“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”: Fannie Lou Hamer, Champion of Voting Rights

Issue #05 - Voting

2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, and the 55th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, abolishing Jim Crow-era practices such as literacy tests and poll taxes used to suppress the Black vote in the American South. This week we’re reminded that voting in a democracy is a right and a privilege, something our ancestors fought and died for. Have you voted yet?

Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponent will do it for you. – Mark Twain

“Well, I didn’t know anything about voting,” recalled Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977). “I had never heard, until 1962, that Black people could register and vote.” She was 44 years old. Hamer was born the 20th child to Black sharecroppers in Mississippi and began work in the fields herself at age 6, quitting school at age 12 to work full-time. While the 14th and 15th Amendments passed in the 19th century and ostensibly ensured the franchise for Black Americans, by 1964 only 5 percent of Mississippi’s Black residents were registered. “We could vote out people that we didn’t want in office,” marveled Hamer. “That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it.”

In 1962, still working as a sharecropper and now a mother of two, Hamer traveled by bus with a group of other hopeful Black citizens to her local courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi to register. There she was met with armed guards and a circuit clerk who insisted she take a literacy test based on the Mississippi Constitution, including a written interpretation of its amendments. She failed to register that day. On the way home, police stopped the activists’ school bus and fined them for the bus being too yellow. When she finally got home Hamer discovered she and her husband had already been fired and were forced to move off the farm they had worked on as tenant farmers for decades.

None of this, not even bullets through her window, deterred Hamer once she started fighting for voting rights.“The only thing they could do to me was to kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember,” she said. From 1963 on, Hamer threw herself into the work of the interracial Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964, protesting the all-white official Mississippi delegation. Beaten by police and threatened by white supremacists, Hamer’s passion, integrity, and the power of her story moved people around the world to protest the disenfranchisement of Blacks in the American South.

Hamer always rejected the idea that the civil rights movement was demanding too much change, too quickly. “For three hundred years, we've given them time. And I've been tired so long,” said Hamer, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change.” Just three years after Fannie Lou Hamer first attempted to register to vote, the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, guaranteeing all American citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color, or language group. While the Supreme Court stripped many of those protections away in a 2013 ruling, activists and lawmakers continue to fight to strengthen it today.

“Democracy is not a state. It is an act,” wrote Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), the statesman and civil rights leader who died in July of this year at age 80. “Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.” Fannie Lou Hamer and thousands of other women and people of color fought and sacrificed for this right. In 2020 voting rights have again become a point of contention in a fraught election. The long lines and millions of early-voting ballots already tallied weeks before Election Day are proof that many Americans today understand how fragile the right to vote really is. “You must use it because it is not guaranteed,” wrote John Lewis earlier this year. “You can lose it.”

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Weekly Discoveries

  1. Learn how a collaborative effort between the Brigham Young University Center of Family History and Genealogy and a team of researchers at the University of Washington, is making inroads in Fighting Cancer with Family History.

  2. Descendants of ancestors of Morgan County, Ohio rejoice! Records from the Common Pleas Court, dating back to the 1800s, are currently being digitized and will soon be available on FamilySearch. So far, the images of over 90,000 individual documents have been captured.

  3. The new collection Alabama Voter Registration and Poll Tax Cards, 1834-1981 at FamilySearch includes over 118,000 images may aid in filling in some genealogical blanks in your family history, as the pages include not only voter names, but also location of residence, age, length of residence and specific dates of birth.

Did Your Ancestors Register to Vote? If so, read on…

Voter registration records can be useful in genealogical research, as they can be similar to city directories, in providing location of residence for specific years and can be a valuable supplement to more traditional records. Some, like the California, Voter Registrations of 1900-1968 and Hawaii Voter Records of 1864-1910 collections, are conveniently available online, but oftentimes the voter lists must be sought out through county, state and federal archives, or local genealogy or historical societies. For instance, you may review microfilms of Canadian federal voters list from 1935 - 1988 at the Library and Archives Canada. It should be noted that the records available online are usually compiled lists of voters' names listed alphabetically and that the original records, if sought out, may include more detailed information, such as ages, locations of birth or occupations.

Poll taxes, a tax collected for the right to vote, were utilized in America from the Colonial era on, but are most often associated with keeping the poor or African American citizens from voting. Following the ratification of the 15th Amendment by Congress in 1870, which allowed all United States citizens to vote, regardless of race, color or prior history of servitude, many states began imposing poll taxes to make it more difficult for those of lesser means to vote. By 1923, 38 of the 48 states had some form of poll taxes and non-payment of these taxes could have led to the loss of one’s property as a means of collection. These taxes were a major source of government revenue, and the nuances of the laws varied greatly from state to state, but they were common practice until 1962, when the 27th Amendment, which outlawed poll taxes as a voting requirement, was passed. Following the amendment, five states continued imposing poll taxes for non-federal elections. This ceased in 1966 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that poll taxes, at any level, were unconstitutional.

Regardless of the constitutionality of poll taxes, they can be a useful tool in the hands of a family historian. The records can be help in various ways at the county or city level, and some, such as the poll tax records for 1914-1986 in the City of Manchester, New Hampshire include names, ages and addresses of taxed individuals, making them a useful alternative for research between census enumerations.

For more in-depth information regarding voter records for genealogy, make sure and check out our blog article Four Ways Voter Registration Records Can Help.

Are you a proud descendant of a suffragette who paved the way for the female right to vote? Did you know that during the battle for women’s suffrage in the United States the term suffragette was considered derogatory and seen as offensive? It was a label that was used by anti-suffragists in their fight against the right for women to vote. Biographical information about some of the United States suffrage workers can be found in the holdings of the Library of Congress in the Subject File records that are included in the National American Woman Suffrage Association Records collection.

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Past Issues Worth Reading

1. Modern Day Criminals and Felenous Ancestors - Read Here

2. Record Remains of a Pandemic - Read Here

3. The Line Between the Living and the Dead - Read Here

4. Hiraeth: When “The Old Country” No Longer Exists - Read Here

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See you next Friday.