Addressing a crowd in Madison, Wisc., in 1971, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said she knew what it meant to be hungry. She recalled growing up in the 1920s and 1930s in a sharecropping family and often going to bed with an empty stomach. “I know what the pain of hunger is about,” she told the crowd.
The youngest of 20 children, Hamer did her part on the plantation to help her family make ends meet. In her autobiography To Praise Our Bridges, Hamer vividly recalls memories of experiencing poverty as a child: “To feed us during the winter months mama would go ’round from plantation to plantation and would ask landowners if she could have the cotton that had been left…Then she’d take that bale of cotton and sell it and that would give us some of the food that we would need.”
Hamer’s childhood experiences drove her passion later in life when she not only fought for Black political power, but economic justice as well. She understood that Black political rights could not be divorced from economic rights and recognized that economic security was fundamental to the struggle for civil rights. “If you have a pig in your backyard, if you have some vegetables in your garden, you can feed yourself and your family, and nobody can push you around,” she insisted in the late 1960s.
The dire financial challenges Hamer’s family endured during the early 20th century mirrored the lives of many Black people in Mississippi—and across the South—during this period. A study of Indianola, Miss., by anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker captured the devastating effects of sharecropping in the South during the 1930s. Of the thousands of Black people who worked as sharecroppers, Powdermaker found that only 25% to 30% received a fair settlement for crops at the end of the year. Half of the Black families in the Mississippi Delta during this period could not afford to maintain a nutritious diet.
Thirty years after Powdermaker’s study, economic conditions in Mississippi had not improved much. By 1960, 75% of all families in the Mississippi Delta were living below the federal poverty line of $3,000. These conditions were worse for Black families in the region with the median annual income of a Black family in Quitman County, Miss., estimated at $819—less than a third of the $3,000 line. On a national level, an estimated 40% of Black Americans in the United States were living under the poverty line in 1965.
Despite having limited material resources, Hamer was undeterred in her fight for economic justice. True to her belief that one must take tangible steps to change society, she came up with a practical solution for addressing hunger and malnutrition. In 1969, Hamer launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), a community-based rural and economic development project. With a donation of $10,000 from Measure for Measure, a charitable organization based in Wisconsin, Hamer purchased 40 acres in her hometown of Ruleville, Miss., with plans to develop the land to provide resources for local residents in need. A wide array of individuals and institutions contributed to Hamer’s Freedom Farm, including celebrity activist Harry Belafonte and leaders of the National Council of Negro Women—the largest Black women’s organization in the U.S. during the 1960s.