For Jacqueline Hamer Flakes, voting rights has been a big part of her life, and probably more so as a child than as an adult.
Though she served two years as city clerk in Ruleville, Mississippi, it was growing up the daughter of Fannie Lou Hamer that she witnessed Black people’s struggle for voting rights. That experience helped inform her views on politics today and on the need for more people to register and vote.
In the 1960s, that struggle included violence against Hamer and others who tried to register to vote, or help others register and vote.
Flakes will share intimate stories about her family and her mother’s life at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 16, at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle. Her visit is part of the museum’s Descendants Series. Previous speakers have included descendants of W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Nat Turner and others. The museum is also celebrating March as Women’s History Month and Wellness Month.
Flakes’ mother was born Fannie Lou Townsend in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the 20th of 20 children. Her parents were sharecroppers and by the age of 6, Fannie Lou was picking cotton on the Marlow plantation in Sunflower County. It was as a child, her daughter said, that Hamer realized injustice and racism.
“Everything started in her head when she was a little girl. She would tell her mother ‘I wish I was white because white people have everything.’ So Momma Ella, her mother, found her a Black doll and told her to stop putting herself down, and that you don’t have to be white to have nice things.”
As an adult Hamer learned of efforts throughout the Delta to register Black people to vote. Flakes said organizers invited her mother to meetings at area churches after hearing her speak and sing. Before long, Hamer and others were traveling throughout the South informing other Black people of their rights. Hamer’s husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer, served as the driver for the activists, and as a husband, served an unusual role for men of that time.
“Anything that Momma chose to do, he had her back. She had her circle of female friends who helped out when she traveled,” Flakes said. “But Daddy Pap, he did whatever, the hunting, gardening, taking people to the cotton field. He had a second-grade education but he stood behind her and supported her.”
The Hamers couldn’t have biological children due to a hysterectomy performed on Fannie Lou without her consent while undergoing surgery to remove a tumor.
Fannie Lou was actually Flakes’ great-aunt. The Hamers adopted Flakes’ mother, Dorothy Jean, at 8 months old. They then took in another younger cousin, Virgie. When Dorothy Jean died at 22, the Hamers got permission from Flakes’ father to adopt her and her older sister Lenora.
Though Flakes was only 9 when Fannie Lou died in 1977, she says she remembers a lot about her.
“People ask me how do I remember all that when I was such a young girl. I think it’s because those were the good times for me, the good days. I just enjoyed being around family and doing the things we did and seeing the things that she did.”
It’s her memories of Fannie Lou the mother, and not necessarily as the activist that she writes about in her book “Mama Fannie: Growing Up the Daughter of Civil Rights Icon Fannie Lou Hamer.”
Just two years before Hamer was born, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down what many states were using to keep Black people from voting — the grandfather clause. Along with literacy tests, poll taxes and intimidation, the grandfather clause stated that a person could vote only if their grandfather could vote, hence keeping descendants of enslaved people from voting.
In 1962, Hamer and others traveled to Indianola, Mississippi, to register to vote. Once word got back to the plantation, she was given an ultimatum — withdraw her registration application or leave the farm.
She was forced off the plantation where she had worked for 18 years, but her husband was ordered to stay to pay off the “debt” that landowners often trumped up as a way of keeping workers in servitude.
The traveling activists’ efforts would take them to Winona, Mississippi, where in 1963, Hamer and other women were jailed for sitting at a whites-only diner at a bus station. At the jail, highway patrol officers forced two Black inmates and a white man to beat the activists with blackjacks under the threat that if they didn’t, they too, would be beaten. The beating left Hamer with lifelong injuries.
Hamer entered politics in the early 1960s and, after the local Democratic Party refused Black participation, she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. According to the Smithsonian, by the 1960s only 5% of Mississippi’s Black people of voting age were registered to vote.
She and other members of the new party attended the Democratic National Convention in 1964 in New Jersey and demanded to be seated as delegates from Mississippi. The DNC refused but allowed her to testify before the credentials committee, where she relayed stories of violence and voter intimidation.
Today, Flakes recalls the sacrifices of her mother and others, many of them Black women, in securing voting rights, but acknowledges younger generations take it for granted. And when learning Black history is being banned in some states, events like those at NAAM are needed.
“They need to know the background and the history behind it,” said Flakes, 56. “How can you complain about what’s going on in the world if you’re not a registered voter? Some may say I don’t want to hear about the past, that was then and this is now. Well the past is connected to the present.”
With the museum commemorating Women’s History Month and Wellness Month it is fitting that Hamer’s descendant is this month’s guest.
“It was Fannie Lou Hamer who said she’s sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said museum President and CEO LaNesha DeBardelaben. “It’s time for Black women and all of us to be well.“