In 1962, at age 45, after marriage and many more years of eking out a living in the Mississippi fields, Hamer’s life changed forever. She decided to attend a protest meeting led by activists working to get black people registered to vote.
»More: AJC Black History Month
In just two years, Hamer went from a field hand to a vocal leader in her area, protesting for equal rights and helping with voting rights efforts for blacks in Mississippi. She eventually became a worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and in 1964 helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, established in opposition to the state’s all-white delegation to that year’s Democratic convention.
But the new job was not without its own hardships.
Early on, her family lost their home and car when their landowner found out Hamer was trying to register to vote. According to The New York Times, she said: “They kicked me off the plantation, they set me free. It’s the best thing that could happen. Now I can work for my people.”
»More: The story behind the “Negro National Anthem
When her husband couldn’t find work, the couple and their two daughters — who Hamer took in from another sharecropping family who couldn’t afford to raise them — lived for a time on her $10 monthly stipend from SNCC.
Her activist work also led to her being beaten, shot at and arrested. During a stint in a Winona, Miss., jail in 1963, she was severely beaten with a blackjack that left her with permanent kidney damage.
Still, Hamer used her voice to highlight her struggles and those of other Mississippi and Southern blacks during a televised session at the Democratic convention, and she took her message across the country.
When she delivered her famous "sick and tired" line, Hamer was in a Harlem church, speaking alongside other activists — including Malcolm X — imploring Northern blacks to help in the plight of Southern blacks.
Hamer died in 1977 after battling breast cancer for a year. “None of us would be where we are today had she not been here then,” Andrew Young said in giving her eulogy, according to The New York Times.
Inscribed on her tombstone is her famous quote, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.