Having grown up in rural Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) had fears about going to see an OB/GYN. But, following her third miscarriage, the pain had become unbearable. In 1961, she made an appointment with Dr. Charles Dorrough, a White physician and relative of the landowner Hamer’s sharecropping family worked for.
After an exam revealed she had fibroid tumors, Hamer consented to surgery. In a horrific violation, Dorrough performed an unauthorized hysterectomy, sterilizing Hamer. “When Dorrough stole that from her, it devastated her,” according to Hamer biographer Dr. Kate Clifford Larson. “She so desperately wanted a child of her own with ‘Pap,’ her husband.”
Hamer later learned that Dorrough was among several doctors in that county who had a reputation of sterilizing poor, Black women without consent. The procedure was so common it became known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”
According to Larson’s biography Walk with Me, Hamer descended into anger, doubt, and depression. But from that place, she became a different person — courageously standing for equal rights and dignity.
“What kept her from completely lashing out at everybody that hurt her and wanted to kill her? Every source says her deeply rooted faith kept her strong,” said Larson. “Honestly, I’ve confessed to friends that I don’t understand it.”
Movement for Voting Rights
Hamer, born into a family that endured crushing poverty, ventured into activism. She was among the first Black women to register to vote — after learning at the age of 44 through her involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that Black Americans had the right to vote. Hamer soon became leader of a voting rights movement for Mississippi’s Black residents in 1962. In 1964, she helped organize the Freedom Summer campaign to register as many local African Americans as possible to vote.
Her activism and organizing efforts often took Hamer on the road. During one bus ride home from an out-of-state voter’s workshop, police apprehended Hamer and her companions. Police took the activists to the Winona, Mississippi, jailhouse and had Hamer violently beaten and tortured. The assault left her permanently disabled.
Hamer recounted the brutality she endured during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where she represented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) that she had helped organize to challenge the state’s all-White party leadership.
Outspoken Pro-Life Views
Hamer’s pro-life ethic put her at odds with Democratic and feminist allies, particularly when the subject turned to legal abortion, which she described as “legal murder” and said “amount[ed] to genocide.”
In addition to her lifelong desire to bear children of her own, Hamer’s ethic was reflected in her and her husband Perry “Pap” Hamer’s decision to adopt two children. Hamer, the youngest of her parents’ 20 children, spoke publicly for a womb-to-tomb pro-life ethic on several occasions.
In 1969, three public school teachers in the Mississippi Delta who were single mothers were fired by the county, following a directive that no one parenting an “illegitimate child” could teach. Hamer filed a lawsuit in tandem with these teachers, who were her friends.
“We are not going to disband these children from our families,” Hamer testified. “God breathed life into them just like he did to us. I think these children have a right to live (and) these mothers have a right to try to support these children in a decent way.”
Hamer’s testimony in defense of these mothers swayed the court.
“She saw the world through the lens of her Christian faith,” according to Larson, Hamer’s biographer. “Life was so precious to her — those babies she lost, the babies she saved, the grand-babies she raised. This shaped her evolving beliefs.”
Hamer’s strong pro-life views became a problem for the feminist movement. “Black and White feminists were ardent about having abortion rights, and she was against that,” Larson said.
In 1971, Hamer co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) alongside a dozen other prominent women, including leading pro-choice figures Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. According to Larson, that caucus vocally disagreed on life issues.
“Hamer understood where those feminists were coming from, but she could not accept their views,” the historian explained. “And those women who criticized Hamer still loved her.”
Only months after that group formed, Essence magazine interviewed Hamer for a major feature story. The reporter asked the activist about her rejection of birth control and abortion as solutions to social problems.
“God has never made a mouth he couldn’t feed,” Hamer said. “If He can water the flowers when you see the dew on the grass in the morningtime and if He can feed even a sparrow, what can He do for a human being? We lose so much hope and trust. I’m not really ashamed of my religious background (because) it made a human out of me and I’m not afraid of being human.”
Hamer eventually faded from the national scene, due to her failing health and injuries sustained in her fight for civil rights. However, how she prioritized economic justice programs to empower the poor, along with her anti-abortion stance, likely contributed to the movement progressing past her.
“Fannie Lou Hamer refused to be silenced,” Larson said. “She asked people to stand up for their values, even when their views differed from hers. ‘Everybody needs to have a voice,’ she said. I think that’s really what she represents.”
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