Fannie Lou Hamer At 1964 DNC
American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer testifies before the Credentials Committee at Democratic National Convention in a speech that was televised nationally in Atlantic City, N.J. on Aug. 22, 1964.  John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection—Getty Images

Fannie Lou Hamer at 100: The Speeches That Made Her a Civil-Rights Icon

Oct 05, 2017

As many NFL players across the United States make the decision to kneel or face away from the flag as the National Anthem plays before their games, as part of a protest movement that began as a statement about the belief that the U.S. does not live up to its ideals for African-Americans, many have found new meaning in the words of an icon of an earlier wave of protest. Pundits like Charles Blow and Nina Turner have defended the athletes' right to protest by citing the late civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who said "every red stripe in that flag represents the black man's blood that has been shed."

Hamer, who was born 100 years ago Friday — on Oct. 6, 1917 — was famous for her deeply honest speeches.

The one that got her national name recognition was her Aug. 22, 1964, testimony to the Democratic National Convention's credentials committee, calling for her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which helped African Americans register to vote, to be integrated with the state's all-white delegation to the convention. She explained what she had been through in the early '60s, when she had been kicked off of the plantation she grew up on for trying to register to vote, and how she was arrested and beaten in a Winona, Miss., jail while coming back from a voter registration workshop in Charleston, S.C. (She was left with kidney damage, a blood clot in her left eye and a limp.)

"All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens," she said. "And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?"

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Though Hamer's speech was to be televised across the country, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to make "impromptu" remarks to divert TV news networks' attention, worried that the speech would offend the Southern Democrats, a key voter base for him. The press would just end up broadcasting the speech later.

Hamer's party ended up getting just two voting seats, but sat with an integrated delegation for the 1968 and 1972 conventions.

The inequitable medical treatment that she and other black women received motivated her activism. One of 20 children raised by two sharecroppers, she grew up picking cotton on the Marlow plantation near Ruleville, Miss., before she caught polio at 16 and became the time and record keeper for the plantation. In 1961, after having trouble conceiving with husband Perry, she went to the doctor for what was supposed to be a routine procedure to remove a uterine tumor, only to discover that she had been given a hysterectomy. (Forced sterilizations of women of color were so common back then that they were called "Mississippi appendectomies.") Her outrage over the fact that such a permanent medical procedure would be done without her consent — combined with challenges she faced trying to register to vote —was one of the big reasons she walked right up to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when its representatives came to town a year later.

But as she made clear in her speeches, she wasn't going to let her health problems stop her from working; they're what kept her going.

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired," she famously told the Williams Institutional Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, N.Y., at a rally with Malcolm X.

When Hamer died of cancer in 1977, TIME remembered her as a civil-rights leader who "electrified" listeners and used her voice to organize voters, unions and cooperatives.

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