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Fannie Lou Hamer and Billie Holiday

Rebellious Daughters of History #34


by Judy Cox

Fannie Lou Hamer headshot from political poster, 1971. Source: MIssissippi Department of Achives and History via Wikimedia Commons

America Rising: Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 – 1977)


“We been waitin' all our lives, and still gettin' killed, still gettin' hung, still gettin' beat to death. Now we're tired waitin'!”

—Fannie Lou Hamer


Fannie Lou Townsend was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the last of 20 children. The family’s animals were poisoned by a local white supremacist, so in 1919 the Townsends moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi, to work as sharecroppers.


From the age of six, Fanny Lou picked cotton with her family, going to school in winter. At 12 she left school to support her aging parents.


In 1945, Fanny Lou married Perry "Pap" Hamer, a tractor driver. She wanted children but she had been sterilized without her consent during stomach surgery, a weapon used against African-American women in Mississippi. The Hamers adopted two girls. One of them died after being denied admission to the hospital because of her mother's activism.


In 1962, Fanny Lou began to take direct action in the civil rights movement. On August 31, she traveled with other activists to Indianola, Mississippi, to register to vote. She failed the impossible test and her boss went ballistic. “I didn't try to register for you", Hamer told her boss. "I tried to register for myself." She was fired and kicked off the plantation.


On September 10, Hamer was shot at 16 times in a drive-by shooting by white supremacists in retaliation for her attempt to vote.


She recalled “I guess if I'd had any sense, I'd have been a little scared — but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember”.


Fanny Lou finally passed the test on 10 January 1963. She was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, registering others to vote.


Fanny Lou was on a bus with activists in Winona, Mississippi. When some activists from the bus went to the local cafe they were refused service and a highway patrolman arrested the party. Fanny Lou left the bus and was arrested as well.


Once in jail, Fanny Lou was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted. She suffered permanent kidney damage.


When she was released on June 12, 1963, Fanny Lou returned to Mississippi to organize voter registration drives.


She helped young volunteers, including Sammy Younge Jr., who was later murdered, in 1966, at a petrol station in Alabama when he used a “whites-only” restroom.


In 1964, Fanny Lou helped co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the racism of the Democratic Party.


In 1964, Hamer unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the Senate. She worked with Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign and published her autobiography in 1967.

Fanny Lou campaigned for poor sharecroppers. She pioneered the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) in 1969 and established a food program called The Pig Project to provide food.


Fanny Lou spent weeks within a hospital for nervous exhaustion in January 1972 and was hospitalised in January 1974 with a nervous breakdown. Two years later she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she died on March 14, 1977, aged 59. Her tombstone is engraved with one of her famous quotes: "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Billie Holiday at the Downbeat club, a jazz club in New York City. Photo: William P. Gottlieb. Source: Wikimedia Commons

America Rising: Billie Holiday (1915-1959)


Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan, on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia. She was the daughter of unmarried Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday. Her father left the family.


In 1925, when Billie was 9 years old, she was brought before the juvenile court for truancy and she was sent to a Catholic reform school. She dropped out of school at age 11.


In 1926, a neighbour tried to rape Billie and she was taken in protective custody as a state witness. Billie was released in February 1927, when she was nearly twelve and found a job running errands in a brothel.


By early 1929, Billie had joined her mother in Harlem, the place where her mum became a prostitute. Their house was raided on May 2, 1929, and Holiday and her mother were sent to prison.


As a teenager, Billie started singing in nightclubs in Harlem. She made her first record aged 18, in November 1933.


In the 1930s, Billie’s reputation as an exceptional jazz singer grew. She was one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra. She also toured in the segregated south where she was the target of racist abuse.


In November 1938, Holiday was told to use the service lift at the Lincoln Hotel instead of the passenger lift. She recalled: "I was never allowed to visit the bar or the dining room as did other members of the band ... [and] I was made to leave and enter through the kitchen."


In 1938, Billie was introduced to "Strange Fruit", a song based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish Communist. The song reminded Billie of her father who died when he was denied medical treatment because of racism. It also spoke to generations of black people enraged by unceasing racist violence.


In September 1946, Holiday began her only major film, New Orleans, in which she starred opposite Louis Armstrong. In the context of racism and McCarthyism, producer Jules Levey and scriptwriter Herbert Biberman were pressed to avoid giving the impression that black people created jazz. In 1947, Biberman was listed as one of the Hollywood Ten and sent to jail.


By 1947, Billie was at the peak of her popularity and commercial success, but she was also persecuted for her addiction to heroin.


On May 16, 1947, she was arrested for possession of narcotics in her New York apartment and sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison in Virginia.


Billie was released on March 16, 1948, and on March 27, Billie played Carnegie Hall to a sell-out crowd. After the third curtain call, she passed out.


Billie was arrested again on January 22, 1949, in her room at the Hotel Mark Twain, San Francisco.


Billie’s drug abuse, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate.


In July 1959, Billie was diagnosed with cirrhosis and was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics never stopped targeting Billie. She was arrested and handcuffed for drug possession as she lay dying, her hospital room was raided, and she was placed under police guard.


The guard was removed hours before she died aged 44.