March 14, 2019

Remembering Fannie Lou Hamer; A Civil Rights Icon and a Mom

By Monica Land

Reena Evers Everette, daughter of Medgar and Myrlie Evers, poses in front of a life-size statue honoring civil rights icon, Fannie Lou Hamer, with her two daughters, Vergie and Lenora in October 2012. (Photo courtesy Fannie Lou Hamer's America)

Forty-two years after her death, Fannie Lou Hamer continues to inspire.

She is quoted, perhaps more than any other female activist of her generation. And because of her compelling and heartfelt calls to action during the civil rights movement, she has become the subject of numerous books, plays and documentaries. She was a motivator. A humanitarian. A luminary. And yet, among the many things she accomplished, there is one area of her life that has gone scarcely untold – her role as a mother.

Above everything else, Fannie Lou Hamer was a woman first. And her innermost desires had nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with nature. She wanted children. But that would never be. Reportedly, after several failed pregnancies, it was discovered that Hamer had a uterine (fibroid) tumor, and during an operation to remove it, a rural doctor gave her a complete hysterectomy.

Hamer felt his actions amounted to a rape because without her consent, he took away something that she would never forget and never regain. His act was a violation.

“I went to the doctor who did that to me, and I asked him, ‘Why?’ Why had he done that to me? He didn’t have to say nothing — and he didn’t. If he was going to give that sort of operation, then he should have told me. I would love to have had children,” Hamer recalled then.

What Hamer coined as a “Mississippi Appendectomy” - a forced sterilization of black women - was a common practice in the Deep South. It was yet another means to control the African American people, by secretly depleting their population.

But being the fighter that she was, that did not prevent Hamer from having the family she always wanted. With the support of her husband, Perry, known as Pap, Hamer surrounded herself with children, taking in her first, Dorothy Jean, when she was just eight-months-old.

Sometime later, she adopted a second, Vergie, a third, Lenora, and a fourth, Jacqueline, each with a story more tragic than the one before. The girls were the children of distant family members who couldn’t afford to care for them. Or in the case of Vergie, who was left for dead after being burned at six-months-old, a family that didn’t want her. Hamer took these girls from a life of poverty and neglect and raised them as if they were her own. And they were. Because she provided what they lacked, a home, security and a loving environment. Today, only two of her girls remain, Lenora and her sister, Jacqueline, whom the Hamers affectionately called, Nook and Cookie, respectively. Hamer spoke of them often when she made her public pleas for better education and living conditions in the Mississippi Delta.

Civil Rights Activist Fannie Lou Hamer with her adopted daughters, Lenora (Nook) and Jacqueline (Cookie) pictured with a worker from the Freedom Farms. (Photo courtesy Jean Sweet Collection)

“…I just couldn’t afford to sit down and not do nothing,” Hamer told Neil McMillian, a history professor at USM, in an interview in 1973. “I know something out there is happening…and I know I can say something…This is not right, and I’m going to get out here and we’re going to do something about it… And if things are better for me and things is better for Nook and Cookie, them two little girls in there, then they’re going to be better for your two kids.”

To the world, Hamer was a powerhouse speaker. She was unapologetic in her delivery, but compassionate in her reasoning. She often met with influential leaders and proponents of civil rights such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Harry Belafonte. But to her girls at home, she was simply, ‘Mama’.

“We went to Fayette, Mississippi once when I was little, and there was a large crowd,” Jacqueline remembers. “Mama was just over five feet tall. But listening her, you would think that she was a giant. The way she talked about the city of Ruleville, what she had gone through, the people that she helped and what others from different states were doing to help the Mississippi Delta residents. Just hearing her speak made my heart proud to just know that she was my mom.”

Jacqueline and Lenora’s biological mother, Dorothy Jean, whom the Hamer’s adopted as an infant, died when she was 22 years old.

By the time Jacqueline was born in the late 1960s, Fannie Lou Hamer was internationally known. In 1962, she attempted to register to vote at the courthouse in Indianola and was promptly fired from her job as a timekeeper on the plantation where she had worked for 18 years.

In 1963, while returning home from a voter education workshop in Charleston, South Carolina, she and several others, including a 15-year-old girl, were viciously beaten while in jail in Winona.

In 1964, she helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and she later appeared before the Credentials Committee at the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Her testimony was broadcast nationwide catapulting her to nobility.

She helped influence the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She traveled extensively on speaking engagements and she appeared on dozens of television and radio shows raising funds and pleading her cause for a better Mississippi.

Plagued with debilitating health issues, Hamer learned she had breast cancer and died on March 14, 1977. In a twist of irony, it was her children, Cookie and Nook, who wrote letters to Hamer’s friends and supporters raise money for her funeral on March 20.

Reena Evers Everette, daughter of Medgar Evers, (l) and Jacqueline Hamer Flakes (r) attended the 100th birthday celebration of her mom in October 2017. The celebration was held at the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden and Park in Ruleville. (Photo courtesy Fannie Lou Hamer's America)


Jacqueline, who was six-months-old when she was adopted by sharecroppers Pap and Fannie Lou, fondly remembers the woman whose sole mission in life was to always elevate others.

“People were sending food in by the truckloads,” she said. “We had 18-wheelers that were parked in our yard. We had 18-wheelers bringing in clothing. I can remember my dad saying, ‘Baby, you’re going to give everything away. You’re going to give away your last.’’ But it didn’t matter to her. She was like, ‘It’s not mine. God gave it to me.’  All she wanted was to bless others because we were being blessed.”

Now 52, and the mother of two adult sons, Trenton and Shadney, Jacqueline recalls Hamer constantly working to help those in the community.   

“I can remember her just sitting around peeling apples or pears. We had a four-car garage at the time, but there were never any cars parked there. There was always clothes, food and cases and cases of preserves that she would can. We had deep freezers with soup and other foods that she had put away for the winter. My dad raised hogs and my uncles in Kilmichael had cows, so we always had meat. And she just gave to people. I think that’s why I have a caring spirit because being around her, you couldn’t help but want to give and give freely. It’s like she said, ‘God gave it us. He blesses us so we can bless others. And he gets the glory from it.’”

And whether it’s obvious or not, Jacqueline does have her mother’s same sense of justice and humanity. She’s pursued careers in nursing and emergency response. As a teenager, she started working as a relief dispatcher for the town of Ruleville. She enrolled at Mississippi Delta Community College in Moorhead with the hope of becoming a nurse. But she was eventually drawn back to the life of a dispatcher in Sunflower County and when she moved to Michigan. She also worked for the Mississippi penal system.

She recently became the water clerk for Ruleville, a position her older sister, Lenora, held for nearly 30 years, prior to her retirement. As of August 2018, however, Jacqueline’s life has taken her on a different journey, a path once again well-traveled by her mother.

“I’ve been diagnosed with Stage Two Breast Cancer. And what I’m going through is nothing compared to what she went through because then there was a Whites Only and Blacks Only in the doctor’s office. There were some people who didn’t make a difference in her race and they did what they could. She was getting the treatments the Caucasians were getting. But it was to the point that it had spread all over her body, but she still tried to go on. She still tried to make her trips and give her speeches. Who ever needed her, she was there.”

Lloyd Gray, a former reporter for The Delta-Democrat Times, wrote what is known to be the last article where Hamer was interviewed.

“When I met Mrs. Hamer in her home for that last interview a few months before her death, I knew that she was seriously ill but it didn’t show,” Gray said. “She was gracious and welcoming, full of enthusiasm about the work she was doing locally to help her neighbors and friends improve their lives. She seemed energized by the progress that had been made across Mississippi and the South, for which she was an important catalyst, and she was hopeful about the future.”

Jacqueline says her mother was transported from state to state for treatment, but ultimately, they all failed.

“I can remember the nights when she would call me, and she would say, ‘Baby, come here and get in the bed with Mama’. It was bad. It was Stage Four at that point.”

Gray’s article, “The Glitter Is Gone, But The Fight Goes On”, was published on October 3, 1976. Hamer died five months later at Taborian Hospital in Mound Bayou.

“When I heard of her death, I thought back to that day we met, and it was clear that she had made every day of her life count,” Gray said. “She never stopped working for justice and opportunity for all people in her unique and courageous way.”

Throughout her life, Hamer applauded her husband Pap for his unwavering support which allowed her to accomplish what she did. When she traveled, he took care of the children and they never doubted that would continue after her death.   

“He was the love of her life,” Jacqueline said. “She was on the road with all kinds of people and he wasn’t jealous. He was by her side 100 percent. Somebody asked him one day, ‘Pap, since Fannie Lou is gone, what are you going to do with those girls?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean? Those are my babies. I’m going to keep them.’ And that’s what he did. He couldn’t cook. He learned to cook. He did his best. We couldn’t go to him and ask him questions like you would a mom. But there were women all around us. And we never wanted for anything. We never asked for anything and I’m just grateful that Pap Hamer was her mate.”  
 
Pap died on May 19, 1992.
 
Since Vergie’s death in October 2017 at the age of 64 and Lenora’s recent health decline, Jacqueline has carried forth as the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer. In November 2018, she sent a video message to an audience at Stockton University in Atlantic City, where a hall was renamed in her mother’s honor. And she vows to continue her mother’s legacy ensuring that her sacrifices shall never be forgotten.

“What I want for our children, and our children’s children, is they stand on God’s Word and carry the torch that we shall overcome,” she said. “We’re trying and we’ve come a long way. But we still have a ways to go. I want the kids to know that Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer did not go through all of that for nothing. Don’t allow someone else to carry the torch for you when we have our children to do it. So, step up and take a stand for what’s right.”

Vergie Hamer Faulkner and her sister, Lenora Hamer Flakes attended the unveiling of their mother's statue at the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden and Park in Ruleville in October 2012. (Photo courtesy Fannie Lou Hamer's America)