Fannie Lou Hamer: Civil Rights Activist

By Tatiahna Turner

You can pray until you faint, but unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.

The youngest of 20 children, Fannie Lou Hamer was born Fannie Lou Townsend on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. From the age of 6 Fannie picked cotton with her family. She was allowed to attend the plantations’ one-room school house where she discovered her love for reading and poetry. However, at the age of 12 Fannie had to leave school to support her parents. She continued picking cotton and it said that at the age of 13 she could pick 200-300 pounds of cotton daily despite having a disfigured leg as a result of polio. She continued to develop her reading skills in Bible Study at her church, and in 1944, when her plantation owner found out that she was able to read and write, he selected her as the plantations’ time and record keeper. That same year, Fannie married a tractor driver on the plantation. Perry “Pap” Hamer and Fannie remained married for the next 18 years. Later, In 1961, while having surgery to remove a tumor Hamer was given a hysterectomy without consent by a white doctor. This was part of the state’s compulsory sterilization plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state and blacks in general. She is credited soon after for coining the phrase, “Mississippi appendectomy”.

Hamer became interested in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s when she heard leaders in a local movement speak at the annual Regional Council of Negro Leadership. In 1962, Hamer learned about the right to vote from volunteers at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting. After this meeting, she began taking action in the civil rights movement. On August 31, Hamer traveled to Indianola, Mississippi to attempt to register to vote. She was not successful in this endeavor and when she returned home to the plantation she was fired by the plantation owner who had warned her against trying to register. Hamer’s husband was required to stay on the plantation until the end of the harvest season. On September 10, while staying with a friend, Hamer was shot at 16 times by the Ku Klux Klan. In fear of further retaliation, Hamer and her family moved to Tallahatchie County the next day where they stayed for three months. On December 4, Hamer returned to her hometown to take the literacy test but failed and was turned away. It is said that she told the registrar, “You’ll see me every 30 days till’ I pass.” Fannie said about the event, “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared — but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”

After being hired as a field secretary by the SNCC in 1963, Hamer attended a citizenship conference in Charleston, South Carolina. On the way, the party stopped in Winona, Mississippi where they were refused service inside of a local café. Shortly after, a highway patrol man came into the establishment with a bat and intimidated the activists to leave. As one of the members of the group was jotting down the license plate number of the officer’s car, a police chief entered and began arresting anyone that was with the party. Hamer and her colleagues were arrested and taken to a local jail where they were beaten and brutalized. Hamer was taken to a cell where the inmates were instructed to beat her with a baton. The police made sure that she was held down during this almost fatal attack. Hamer was released on June 12, 1963. It took her more than a month to recover, and she was still left with injuries. She sustained a blood clot over her left eye and permanent damage to one of her kidneys. When Fannie returned to Mississippi she organized a voter registration drive.

Hamer died of complications of hypertension and breast cancer on March 14, 1977. She was buried in Ruleville, Mississippi. Her tombstone was engraved with one of her famous quotes, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Ida B. Wells: Suffragist, Feminist, and Leader

By Dasha Matthews

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, better known as Ida B. Wells was born on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She is known to the world as a prominent African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, feminist, and early leader of the Civil Rights Movement. She is also one of the 60 founders of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Wells was born a slave. Just a few months before sitting President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, her parents James and Elizabeth Wells were both enslaved by an architect. The family stayed in what is now known as the “Boiling-Gatewood House”. Wells’ parents were both advocates for the rights of black people. Her father was educated at Rust College, where she also attended but was expelled for starting a dispute with the university president. In 1878, at the age of 16, Ms. Wells went to visit her grandmother in Mississippi Valley. While there, she learned that a yellow fever epidemic had struck her hometown and claimed the lives of her parents and her youngest brother. Left to care for five other siblings, Wells left school and took up a job as a teacher in a black elementary school. Along with the influence of her parents, her teaching job sparked interest in politics of race. In the segregated school system white teachers were paid $80 per month, while black teachers were paid $30 per month. Later on in the 1880’s Wells moved with her siblings to Memphis, Tennessee and continued teaching, but for higher wages.

In 1884 Wells filed a lawsuit against a train car company in Memphis for unfair treatment. She had been forcibly removed from her first class seat and moved to a “colored only” car, despite having a ticket. Wells won the lawsuit and was awarded $500, but the decision was then overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1887. As a result of this injustice Wells turned to journalism and began having articles published in black newspapers under the alias ‘Iola’. She eventually became the owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.

After the lynching of three of her friends in 1892, Wells turned her attention to white mob violence and became a well-known anti-lynching activist. She began investigative journalism and raised money to investigate lynchings and publish her results. She found very little basis for the frequent claim that black men were lynched due to sexual advancement towards white women. She recorded her finding in a pamphlet entitled Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases”.

Wells was involved in many different groups focused on the equality of African-Americans and women. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, which dealt with issues around civil rights and women’s suffrage. In 1913, she founded what was possibly the first black women suffrage group, the Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club. She was also a part of the founding of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but later distanced herself from the group due to its “white and elite black leadership” along with the fact that she felt the group lacked action-based initiatives.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931 just a few days after the passing of her husband Ferdinand Barnett. She left behind four children and quite a remarkable legacy. She will always be remembered in history for her fearless battles against discrimination and her influence during the civil rights movement.

The Life of Angela Davis

By Tatiahna Turner

Born Angela Yvonne Davis on January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama she is best known as an African-American political activist and for her relations to the Black Panther Party.

Davis grew up in a middle class neighborhood that was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill” due to the amount of African-American homes in the area that were bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. She was aware and affected by racial prejudice from her experiences with discrimination while growing up in Alabama. As a teenager, Davis organized interracial study groups that were broken up by the police. Davis’ mother Sallye, taught in an elementary school and was also an active member of the NAACP. Davis pursued higher education at Brandeis University where she studied philosophy, and then later, as a graduate student she attended the University of California, San Diego.

In 1969, Davis accepted a position as an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). At this time she was known to world as a radical feminist and activist, a member of the Communist Party USA, and an associate of the Black Panther Party. Davis was fired from her job at UCLA due to her ties and beliefs with the Communist Party, but was then rehired after a judge ruled that she could not be fired solely due to her relations with them. A short while later, on June 20, 1970, Davis was let go from her position at UCLA again, but this time the reason was “inflammatory language” that she used during speeches. The report written for her dismissal stated, “We deem particularly offensive such utterances as her statement that the regents ‘killed, brutalized (and) murdered’ the People’s Park demonstrators, and her repeated characterizations of the police as ‘pigs’.”

Angela Davis was a strong supporter of the Soledad Brothers, who were three inmates accused of killing a guard at the Soledad Prison. As reported by FamPeople, the incident that took place was as follows: “On August 7, 1970, Jonathan Jackson, a heavily armed, 17-year-old African-American high-school student, gained control over a courtroom in Marin County, California. Once in the courtroom, Jackson armed the black defendants and took Judge Harold Haley, the prosecutor, and three female jurors as hostages. As Jackson transported the hostages and two black convicts away from the courtroom, the police began shooting at the vehicle. The judge, one of the jurors, the prosecutor, and the three black men were killed in the melee. Davis had purchased the firearms used in the attack, including the shotgun used to kill Haley, which had been bought two days prior and the barrel sawed off. She had also written numerous letters found in the prison cell of one of the murderers. Since California considers “all persons concerned in the commission of a crime, whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense… principals in any crime so committed,” San Marin County Superior Judge Peter Allen Smith charged Davis with “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley” and issued a warrant for her arrest. Hours after the judge issued the warrant on August 14, 1970 a massive attempt to arrest Angela Davis began. On August 18, 1970, four days after the initial warrant was issued, the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made Angela Davis the third woman to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List.”

Davis fled from California and, according to her autobiography, hid in the homes of close friends. She was captured on October 13, 1970. On June 4, 1972 after 13 hours of deliberation Davis was found not guilty by an all-white jury. They decided that her owning the guns used in the crime was not enough evidence to convict her. After years of traveling and lecturing, Davis returned to the US where she taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz until her retirement in 2008. In 2017, Davis attended the Women’s March on Washington as a featured speaker and was made honorary co-chair.

The Perseverance of Pam Grier

By Dasha Matthews

Pam Grier is known to the world as an iconic African-American actress. Many know her from Blaxploitation films such as Foxy Brown, but she has contributed much more to the African-American society than just entertainment. Grier endured many hardships during her childhood and adult life that led her to become the strong and inspiring feminist that she is today.

At the age of 6, Grier was raped by two older boys when she was left alone at her Aunt’s home. In an interview given while on her book tour, Pam spoke briefly on the incident saying, “It took so long to deal with the pain of that… You try to deal with it, but you never really get over it. And not just me; my family endured so much guilt and anger that something like that happened to me.” Grier was then a victim of date rape at the age of 18. She said that she had not told anyone about either of these incidents until she wrote the memoir. When speaking about her decision to reveal what happened to her she said, “I wanted others out there to understand the emotional trauma that is involved in sexual aggression and abuse and that not all of us get over it or even survive the abuse. I have that opportunity to speak about this as the icon—the object and let others know that in spite of it all, I am still here.”

In 1988 Grier was diagnosed with stage-four cervical cancer. In an interview, Grier states, “They couldn’t operate or start treatment for another six weeks… They gave me only 16-18 months to live and was told to start preparing for treatment and to organize my will.” Grier says that she coped with her diagnosis “minute to minute” and that her recovery was possible through the combination of chemotherapy and her doctor’s recommendation of a Chinese herbalist who prescribed her “herbs and tinctures.”

Despite all of the trials and tribulations that Grier endured, she persevered and used each experience as a teaching lesson. She fought from the beginning of her career for the independence and free expression of women. In another interview, Grier states, “And what the (feminist) movement was saying was to be independent on your own. And I realized that is what I was going to have to do, no matter what trauma went on in my life. Women could still survive and they must have independence and not be co-dependent, which is what society was teaching women to be”

You can follow this link to read more about her life.


What Are You Reading?

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By Bonnie Messbarger

Ms. Magazine Blog recently ran a list of the Top 100 Feminist Non-Fiction Books of All Time. Being a big reader myself I look forward to putting some of these titles on my ‘to read’ list. The top 10 were:

 1. Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks

2. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio

3. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

4. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

5. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

6. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi

7. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy

8. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks

9. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks

10. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti

 And while I’m sure all of these titles are fabulous and have earned their place on the list. There were definitely a lot of comments on what books didn’t ‘make the cut.’ What books do you think should have been included? And if you were making this list, what would your top 10 be?