The example of Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer shows that “pro-life” does not mean acting as if life begins at conception and ends at birth. During the 1960s and ‘70s, this indomitably nonviolent African-American sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta was a moving spirit of the civil rights and women’s movements. She often asserted: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Hamer was best known for her activism with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party. For this work, she suffered the loss of her job, an arrest and severe beating, and firebombings and sniper attacks on her home. None of this spurred her to violence or revenge. Nor did it dissuade her from doing what a lifetime of oppression told her must be done.
Hamer was the youngest of 20 children. No matter how hard her family worked at sharecropping, the white-ruled culture in the Mississippi Delta sabotaged their efforts to make ends meet. Though a brilliant student, she had to quit school in sixth grade to pick cotton with the rest of the family.
In 1961 she met the same fate as many women of color: A white doctor forcibly sterilized her. She and her husband Perry “Pap” Hamer had wanted to conceive children. Hamer’s outrage over this violation propelled her into activism.
In concert with her civil rights work, she campaigned for maternal and child health, as well as nutrition and education programs for poor Americans of all races. She assisted the campaign of her friend, U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to run for president, and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.
She fearlessly challenged the blind spots of the women’s movement—for example, its tendencies not to include people of color, and to cast all men as “The Enemy.” She laughed and said: “I’m not going to try that thing. I got a black husband, six-feet-three, 240 pounds, with a 14 shoe, that I don’t want to be liberated from. But we are here to work side by side with this black man in trying to bring liberation to all people.”
For Hamer, “all people” unequivocally included unborn children. Unlike many other feminists, she asserted that abortion was “genocide” and “legal murder.” If poor black children were not aborted but instead were given “a chance, they might grow up to be Fannie Lou Hamer, or something else.” She lamented abortion in the same breath as the casualties of Vietnam and the murders of civil rights leaders.
Hamer never wavered in defending the right of all to live and to flourish. Even in the midst of her long final illness, she testified in court on behalf of a group of single black mothers from her community. Denounced as unfit moral examples for the students, they had been denied employment in the public schools. Hamer—who gave away most of the money she earned from her public speaking—had helped at least one of them to choose life for her baby and to go to college.
Hamer said it was ridiculous to complain about “lazy” single black mothers on welfare, then sabotage their efforts to get jobs. She added: “We still love these children. And after these babies are born we are not going to disband these children from our families…I think these children have a right to live. And I think that these mothers have a right to support them in a decent way…We are dealing with human beings.”
Moved by this testimony, the judge struck down the school district’s discriminatory policy, noting that it would encourage abortion rather than discourage premarital sex. His ruling secured employment rights for single mothers of all races.
Hamer’s adopted daughter, Dorothy Jean, gave birth to her first child premaritally. Although a white civil rights movement colleague warned Hamer it would tarnish her reputation, Hamer stood by Dorothy Jean and the baby. Following her second child’s birth, Dorothy Jean hemorrhaged to death because she was denied emergency medical treatment on the basis of race. When Dorothy Jean’s husband returned from Vietnam, he was too disabled to care for the two children. Fannie Lou and Pap Hamer adopted their grandchildren.
The words and deeds of Fannie Lou Hamer powerfully remind us today that our customary pitting of the unborn against the already born is a false and lethal dichotomy. In her memory, let us do whatever we can to heal it.
© 1998 Mary Krane Derr. All rights including electronic rights reserved.