Black Women’s History: Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was one of the country’s most dynamic Civil Rights Movement leaders in the 1960-1970s. She rose to fame for her tenacious pursuit of voting rights. While a sharecropper in Mississippi, she faced death threats and attempts on her life when trying to vote for the first time.
Hamer served as a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi. She went on to co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Running for state senate, her goal was to address poverty in addition to civil rights. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s platform rested on free land, calling for grants of land that the federal government subsidized farmers not to cultivate (a policy exercised to this day) which benefitted White plantation owners. The party also advocated for the federal government to provide long-term, low-interest loans for farm cooperatives.
By the end of her career she focused almost exclusively on food security and land ownership, and in particular, founding and managing the operation of a farm cooperative.
In 1969, Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative. With the help of a $10,000 donation from a charitable organization based in Wisconsin, she purchased 40 acres of prime land in the Mississippi Delta. Co-op membership dues were $1 a month. And while only 30 families could afford membership dues, another 1,500 families belonged to the Freedom Farm in name.
Using donated funds, the co-op purchased an additional 640 acres in 1970, and started a “pig bank.” Hamer had conceived of a “pig bank” as a basis for building out the farm cooperative. The program was established in association with the National Council of Negro Women, who purchased and donated 55 pigs. Participating families were trained to care for pigs and to work together to improve the community’s nutrition and health. They signed an agreement, under which they were assigned a pregnant sow, agreed not to sell the pigs, and pledged to donate two piglets from each litter to the bank. In this way, the program could be replicated amongst more families.
Hamer tirelessly raised donations for her cooperative venture, which provided jobs for 1,000 poor Blacks and Whites, and affordable housing. In addition to growing crops for feeding the community, the co-op cultivated cash crops such as cotton.
Unfortunately, the Freedom Farm Cooperative shuttered due to her sickness, and ultimate death, from cancer in 1977. Still, Hamer’s work is still relevant today, and can inform how to start and maintain a cooperative, as well as conversations around farm bill reform and reparations.
To read more about the legacy of co-ops in African-American communities, check out our article on The History of African American Cooperatives and the Importance of Representative Legal Support.
Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. University Park: Penn State University Press. 2014. muse.jhu.edu/book/31238.
“Fannie Lou Hamer founds Freedom Farm Cooperative,” SNCC Digital Gateway, accessed Mar 7, 2022.
“Black Leaders Express Value of Mrs. Hamer’s Rights Work,” Playground Daily News, Mar 21, 1977.
Roy J. Harris, Jr., “‘International Walk Weekend’ set,” The Delta Democrat Times, Mar 10, 1971.