The 50th Anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer: Remembering What Fannie Lou Hamer Taught Us

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Ever feel like history is repeating itself? Well, it does. This summer is the 50th anniversary of Mississippi's Freedom Summer where organizers, led by Fannie Lou Hamer, fought for voting rights and reproductive justice. In her piece for RH Reality Check, southern organizer and Echoing Ida writer Jazmine Walker explains what we can learn from Hamer's lessons and what we should do going forward.

Fannie Lou Hamer, image via Wikimedia Commons
This June marks the 50th anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer—a campaign launched to end the systematic and violent disenfranchisement of Black people in Mississippi by registering them to vote. This effort was not only to draw national attention to the terror Black people experienced as they fought for their right to vote, but also to cultivate the organizing skills of a network of local leaders.
Fannie Lou Hamer was one of those leaders. She used the power of storytelling to compel America to recognize the humanity of poor Black people in Mississippi.
This is also the 50th anniversary of Fannie Lou Hamer sharing her experiences on a national stage during her testimony at the Council of Federated Organizations’ sponsored hearing at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. She shared the brutal injustices she suffered for trying to vote, as well as the injustices of forced sterilization of Black women in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Hamer’s inclusion of sterilization in a hearing primarily organized to ensure the protection of Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers and lay the groundwork for the 1965 Voting Rights Act highlighted how both the right to vote and reproductive freedom were necessary to justice for Black women in Mississippi.
Fifty years later, we have seen a separation of voting and reproductive rights in mainstream movements that has only accelerated Mississippi policymakers’ transparent attempts to roll back the gains of Freedom Summer, through aggressive legislation to institute voter identification laws, close the state’s only remaining abortion clinic, and generally limit the reproductive choices of Mississippi women.
The zealous legislature has successfully launched a multi-pronged attack of reproductive and voter suppression that endangers the already precarious livelihoods of Mississippi’s Black women and families. As advocates, our demand for justice must also be multi-pronged to avoid a return to dehumanizing policies that Hamer recounted during her testimony.
In her testimony, Hamer connected reproductive rights and enfranchisement. She revealed:
One of the other things that happened in Sunflower County, the North Sunflower County Hospital, I would say about six out of ten Negro women that go to the hospital are sterilized with the tubes tied. They are getting up a law that said if a woman has an illegitimate baby and then a second they could draw time for six months or a five-hundred-dollar fine. What they didn’t tell is they are already doing these things, not only to single women, but to married women.
As Hamer noted, in 1964 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a sterilization bill that would criminalize women for having children by fining or imprisoning women who birthed children while unmarried; women could elect to be sterilized in order to avoid imprisonment and/or the fine.
Read more at RH Reality Check.

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