Fannie Lou Harner and others dissertation

Fannie Lou Harner and others who were active in the African-American Freedom Movement between the 1950’s and the 1970’s. The writer illustrates the differences that occurred in those time frames with regards to society and the needs that the women in the freedom movement worked to fulfill during those times.

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The relatively modern women’s rights movement captured worldwide attention when women began to demand equal pay for equal work and other equal treatments. While that movement was the center of media attention for many years, it was not the first “human rights movement” that women had been involved with in modern history. The African-American Freedom Movement, also referred to as the Black Freedom Movement was a movement that women joined years before the women’s movement ever evolved in recent history. The Black Freedom Movement was a movement based in African-American desire to be afforded the most basic of civil rights, which for many years they had been denied. While it was not a gender specific movement Black women joined and did their part, even given the fact that they had to fight on twol levels. They were women and they were Black, both elements for which society treated them like second class citizens at every turn. As the movement began to affect change the things that the Freedom participants had to fight for also changed. One of the most famous and effective participants in the Freedom Movement was Fannie Lou harmer. Her adult life was spent helping to fight for civil rights of her people. Because of the era she was born in and the changes that she helped institute the women who joined the movement after she did had different mountains to climb and challenges to face than Harner faced. Like stepping stones to freedom each generation of women freedom fighters built a staircase to the top and helped each other up. The experiences of Harner, and the experiences of women in the freedom movement during the 1950’s to the 1960’s had much in common as well as many differences. Some of the differences were signs of the times, while others were in direct relation to the work Harner and others had done previously.

For one to fully understand the similarities and differences that occurred for Harner and other women in the movement it is important to understand the lives of the women involved in the movement.

Fannie Lou Harner was born as one of 20 children in 1917. Born on a deep south Mississippi farm Harner was immediately educated on what it meant to be a poor Black female in the deep south. For many years she accepted her lot in life. She worked as a sharecropper, fell in love and married love Parry Harner. They adopted two daughters. Because of her circumstances when she was born Fannie was expected to work farm work form the time she was a small girl which left her little time for education (Mitchell, 1995). She never got a formal education while growing up but learned abut life with the dirt on her hands, the sun on her back and the constant disrespect shown by white folks (Mitchell, 1995).

Fannie may have lived her life out as a poor, black sharecropper had it not be for her decisions one day to register to vote. In that time in America Blacks who wanted to vote had to pass a test about the constitution. The test was specifically designed to keep Blacks from passing by making it as educationally difficult as possible knowing most black people in the Deep South had very limited education. Fannie failed the first time she took the test but she passed it the second time. Word got around that Fannie Harner had passed the test to vote and she and her husband were immediately fired from their jobs and they were run out of town with their two daughters and the clothing on their backs (Mitchell, 1995).

They moved several times but each time their new area discovered that Fannie had won the right to vote they were harassed, ridiculed, threatened and run out of their new town with equal speed.

When violent nightriders fired 16 bullets into her home it only resolved her will to make changes for Blacks in America and she continued to work with voter registration and welfare programs to reach and encourage Blacks to pass the test and begin voting.

At one point in 1963 she and her fellow registration workers were taken to jail for no named reason. Once she was there Fannie was beaten severely by several patrol officers (Mitchell, 1995).

Mrs. Hamer continued her fight. In 1964, she was a candidate for Congress in the Second Congressional District of Mississippi. To better understand her bravery, it is important to know that 1960 figures show that although 59% of the voting-age population of the district were Black, only 4% of eligible Blacks were registered to vote. Due to Mississippi’s discriminatory voting practices, Mrs. Hamer had little chance of election; however, her campaign stirred Blacks into action. She explains, “All my life, I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired (Mitchell, 1995).”

She spent the rest of her life fighting for the economic freedoms and advances of the American Blacks. She died at the age of 1958 of cancer but not before being nationally recognized for her efforts (Mitchell, 1995).

While Fannie Harner was a pioneer in the rights of Black women to vote she was by far not the only women involved in the Black freedom movement. Another well-known name in the plight of Black women in the movement was Ella Baker. Baker had many similarities to Harner in her resolve and refusal to give up but she also faced different sets of challenges than Harner had faced.

By the time she arrived in Alabama to advise leaders of the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Ella Baker, born in 1903, had already accumulated a 30-year history of energetic organizing in the South and North, which led to the work that has made an indelible mark on our history. In 1957 she set up the headquarters of the then-infant SCLC, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Three years later, she called together the student leaders of the sit-in demonstrations that were sweeping the South (Wiley, 1998).”

Baker, like Harner had suffered from a lifelong physical disability. Harner walked with a limp due to a childhood bout of polio, and Baker had a lifelong battle with sever asthma. Each woman understood what it was like to overcome obstacles and each woman had grown up fighting against the odds with their physical issues therefore they were poised and ready to fight for moral and civil issues when the time came to do so (Wiley, 1998).

Baker was more educated and more eloquent in her speaking manner than Harner had been though she tended to speak in generic tersm while Harner laid it on the line with no holds barred.

Whereas Harner worked for the right and encouragement of Black women to vote, by the time Baker entered the picture that was a common event. Baker instead focused her energy on student protests, the Vietnam war and how it impacted the Blacks and other current event issues that she believed were important the women of color in America. Harner had worked during a time when Blacks were routinely disrespected and publicly abused with the full support of the law. While some of those situations still existed when Baker entered the ring there had been changes made that provided more protection for people like Baker to protest and have their voices heard.

Another well-known worker of the Black Freedom movement was Amy Jaques Garvey. She was born in 1896 in Jamaica but by the time she was 18 she was in New York working in Harlem for the UNIA (Wiley, 1998).

A few years later she found herself seated as a the editor of a large African-American-based newspaper called the Negro World. “The concept of African peoples in control of our own lives, lands and resources was considered so dangerous that mere possession of the newspaper was treated as a seditious act in parts of French-held Africa – punishable by death (Wiley, 1998).”

She contributed many positive elements to the Black freedom movement during the 1950,s 60’s and 70’s.

She ran leadership-training workshops that powerfully influenced young people whose names and deeds became legendary: Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the college students of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Septima Poinsetta Clark chose leadership development as her contribution to the struggle of African-Americans (Wiley, 1998).”

Her challenges differed from Harner in that she was afforded the freedom to run workshops, whereas Harner was run out of town with her family simply by passing the test that allowed her the right to vote.

The women shared similarities in their drive, however, as well as their refusal to give up. They both spent their lives working for the rights of African-American women and challenging anything that got in the way.

As the women built stepping stones for each other, each women in the Black Freedom Movement began the next logical course of action in the fight for freedom. Septima Clark attended several of the workshops of Amy Garvey and came away with a sense of urgency to contribute. By this time of course the rights of Blacks to vote was a given and beatings in the street for speaking their mind was not allowed. Clark however, had a mission of her own and that was to attack and dismantle the segregated school system if she could. This was during 1960’s when many of the nation’s districts were still divided into Black schools and White schools.

It was a natural choice, given her love of teaching and education and the way her life organically linked these with activism. In 1918, 20-year-old Septima Clark was busy collecting 20,000 signatures from Black residents of Charleston, South Carolina, to petition the school district to hire Black teachers, and in 1927 was agitating for equitable salaries for them (Wiley, 1998). Thirty years later the school board got its revenge by promptly dismissing her and withholding her 30-year pension when she refused to conceal her membership in the NAACP. But that was after she had helped do the legal and organizational groundwork that resulted in the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing separate and unequal schools (Wiley, 1998). ”

Clark didn’t go away quietly however, and instead began holding workshops in leadership. She and Harner and the others all held this in common. They each held classes or seminars to encourage the Black women of America to fight for their rights and to get laws changed so that they could have more rights.


Women have always been a driving force in the civil rights movement. The Black Freedom Movement was a movement that promoted the rights of Blacks to become equal to the Whites in America. Fannie Harner set the wheels in motion when she not only refused to stop voting but also encouraged other Black women to pass the test and vote as well. Following her lead others took the reins and chose areas that they wanted to promote. Ella Baker, Amy Garvey and Septima all worked toward the betterment of life for Blacks and in particular Black females residing within the U.S.A. These women lit the path for millions of Black followers to walk and that path has led to the equality they have today.


Fairclough, Adam (2005) Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision Alabama Review,

Mitchell, Ralph (1995) From a woman’s perspective: Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1975)

Ransby, Barb (2003) Ella Baker: A fighter for peace and justice

From: The Record (Bergen County, NJ) |

Wiley, Jean (1998) on the front lines; four women activists whose work touched millions of lives. (Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Amy Jacques Garvey and Septima Clark) Essence

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