “I'm showing the people that a Negro can run for office.”  Her activism has inspired a generation of Black women and her legacy provides a roadmap that shows how every day Black women lead from the voting booth to elected office.
 
Half a century later, Black women have made significant political gains. Twenty of us—the most ever—are now serving in the House of Representative; the second Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate is currently in office; and the number of Black women seated in state legislatures ticked upwards during the last election.
 
Still, we are living in an unsettling time when so much of what Hamer fought for—voting rights, reproductive rights, an end to racial violence and poverty, access to early education—is still unrealized. That’s one reason its crucial we put our voting power, dollars and time behind the growing number of progressive Black women who are running for office. History shows that when Black women gain political power we champion policies that benefit multiple communities.
This year, we have an opportunity to break new political ground by electing more Black women into office across the country.   This November voters in five of our nation’s largest cities have the opportunity to elect a Black woman mayor.  Vi Lyles of Charlotte, NC, Yvette Simpson of Cincinnati, OH, LaToya Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet of New Orleans, LA, Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, GA and Rev. Dr. Nekima Levy-Pounds of Minneapolis, MN present an opportunity to more than double the number of Black women serving as mayor of the 100 largest cities—from 4 to 9! 
 
Next year Stacey Abrams is running to become the country’s first Black woman governor.  These Black women and countless others embody Hamer’s spirit of turning being “sick and tired of being sick and tired” into action.
 
Now more than ever, it’s important that Black women continue to boldly lead and share our stories—because as Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others before and since have shown, we have the tools to be effective leaders and our stories have the power to change the world.
 
Glynda C Carr is the co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization building the collective political power and leadership of Black women from the voting booth to elected office.