Fannie Lou Hamer was born Fannie Lou Townsend on October 17, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She was the youngest of 20 children born to sharecroppers. In 1919 her family moved to the Delta where they worked on the E. W. Brandon plantation. Fannie Lou was forced to quit school after the sixth grade. Baptized in the Quiver River, she was a devout Baptist all of her adult life. In 1944 Fannie Lou married Perry “Pap” Hamer and the two settled on the W. D. Marlow plantation just outside of Ruleville, Mississippi in Sunflower County. Fannie Lou picked cotton and was a timekeeper for most of her 18 years on the plantation.
Hamer became a civil rights activist only when she was 44 years old. At the invitation of her friend, Mary Tucker, she attended a mass meeting at the Williams Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Ruleville on August 27, 1962; it was the only church in Ruleville willing to host the meeting. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) in concert with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had sent Charles McLaurin into the area to canvass for its voter registration program. By late August, McLaurin had convinced only three locals to attempt to register to vote. At the August 27th, meeting, Hamer listened to Bob Moses, Jim Forman, and Reginald Robinson. But perhaps she was most inspired by James Bevel’s sermon entitled, “Discerning the Signs of Time.” Hamer would later make use of this sermon in her own speechmaking. Fannie Lou Hamer became a convert to the cause on August 27, as she volunteered, along with 17 others, to attempt to register at the county seat of Indianola that Friday. The events that transpired on August 31, would appear frequently when Hamer told her story to audiences all over the country.