Ms. Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was born on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the 20th and last child of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend. She grew up in poverty, and like most children in her same situation, at age six Ms. Hamer joined her family picking cotton. By age 12, she had left school to work.
In 1944, Fannie Lou married Perry Hamer and the couple toiled on the Mississippi plantation owned by B.D. Marlowe until 1962. Because Hamer was the only worker who could read and write, she also served as plantation timekeeper. It’s not a far stretch to assume that her firsthand experiences of the abuse and forced disadvantages of Black Southerners helped to set her on the path of her work in activism.
Representing the MFDP. Credit: Methodist Church Global Ministries/Kenneth Thompson
After decades of fighting for the voting rights of Black people and growing frustrated with the slow progress, she turned her attention to economics as a strategy for racial equality. In 1967, Ms. Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), a community-based, rural and economic development project. She organized with Heifer International to receive the FFC’s first delivery of fifty young female pigs and five brown Jersey boars to Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta. Families who participated in the project would raise a piglet for two years, bring it back to mate at the bank, and then replenish the bank with two pigs from every litter. The offspring could be sold or slaughtered or mated. By 1969, just two years later, the pig bank had provided over a hundred families with pigs, each of which produced over 150 pounds of meat.
The Pig Bank was just one of the many strategies Ms. Hamer put into place but the FFC. She also arranged to buy up land that Blacks could own and farm collectively. With the assistance of donors (including famed singer Harry Belafonte), she purchased 640 acres and launched a coop store, boutique, and sewing enterprise. She single-handedly ensured that 200 units of low-income housing were built—many still exist in Ruleville, GA today. Before it dissolved, from 1967 and 1976, the FFC provided housing, health care, employment, education, and access to healthy food. Members of the FFC were displaced land/farmworkers, dispossessed of access to land and brushed aside by mechanization.
Photo Credit: Civil Rights Documentation Project Verticle File Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Howard University
We should all give credit to Ms. Hamer’s vision, because today’s urban community farmers draw on her legacy and practices. While the media often focuses on and romanticizes white members of the urban agriculture/food justice/sovereignty movements, these movements also have strong Black participation who draw on generations of farming knowledge.
Fannie Lou Hamer has left us a clear and usable model for cooperative farming, and her lifetime of justice work and public service should be a beacon and inspiration to coming generations.
Resources and Further Reading:
Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, by Dr. Monica M. White
“Fannie Lou Hamer, Woman of Courage.” Howard University Library System, Biographical Essay. Accessed 6 June 2017. http://www.howard.edu/library/reference/guides/hamer/