Sick and Tired

Fannie Lou Hamer was one of America's most important civil rights icons. But her health issues show that racism isn't just a social disease, it's a physical one.

Located in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a town founded by former slaves, the tombstone of Fannie Lou Hamer features an unusual inscription. Bordered on each side by urns overflowing with flowers, the Civil Rights icon’s gravestone doesn’t just include the date of her birth (October 16, 1917), or the date of her death (March 14th, 1977). It also features her most famous quote–“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”– a phrase she coined during a speech made alongside Malcolm X, before an audience at Williams Institutional CME Church in Harlem on Dec. 20, 1964.

While the quote originally referred to the centuries-long fight for black Americans to be treated with respect and dignity, it could very well have been a literal acknowledgment of her health struggles. Fannie Lou Hamer was sick, and she was tired. At the age of 59, she eventually succumbed to complications of heart disease and breast cancer, but not before helping move race relations in America forward. Her life was a testament to how society, including the healthcare system, have failed black people.

American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer  testifying before the Credentials Committee at Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City,  August 22, 1964.

Hamer is most noted for her valiant fight against Mississippi’s oppressive power structure. In 1962, she joined 17 others at an Indianola courthouse to register to vote.“That happened because I went to a mass meeting one night,” she writes in her autobiography, To Praise Our Bridges. “Until then, I’d never heard of no mass meeting and I didn’t know that a Negro could register and vote.”

That meeting, she said, was conducted by leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When they’d asked for volunteers to register the next day, she raised her hand. Although there were violent efforts in Mississippi at the time to oppress the black vote, Hamer wasn’t afraid. “The only thing they could do was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember,” she wrote.

“The only thing they could do was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

Over the years, Hamer traveled through the state teaching black people to read and write in order to pass dubious literacy tests that prevented them from voting. She was arrested, beaten, and shot at throughout the course of her activist work. In June 1963, she was beaten so badly in a Winona, Mississippi jail that she suffered permanent kidney damage and was nearly blinded.

In the summer of 1964, she spoke to the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. There, she represented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a group challenging an all-white delegation from Mississippi  filled with fervent segregationists. Upon telling her story about trying to vote in Mississippi, President Lyndon B. Johnson himself called an impromptu press conference to force her to stop speaking during the televised hearing. The effort backfired spectacularly; Major networks would later play her testimony from the previously-preempted newscast. Hamer could not be silenced.

She spent the rest of her life fighting for voting rights and to close the gap of economic disparity in Mississippi. The political oppression of the time was not the only system Hamer struggled against in her lifetime, though. She was also a victim of the healthcare system.

In 1961, Hamer went to a Sunflower County hospital so doctors could remove a uterine tumor. She left without her reproductive organs. The procedure–which she dubbed a “Mississippi appendectomy”–was part of a concerted effort within the state to reduce the local black population by sterilizing men and women of African descent without their knowledge or consent when the opportunity medically presented itself.

Unable to have children, Hamer was devastated. To be a poor, black woman in the rural south, there wasn’t much outside of the ability to reproduce that she could claim as her own without the threat of having it taken away, according to Chana Kai Lee in For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.

“The impact of this [tragedy] found its way into her political thoughts,” Lee writes. “During the hearings, Hamer raised this issue as if it was an afterthought. However, she may have raised it last because it was something that bothered her most out of all the other horrible experiences that typified her life. Nevertheless it stands out amidst the rest of her testimony, for not everyone in the movement regarded sterilization as a political concern of their work in Mississippi. Clearly Hamer did, and she spoke about it.”

“Just because people are fat, doesn’t mean they are well fed,” Hamer pointed out. “The cheapest foods are the most fattening ones, not the most nourishing.”

Since she grew up in malnourished poverty with no access to preventive health care, Hamer understood that determinants of health— your environment, your social status— would predict health.  She advocated for better health education in local black communities, even arranging for nutritionists to come speak about the best ways to have a balanced diet while living in poverty. “Just because people are fat, doesn’t mean they are well fed,” Hamer pointed out. “The cheapest foods are the most fattening ones, not the most nourishing.”

Fannie Lou Hamer could be fierce, but her years of advocacy took their toll on her health.

She was even an early advocate of what might be considered the precursor to the local food movement, creating the Freedom Farm Cooperative as a way of promoting the value of eating foods raised by people’s own hands. While looking for money to finance the cooperative, she wrote in a 1971 letter to the Field Foundation in New York City: “Freedom Farm Corporation is working. Its purpose of feeding people, on one hand, is the essence of humanitarianism; but at the same time it allows the sick one a chance for healing, the silent ones a chance to speak, the unlearned ones a chance to learn, and the dying ones a chance to live.”

A lifelong civil rights crusader, Hamer’s health woes aren’t an outlier. Many activists before and after her experienced poor health, including heart disease and high blood pressure, exacerbated by the stress of fighting systemic racism in the country.

Following his death in 1968, an autopsy confirmed that Martin Luther King Jr. had a prematurely aged heart. Some close to him attribute an ailing heart to the ongoing stress of the civil rights movement.

Racism isn’t just a social disease. It’s a physical one.

In a PBS documentary, Citizen King, his biographer Taylor Branch proclaimed: “The movement took a huge toll on him. When they did the autopsy, they said he had the heart of a 60-year-old, he’s 39. So yes, it took a big toll on him, and he was constantly fantasizing about getting out of the movement.”

These issues continue today.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism might have cost him his life even without his assassination: the stress of fighting racism had prematurely aged his heart.

New York activist Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner—who died at the hands of police in 2014, a brutal death that helped kick off the Black Lives Matter movement— died of a heart attack on December 30, 2017. After years protesting the systemic brutality that police routinely deploy against black men like her father, she had an enlarged heart.  In an interview for a web-based show just weeks before her death, she talked about the stress she and others feel while working as an activist. “I’m struggling right now from the stress of everything  because the system, it beats you down,” she said.

Racism isn’t just a social disease. It’s a physical one. Recent studies have shown that perceptions of discrimination cause great harm to the body when its pervasive. The stress of a racist or discriminatory act often yields slower declines in cortisol levels throughout the day. This can lead to obesity, depression, chronic illness, a weakened immune system, and even death.

After a life fighting against racism, Hamer was afflicted with all of the above. The cumulative impact of grief, trauma, and injustice is widely believed to have cut her life short.

In 1972, following continuous activity including a failed state senate race, her body gave out. She collapsed from what was described as “near nervous exhaustion,” according to Kay Mills, author of This Little Light of Mine: the Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.  She never really recovered. In early 1977, she was hospitalized to be treated for breast cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

A friend, Unita Blackwell, noted that the very religious Hamer, knew she was dying. In This Little Light of Mine, she was cited saying, “She called me one day and said ‘girl I’m real sick. I don’t want to die, but I made my peace with God.”

“She called me one day and said ‘girl I’m real sick. I don’t want to die, but I made my peace with God.”

Historians are careful not to depict Hamer as a”strong black woman” —a well-intended but harmful trope which advances the narrative that women like her don’t need help, love and protection.

She did take care of her community, and tried her best to ensure they had a better way of life. It’s a common issue among black women to cater to many, but go without care for themselves. Hamer was a revolutionary but she wasn’t invincible. She needed care, too. Nonetheless, she leaves behind a legacy that shows her pain and suffering were not in vain.

While Hamer’s activism is echoed today, the notion of being “sick and tired” is now addressed with a new buzzword, yet old concept: self-care. As black women honor Hamer and other activists for their courage, they also must heed the warnings of how oppressive systems, stress and chronic illness impedes one’s quality of life. They need to do more than care for their communities. Hamer would also want them to care for themselves.