This week in history: Fannie Lou Hamer gives startling depiction of racism in Mississippi

In 1964, the Chicago Daily News ran a series of articles depicting “a state divided by itself,” Mississippi. Writer Nicholas von Hoffman’s interview with activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who died this week in 1977, demonstrated the price she paid fighting for her rights.

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Fannie Lou Hamer portrait

Fannie Lou Hamer in an updated portrait.


As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

The best journalism of the civil rights era sparked action. Photos of Emmett Till’s beaten body in 1955 inspired Rosa Parks to remain in her bus seat months after the image ran in Jet magazine.

It also stopped white readers from tuning out and turning away. Till’s graphic photos and the video of police beating Selma peaceful protesters in 1965 stopped white audiences from explaining away racist brutality as isolated incidents or worst-case scenarios in the Jim Crow South.

In the summer of 1964, the Chicago Daily News embarked on a mission to show city readers what racism looked like in Mississippi. It sent reporter Nicholas von Hoffman to the state for six weeks to capture an accurate portrait of “a state and its people, white and black, who are playing a major role in the greatest domestic crisis now facing the nation,” the paper described in an advertisement for the series on Aug. 1, 1964, the day that Part I dropped.

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Von Hoffman’s crisscrossing eventually landed him at the home of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville on the west side of the state on the Mississippi Delta. Hamer, who died March 14, 1977, sat on her front porch for the interview near “a big pecan tree that she loves in the front yard,” he later described in Part II, which debuted on Sept. 25, 1964. She met his gaze with “warm eyes, but her large dark brown features seem worn with a passion that is too exhausting” for her body.

“The first time I remember not being satisfied was when I was a small kid,” she began. “My family picked 60 bales of cotton, but we had no shoes. The white people had shoes; we was workin’; they wasn’t. They had food; we had none. Oh Lord, how I wished I was white.”

By this time, the nation knew Hamer’s name well. She had been on national television at the Democratic National Convention, where she spoke forcefully: “Righteousness exalts a nation, sin is a reproach.” During that broadcast, recapped in an Aug. 24, 1964 Daily News article, she described being arrested and beaten by Mississippi police as she and several others returned from a voter education workshop. Her vivid description shocked viewers.

But for all the bravery she showed and the fame she experienced, those things brought little money to the Hamer household — and often cost her dearly.

Hamer’s husband “is unskilled and mostly unemployed,” von Hoffman wrote. He lost several jobs due to his wife’s work.

“We women have no chance to be women here,” she told von Hoffman. “Our education is poor, but the men’s is worse. My husband says when they were boys they had to be out with sticks knocking the cotton stalks instead of being in school. It was so cold that he’d put his feet where the cows would have been laying to get them warm.”

As she spoke, a “Confederate Air Force” plane dropped low and buzzed right over her home, an action meant to intimidate. Von Hoffman noted that these planes could be seen all over the area. Farmers used them to spray a chemical called “Folax” from the planes, which would make the leaves on a cotton plant fall off so the mechanical pickers could harvest the white bolls without “green stains.” The industrialization led to a new tactic for intimidation — and a real fear of unemployment for the Black men and women losing those jobs.

“They do it all the time,” Hamer said referring to the planes. “It don’t make no mind.”

White Mississippians didn’t try to hide their disdain for Hamer. “They hate her in Mississippi,” von Hoffman explained. “At the Carriage House, Natchez’s best restaurant, a grand dowager of a white woman at the next table says of her: ‘That [expletive] woman from Ruleville is the best actress I’ve ever seen.’”

A deputy sheriff von Hoffman met in Canton, Madison County, spat at the ground and said, “Hell, that [expletive] wasn’t never beaten the way she said on the TV.”

During the summer of 1964, Hamer helped organize Freedom Summer, which brought hundreds of Black and white college students to the state to help run voter registrations for Black voters. Having the students around made things “better this summer,” Hamer told von Hoffman.

The students not only worked, but they also taught Hamer and many others about Black history, instilling a sense of pride in them.

“We have a beautiful heritage,” Hamer mused. “We are the onliest people that have had one man to march through a mob to go to school. We are the onliest people to have our babies sold from our breasts...”

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