This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Strong Families project.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it is critical that we remember that this march was about advocating for social and economic justice. In an era when people across the country are asking, “Where are the Black women leaders?” activists like Fannie Lou Hamer serve as a reminder of how many rural Black women have always been strong leaders. For Hamer, people could not be free unless they had freedom “from hunger, poverty, and homes that did not adequately protect needy families from the cold winds of ‘Old Man Winter.’”
An outspoken woman from Sunflower County, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer bravely described her traumatic forced sterilization story and showed the importance of advocating for the reproductive rights of women of color.
A daughter of sharecroppers, she is also remembered as a grassroots voting rights activist and as someone who devoted her life to improving the livelihoods of rural Black women and families independent of the local, state, and federal government.
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According to data from the 1960 census, about 5,000 families in Sunflower County earned less than $2,000 a year. To alleviate this poverty, Hamer began the Freedom Farm with a donation of 50 pigs from the National Council of Negro Women. She also acquired some 700 acres of land on which to grow, produce, and raise livestock to provide nutritional food for families across the Delta and generate income for Black women heads of household and young people who worked on the farm. In For Freedom’s Sake, author Chana Kai Lee reminds us that the Freedom Farm also provided families with down payments for Federal Housing Administration mortgages to increase homeownership, transportation to medical facilities, and scholarships for college or training schools, and served as a crisis relief agency for families in the region.
Though farming may seem to be a departure from Hamer’s civil rights work, it was actually a continuation of it, since the work created avenues for long-term empowerment of rural communities while also providing opportunities to improve the political, economic, and social well-being of Black women and girls. And though the Freedom Farm eventually failed, Fannie Lou Hamer’s legacy continues through a number of Black women farmers and Black women farmer-owned cooperatives across the rural South.
Black women-led cooperatives like the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative—a women’s agricultural cooperative in the Mississippi Delta—are working to supply fresh produce to local schools, restaurants, and farmers’ markets to provide economic opportunities for Black women and girls who lack access to quality education, jobs, and health care. As conservatives continue to compromise rural livelihoods by attempting to double food stamp cuts to roughly $40 billion over the next ten years,
these groups are creating opportunities for farmers of color to ensure that women and girls live in conditions that enable them to improve their quality of life and health.
Black women like Fannie Lou Hamer embody the spirit of the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement, and Hamer’s legacy lives on
through Black women and girls who are looking to generate and hold financial and intellectual assets so they can collectively build on and sustain their land and heritage.
Though many of these low-income women farmers lack the financial resources and flexibility to travel to Washington to commemorate the march for their right to civil and economic equality, they are collectively working together to invest in shared infrastructure and merge their fiscal and intellectual resources to ensure that rural communities grow and thrive. They help make the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington worth celebrating, and represent the work for freedom that Fannie Lou Hamer envisioned.