Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “You don’t run away from problems–you just face them.” Throughout our nation’s history Mississippi women, particularly women of color, have been standing up and speaking out for change.
On March 9, 2019, a powerful group of organizations and individuals came together on the Coast to celebrate International Women’s Day with a lineup of dynamic speakers followed by a march. Standout speaker Kenyatta Thomas, 19-year-old student activist and organizer from Pascagoula, challenged the audience to examine the ways in which we reinforce white cultural dominance during Women’s History Month by lifting up the stories of the same white women, year after year.
As we continue to honor Women’s History this month, we are heeding Thomas’s challenge to re-examine those whom we lift up and those we omit, and we want to do better. There are countless African-American women from Mississippi who have demonstrated tremendous courage, strength, and tenacity in the pursuit of justice and human rights. Today we remember the legacy of some of these extraordinary women, and we celebrate the women and girls today who carry the torch of hope into our state’s future.
Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights leader
Born in 1917 Fannie Lou Hamer grew up as a sharecropper and become one of the most influential activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights movement. In 1961 Hamer went to her local hospital for minor surgery, and without her consent or knowledge, she received a hysterectomy. The sterilization of black women was such a widespread practice that it earned a nickname: “a Mississippi appendectomy.”
A year later Hamer, who had recently attended a meeting for voting rights, joined a group from her community to visit the county seat where they attempted to register to vote, only to be turned away. On the way home when their bus was stopped, the driver arrested, and the passengers detained, Hamer began singing spirituals, a trademark of her activism.
Despite persecution, arrests, and violence, Hamer remained a steadfast leader in the civil rights movement throughout her life. She was one of the founders of the Freedom Democratic Party and the National Women’s Political Office, ran for state office, and worked on a grassroots level to register African-American voters in Mississippi. She died in 1977.
Ida B. Wells, investigative journalist and activist
A renowned journalist and civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). When she was born, she and her family were enslaved–the Emancipation Proclamation had not yet been signed. As a teenager Wells lost both of her parents and an infant brother to an epidemic of Yellow Fever.
Wells pursued her education and became a school teacher, but she also had a knack for journalism–though it would cost her dearly. After founding a newspaper in Memphis, she began investigating lynchings in the South. She lost her teaching job, and a white mob destroyed her newspaper office.
After leaving the South for Chicago, Wells continued her activism for African Americans and women and became a prominent leader in the efforts for equal rights and suffrage. She later ran for office, one of the first American-American women to do so. She died in 1931.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, activist and journalist
A former chairwoman of the NAACP and prolific author, Myrlie Evers-Williams was born in Vicksburg. She worked alongside her husband Medgar Evans to end racial segregation in Mississippi. After he was killed by a white supremacist in 1963, Evers-Williams fought to bring the killer to justice. Evers-Williams rose through the ranks of the NAACP and was named Woman of the Year by Ms. Magazine. In 2013 she delivered the invocation at President Obama’s second inauguration.
Genesis Be, musician and human rights activist
Originally from Biloxi, Genesis Be has roots in the civil rights movement. Her grandfather was Rev. Clyde Briggs, a prominent activist in 1960s Mississippi. Today Genesis Be uses her musical platform to address political issues and advocate for human rights. Several years ago during a show in New York she performed with a confederate flag in reaction to Gov. Phil Bryant’s declaration of April as “Confederate Heritage Month.” In reflecting on this artistic decision, Genesis Be commented, “I would love to see a time when both sides can come together for dialog and acknowledge the pain, the guilt, and see how to make this a more united Mississippi.”
Angie Thomas, author
A Jackson native, Angie Thomas is an award-winning author. Her book The Hate U Give debuted number one on the New York Times Bestseller list for young adult fiction and was adapted into a movie in 2018. The story centers around the police shooting of a young black man and the Black Lives Matter movement. Thomas’s latest book On the Come Up is available now.