By: Davis Houck
When Emmett Till was kidnapped and murdered on August 28, 1955, Fannie Lou Hamer was a 37-year-old black sharecropper working on the Dee Marlow plantation just west of Ruleville in Sunflower County.
The youngest of 20 children, Hamer had been born in Tomnolen, Mississippi, to Jim and Lou Ella Townsend; she later married Perry “Pap” Hamer and the couple raised two adopted daughters.
Hamer’s civil rights activism blossomed rather late in life when she attended a meeting organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Williams CME Church in Ruleville. That August 1962 meeting would help propel Hamer into the vanguard of the student movement, especially in her home state of Mississippi. Shortly after her attempts to register to vote at the Sunflower County Courthouse in Indianola, gunshots sprayed a neighbor’s house just blocks from this Memorial Garden, where Hamer was rumored to be staying. Several months later, on June 9, 1963, Hamer and several activists were brutalized in the Montgomery County Jail in Winona, Mississippi. Hamer would never completely heal from the injuries she suffered at the hands of local law enforcement.
Hamer was a captivating public speaker, so much so that she traveled the country for SNCC, speaking out on the movement in Mississippi and sharing her very personal story of victimization. But Hamer also was fearless in her resistance, and one of her favorite freedom fighters was a black Drew sharecropper by the name of Joe Pullum. Local legend had it that Pullum, a trained marksman and veteran of World War I, used a hollowed-out cypress tree in Wild Bill Bayou to kill four and wound 15 whites trying to capture him for killing a white man over a disputed debt. “Pullum’s Corner” in the Drew Cemetery is recognizable by a December 1923 date of death.
The Emmett Till story was far more personal for Fannie Lou Hamer. Not only had the murder taken place close to her home, but J. W. Milam’s brother, S. I. “Bud” Milam was a local police officer in Ruleville, and not infrequently harassed Fannie Lou and her husband at their 626 East Lafayette Street home. In front of many audiences Hamer recounted Milam’s intimidation tactics and connected them to Till’s murder; in this manner did Hamer draw parallels between her own victimization and Emmett’s.