On August 22, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer delivered one of the most important speeches in civil rights history on live television at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ. As the leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Hamer sat before the credentials committee and detailed the degrading discrimination that African Americans experienced in the United States. She spoke of rampant voter suppression and law enforcement’s brutal violence against African Americans. Speaking for every black person forced to endure the pain of living in the Jim Crow South, Hamer famously said, “All my life I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
President Johnson, worried about how her words might affect his upcoming presidential campaign, called a last-minute press conference to get Hamer’s controversial testimony off the airwaves. Many TV networks would instead broadcast it later during the nightly news.
Born in 1917 to sharecropping parents, Hamer had emerged as a civil rights activist after growing up in rural Mississippi. She started working in the fields at a young age to help out her financially strapped family. She married in 1944 and continued to work, but she made a fateful decision in 1962 that would take her from the fields to the forefront of activism.
After attending a civil rights meeting, Hamer decided to help register her fellow African-Americans to vote. She went on to join SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), engaging in acts of civil disobedience to challenge and end racial segregation in the South. She also helped organize the 1964 Freedom Summer African-American voter registration drive in Mississippi and then helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which landed her on national television.
Hamer ran for Congress in 1965 but lost. She remained an ardent civil rights activist for the rest of her life. She died in her home state in 1977, but her fight for social justice continues today.