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Fannie Lou Hamer fought for Black reproductive rights. We continue that work today.

February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate Black culture and Black achievement. Black history is American history.

Today, we highlight Black civil rights leader and community activist Fannie Lou Hamer. She not only fought for our civil rights. She fought for our medical rights.

Our mission is to protect and improve the health of all people and places in Pierce County. We look to a leader like Fannie Lou Hamer as a beacon. We strive to reflect her values and build on her work.

Community organizer and activist

Born in Montgomery County, Mississippi on Oct. 6, 1917, Hamer fought for voting and women’s rights. She was a community organizer, and leader in the civil rights movement. She served as the vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

Hamer also organized Mississippi’s Freedom Summer along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization created to recruit, train, and support women of all races who wanted to run for a government office.

Hamer was well known for her outspokenness and fight to highlight and stop the forced sterilizations of the 1920-1980s.

Protecting reproductive rights

Hamer coined the term “Mississippi Appendectomy” to describe the harmful medical practice of forced sterilizations of poor, Black women deemed unfit to reproduce. 

She worked to raise awareness of the procedure after going into a hospital to have a tumor removed and instead was sterilized. States like North Carolina and Mississippi saw almost 8,000 people sterilized, 85% of whom were women and 40% of whom were women of color.

Dorothy E. Roberts reports in the book Killing the Black Body:

“During the 1970s sterilization became the most rapidly growing form of birth control in the United States, rising from 200,000 cases in 1970 to over 700,000 in 1980. It was a common belief among Blacks in the South that Black women were routinely sterilized without their informed consent and for no valid medical reason. Teaching hospitals performed unnecessary hysterectomies on poor Black women as practice for their medical residents.”

32 states established federally funded sterilization programs under the pretense sterilization was only provided to those with disabilities or those that were deemed to be too “promiscuous” or “feebleminded” to have children.

This was the case in 1968 with Elaine Riddick, a 14-year-old black girl whose social worker decided it was best to sterilize her due to her falling pregnant after having been raped and assaulted by her neighbor.

A lifetime of work

Hamer fought against the Mississippi Appendectomy and other medical practices that arose from the Eugenics Movement. She also fought for voting rights for Black people, and openly challenged the legitimacy of the Mississippi Democratic Party.

Hamer was extorted, threatened, harassed, shot at, and assaulted for trying to register for and exercise her right to vote.

She died March 14, 1977, at 59 years old in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Many attended her funeral, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young delivered her eulogy. She was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

Our work to carry on her legacy

Nearly 50 years after Hamer’s death, racism continues to be a public health crisis.

Racism is among the social, economic, and environmental factors that influences our health. That’s because racist systems prevent Black and Brown Americans from equitably accessing healthcare, education, housing, and economic opportunity.

In Pierce County, people in Black, Indigenous and other communities of color have a lower life expectancy, poorer birth outcomes and higher rates of diabetes and other chronic diseases compared to white communities.

Our Black Infant Health program is one example of how we are working to address these disparities. In Pierce County, Black infants and mothers die at more than twice the rate of their white counterparts. Following in Hamer’s footsteps, our community health workers and nurses provide ongoing support to Black parents from pregnancy through a child’s first birthday.

Racial justice and health equity are 2 of our strategic initiatives. We work to incorporate those priorities in all we do.

We know we still have much to do, especially as we take time to recognize the groundbreaking work of Fannie Lou Hamer.

When we lead with racial equity and justice and work towards an anti-racist and multicultural community, all Pierce County residents can thrive.