An Attack on Voting Rights is an Attack on the Legacy of Fannie Lou HamerRoundup
tags: African American history, voting rights, Fannie Lou Hamer
Keisha N. Blain is an award-winning historian and writer. She is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and has written extensively on race, gender and politics in national and global perspectives. Her most recent book is Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.
We hear a lot these days about the consequences of the Voting Rights Act being under attack. With its 2013 ruling in Shelby County vs. Holder, the Supreme Court undermined the use of preclearance by federal courts and the Justice Department. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that 19 states passed 34 laws that restricted voting access in 2021 and is now tracking 250 bills that seek to restrict voting access in 27 states. But we don’t hear enough about how the 1965 legislation came to be or the effects it had in the United States. In Mississippi, for example, the number of African Americans registered to vote suddenly increased from 28,000 to about 280,000 following the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
It’s hard to imagine there even being a Voting Rights Act without Fannie Lou Hamer, a working-poor, disabled Black woman who joined the civil rights movement at 44. With her unsurpassed bravery and skillful use of public testimony, Hamer captured the attention of millions of Americans and helped push President Lyndon B. Johnson into action. In recognition of Women’s History Month and in response to the ongoing assault on voting rights, it’s important to remember Hamer on the anniversary of her death on March 14, 45 years ago in the Mississippi Delta.
Hamer, whose grandparents were enslaved, worked as a sharecropper until 1962 when her life changed dramatically. She attended a mass meeting organized by activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an interracial civil rights organization, at a church in Sunflower County, Mississippi. SNCC’s message about the power of the vote resonated with Hamer. “We could vote out people that we didn’t want in office,” she later recalled. “That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it.”
Hamer had limited formal education, but she didn’t need much to know that access to the ballot would bring the power to shape local, state and national politics. Deeply moved by the words of the young SNCC activists, she later became a field secretary for the committee and helped Black Mississippians register to vote when registering could lead to physical intimidation or worse.