Fannie Lou Hamer was born in rural Mississippi in 1917, the youngest of 20 children and the granddaughter of slaves. Her parents were sharecroppers, and Hamer started working in the cotton fields when she was six years old. Growing up poor under segregation, Hamer was denied basic civil rights that most Americans today take for granted.
Everything changed in 1962, when Hamer attended her first mass meeting and learned about the struggle for voting rights. About two percent of the black population voted in Mississippi, even though in some areas black residents outnumbered whites by four to one. When Hamer tried to register at her local courthouse, she was turned away, and was later evicted by her white landlord. Hamer went on to work for civil rights organizations and resolved to lead the fight for voting rights in Mississippi.
In 1964, several local civil rights organizations joined forces to become the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). COFO leaders, including Hamer, planned what they called the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a campaign to organize voter education classes and go door-to-door to register African Americans for the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The MFDP, which Hamer co-chaired, would challenge the all-white state Democratic Party for its refusal to allow African Americans to participate and its opposition to civil rights. The Freedom Summer drew local black citizens and more than 1,000 volunteers from the North, many of them white, and registered 60,000 members for the MFDP.
The MFDP sent 64 delegates to the Democratic National Convention to protest Mississippi's all-white delegation. Hamer petitioned the convention's Credentials Committee for four seats on the convention floor, explaining the scare tactics and violence she and other African Americans experienced in Mississippi and their lack of access to the Democratic Party.
The all-white Mississippi delegates left the convention and refused to participate in a party that welcomed African Americans. President Johnson, not wanting to upset Southern Democrats while he was campaigning for the upcoming election, sought a compromise. The deal that was struck offered the MFDP two at-large seats, which Hamer considered "token rights, in the back row, the same as we got in Mississippi." The MFDP voted to turn down the compromise offer.
The next two nights, Hamer and other members of the MFDP borrowed convention passes from sympathetic delegates from other states who were willing to give up their seats, only to be removed from the convention floor by security guards.
The MFDP didn't win official recognition at the 1964 convention, but Hamer and her colleagues did bring the issue of African American voting rights to the attention of the Democratic Party and the nation, and at the same time produced a surge of black voters in Mississippi. Hamer remembers, "After the 1964 summer project when all of the young people came down -- an exciting and remarkable summer -- Negro people in the Delta began moving. People who had never before tried, though they had always been anxious to do something, began moving."