Tell It Like It IsFannie Lou Hamer Sounded the Alarm on Forced Sterilization

Author Keisha N. Blain is pictured, she is a Black woman with braids wearing black-rimmed glasses. Next to her headshot are three other images, two that picture activist Fannie Lou Hamer, a Black woman, speaking. The final image is of Blain's book cover.

(Photo credits: Keisha N. Blain, Bettmann/Getty Images, Library of Congress)

Excerpted from Until I am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America by Keisha N. Blain (Beacon Press, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.  Copyright © 2021 by Keisha N. Blain.

I’m going to tell you just like it is….There’s so much hypocrisy in this society and if we want America to be a free society, we have to stop telling lies. —Fannie Lou Hamer

On July 10, 2015, Sandra Bland, a twenty-eight-year-old Black woman from Illinois, was driving alone in Prairie View, Texas. She was on her way to Prairie View A&M University, where she had recently secured a new position. According to Brian Encinia, the white Texas state trooper who stopped her that afternoon, Bland failed to signal as she moved from one lane to the next. What began as a routine traffic stop quickly escalated when Encinia asked Bland to extinguish her cigarette and immediately exit her car. In only a matter of minutes, Encinia tried to force Bland from the car as he called for backup. He then drew a Taser and pointed it directly at Bland. “I will light you up! Get out—now!” As Bland exited the car, tensions continued to escalate.

Within an hour of driving down a quiet street in Prairie View, Bland was stopped, arrested, and later taken to a jail in Waller County, Texas. When she was found hanging in her cell three days later, the encounter, which had been recorded on the officer’s dashcam, circulated widely across the nation. Thousands decried the circumstances that led to Bland’s tragic death, questioning the stop, the detainment, and the officer’s repeated threats. Although Bland’s death was officially ruled a suicide, many rejected the pronouncement—and rightfully so. In addition to the many questions that still remain unanswered concerning Bland’s short time in a Waller County jail cell, there is no denying that Encinia played a role in her death. Encinia’s racial profiling, which motivated his decision to stop Bland in the first place, and his failure to de-escalate what should have been a routine traffic stop led to an unlawful arrest and created the environment that led to Bland’s untimely death.

Sandra Bland’s life and the circumstances of her death cast a spotlight on one of the social issues that has dominated public discourse during the 21st century: state-sanctioned violence. Bland’s encounter with Encinia was recorded and as a result garnered nationwide attention. Yet thousands of Black people in the United States have had similar experiences—tense exchanges with police officers that often amount to a death sentence. In a 2019 Los Angeles Times article, a group of researchers identified police violence as one of the leading causes of death for Black American men. While their research emphasized the experiences of Black men and boys, it also revealed that state-sanctioned violence imperiled Black women and girls to a greater degree than white women. In the years before Bland’s confrontation with law enforcement, countless Black women died in police custody, with many of their stories going unnoticed. For example, in December 2002, Nizah Morris, a Black transgender woman, sustained a fatal head injury while being transported by three Philadelphia police officers. Although local activists worked to shed light on the tragic events of that evening, Morris’s case, like so many cases of police violence against Black transgender people, failed to garner much national attention. In July 2015, the same month of Bland’s death, several other Black women died in police custody, including Raynette Turner of Mount Vernon, New York, and eighteen-year-old Kindra Chapman of Homewood, Alabama. Weeks later, officers killed Mya Hall, a young Black transgender woman in Baltimore, after she made a wrong turn while driving on a parkway in Fort Meade. These are just a few of the recent cases of Black women whose lives were cut short by the police in the United States.

The threat of violence Black Americans face each time they encounter a police officer today is no different from the fear of lynching Black people felt during each confrontation with a white officer during the Jim Crow era. And this violence was—and is—not limited to encounters with the police. Black Americans today also face violence at the hands of other agents of the state, including white medical professionals who continue to treat their Black patients differently from patients of other racial groups. Fannie Lou Hamer lived with this fear of everyday public and private acts of violence while navigating the South. During the early 1960s, she used her growing visibility and national platform to share those experiences and denounce the actions of the police as well as the white doctors who committed acts of violence against Black women through forced sterilizations. For Hamer, one of the strategies for addressing the persistent problem of state-sanctioned violence was the use of public testimony as a mode of resistance and revelation. In this way, the act was driven by both personal and political motivations. A source of empowerment and healing, public testimony also provided a vehicle for Hamer to make her audience “co-owners of trauma.” Those who listened to Hamer’s testimony bore witness to the pain and violence and were therefore transformed by the experience.

If the violence Black women endured from the state at the hands of police officers, white physicians, and others was designed to silence them, Hamer refused to capitulate. As Hamer recognized in her day-to-day organizing in the U.S. South, acts of police violence and white mob violence often occurred in secret, behind closed doors and far from the gaze of others. For every public and documented act of racist violence, dozens more had taken place in secret, never to be counted or documented. In Hamer’s view, those who managed to survive these brazen acts of violence needed to serve as public witnesses—speaking truthfully and openly about their personal experiences in an effort to bear witness to the pain and suffering of racial and sexual violence; bringing greater awareness to others; and initiating radical changes. “I’m going to tell it like it is,” Hamer often warned before her public speeches, as a way to boldly alert listeners to the eye-opening accounts that would follow. The mantra “tell it like it is” is a political strategy that Hamer employed in her lifetime and one that remains a powerful feature of African American culture today.

“Why had he done that to me?”

Hamer’s refusal to be silent in the face of injustice extended to every aspect of her life, including another form of state-sanctioned violence she endured at the hands of white doctors in Mississippi. Similar to police officers, many white doctors functioned as agents of the state—maintaining white supremacy and utilizing violence to control Black people’s lives. Hamer’s painful experiences in 1961 offer a glimpse of the kinds of challenges impoverished Black women faced. Despite the financial struggles she and Pap underwent while living in the Jim Crow South, Hamer was determined to have a child. After two failed pregnancies during her forties, Hamer was hospitalized in 1961 to remove a noncancerous “small uterine tumor.” Without Hamer’s knowledge or consent, the white doctor conducting what was supposed to be a minor procedure decided to remove Hamer’s uterus, rendering the activist infertile. This physical act of violence had lasting emotional and physiological effects too. Hamer “lost not only her capacity to reproduce, but everything that it symbolized for women, especially Black women living in a desperately poor, rural environment and possessing nothing that was truly theirs, save faith and their own bodies.”

To add insult to injury, Hamer learned about the violent act through gossip on the plantation on which she worked. The wife of the plantation owner, Vera Marlow, was a relative of the doctor who had completed the procedure. When Hamer returned home to rest, she heard the rumblings of others on the plantation, suggesting that she had been sterilized while unconscious. In an act of spite, Marlow had begun circulating the story to the cook, who relayed the sensitive information to other workers. Hamer would therefore be one of the last people to learn about this act of shocking violence committed on her body. Though she was angry to find out what had been done to her, Hamer had little recourse as a Black woman in the Jim Crow South. She managed to confront the doctor, asking him to explain his reasoning for doing the procedure and not informing her. “Why? Why had he done that to me? He didn’t have to say nothing—and he didn’t,” Hamer later explained.

The doctor’s silence when confronted with Hamer’s anger spoke volumes. As a white doctor whose actions the state supported and protected, he owed Hamer no explanation—and he knew there was nothing she could do about it. As Hamer herself painfully admitted, she could not even seek out legal actions against the doctor if she hoped to live to see another day: “I would have been taking my hands and screwing tacks into my own casket.” Moreover, she pointed to the rigged legal system, which made it impossible for white lawyers and prosecutors to convict white people for their crimes: “Getting a white lawyer to go against a white doctor?” As a resident of Mississippi, Hamer had witnessed high-profile cases like Emmett Till’s in 1955 and watched in horror, along with the rest of the nation, as Till’s killers walked free and later confessed to the crime in Look magazine. The Emmett Till case, along with countless others, provided the evidence Hamer needed to know: she would have to find some other way to challenge the forced sterilization. In the aftermath of the forced hysterectomy, Hamer and Pap adopted two local Black girls— first Dorothy Jean, then ten years later Vergie Ree, who had sustained serious burn injuries as a baby. The Hamers showered both girls with love and affection, grateful that they were able to expand their family through adoption despite the painful experience Hamer had endured years earlier.

If she could not obtain justice for the act of medical violence, Hamer decided she would use her voice to shine light on the practice, which was all too common in Mississippi and beyond. Indeed, the act of medical abuse of power and the violence against Hamer’s body was something many poor Black women suffered through in the Jim Crow South. With few material resources, impoverished Black women and other women of color were most vulnerable to the exploitations of state agencies that worked to uphold racism and white supremacy. The birth- control movement of the late 20th century was deeply tied to the work of white eugenicists who justified the sterilization of Black women. White eugenicists presumed that the “multiplication of the unfit posed a threat to the political stability of the nation.” This practice took place across the South during the twentieth century. For example, between 1929 and 1974 in North Carolina, doctors sterilized 7,600 people. Out of those sterilized, 85 percent were women and girls and 40 percent were women of color—most of whom were African American. During the Jim Crow era, impoverished Black women in the Deep South were frequently subjected to hysterectomies or tubal ligations against their will and without their knowledge. In Sunflower County, where Hamer had been sterilized, at least 60 percent of  Black women experienced forced sterilizations following pregnancy. Deemed “unfit” to reproduce by white physicians and other state officials, Black women who entered hospitals for routine procedures ran the risk of being sterilized—and with little recourse to challenge the act.

Hamer was therefore one of many Black women who experienced the medical violence and violation of forced sterilization during this period. Although few publicly discussed this deeply private and intimate trauma, Hamer was the first civil rights activist during the 1960s to openly address it. In 1964, only three years after the painful incident, Hamer called attention to the racist and violent practice of forced sterilization at a conference on racism organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of civil rights groups organizing in Mississippi at the time. Established in 1961, COFO was an umbrella organization that brought together activists in various statewide and national groups, including the SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

A black and white image of activist Fannie Lou Hamer, a Black woman, speaking at a podium with a logo for the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Fanny Lou Hamer of Mississippi addresses the delegates on the fight over Alabama credentials, during the second session of the 1968 Democratic Convention. (Photo credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Members of COFO had organized a hearing to address the social climate of Mississippi as part of an effort to prepare northern activists planning to travel to the state during Freedom Summer. Held in Washington, DC, on June 8, 1964, the hearing brought together 24 speakers who delivered testimonies before a group of distinguished panelists, including Congressman William Fitts Ryan of New York; Harold Taylor, former president of Sarah Lawrence College; and Harvard professor and psychiatrist Robert Coles. After Hamer briefly recounted an exchange with a long-distance telephone operator—who confirmed that her phone calls were being monitored—Coles raised doubts about her account, noting that “no telephone operator ever talked to me like this.” “Well, it was the first time for me,” Hamer responded, “but it did happen.”

Perhaps contemplating Coles’s background in the medical field, Hamer quickly pointed out that Black women’s experiences with forced sterilizations in Mississippi hospitals were yet another example of something that might seem unbelievable but that were in fact common practice. In a brief but poignant account, Hamer used the opportunity to illuminate the medical abuses and acts of violence Black women endured in local hospitals that were supposed to be spaces of healing and care:

One of the other things that happened in Sunflower County, the North Sunflower County Hospital, I would say about six out of the ten Negro women that go to the hospital are sterilized with the tubes tied. They are getting up a law that said if a woman has an illegitimate baby and then a second one, they could draw time for six months or a five-hundred-dollar fine. What they didn’t tell is that they are already doing these things, not only to single women but to married women.

Reminiscent of earlier Black women activists and intellectuals who harnessed the power of their voices to condemn racism and white supremacy, Hamer used the opportunity to call attention to the practice of forced sterilizations. She decried the local attempts in Mississippi to pass HB 180, a law that would limit women’s reproductive rights—and would almost certainly be used disproportionately against Black women. And drawing on her own observations, she centered the frequency of the practice, which had devastated the lives of countless Black women in the South. In 1965 alone, an estimated 60 Black women were forcefully sterilized at the hospital in Sunflower County immediately after giving birth.

What is also striking about Hamer’s recollection is how it exposed the hypocrisy of white doctors and revealed the limits of respectability politics. By narrowing in on the fact that forced sterilizations were happening to married women and not solely single women, Hamer made it clear that even when Black women in the South operated within the bounds of white heteronormativity—in this case, becoming pregnant while married—they could not escape the pain and trauma of forced sterilizations. In the end, regardless of a Black woman’s marriage status or the specific circumstances surrounding her pregnancy, they were vulnerable to state-sanctioned violence at the hands of racist white doctors and complicit hospital workers who deemed impoverished Black women “unfit” for reproduction.

“The wrongs and the sickness of this country have been swept under the rug, but I’ve come out from under the rug, and I’m going to tell it like it is.”

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Those who supported forced sterilization devalued Black life, but they also hoped to profit from Black women’s suffering in whatever form it took. White medical professionals and staff stood to financially profit when completing forced sterilizations. By one estimate, Fannie Lou Hamer’s initial procedure to remove a small tumor would have grossed the hospital $200. Yet they could bill an estimated $800 for completing a forced sterilization. The financial incentive, combined with the racist beliefs that Black women were unsuitable for motherhood, fueled the unconscionable practice in the Mississippi Delta. And while the act of forced sterilizations was pervasive in the U.S. South, it was not limited to the region. During the 1960s, Black women were subjected to the violence of forced sterilizations in hospitals across the nation, with cases being reported in cities such as Boston, New York, and San Francisco.

For Hamer, the issue of involuntary sterilization was as urgent as that of police brutality and other manifestations of state-sanctioned violence. All were acts of violence meted out on the bodies of Black people—and in this case, she called specific attention to the vulnerability of Black women. From Hamer’s perspective, these acts of violence needed to be directly confronted if Black people ever hoped their circumstances would change. This perspective led the activist to boldly address medical violence—despite the private and intimate nature of the issue. And her courage left a lasting mark. Indeed, Hamer’s work to bring attention to the problem of forced sterilization played a central role in dismantling Mississippi’s HB 180. The Mississippi Senate eventually dropped the bill, motivated in part by the public outcry fueled by Hamer’s testimony at the 1964 COFO hearing. Hamer’s remarks would be one of the first documented occasions when an activist addressed the topic publicly, and it would certainly not be the last. In 1969, for example, Hamer discussed the practice before members of a feminist committee discussing abortion in Seattle, Washington. She shared her own painful personal experiences and denounced the common practice of forced sterilizations, which she and others often referred to as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”

Holding fast to her mantra—“tell it like it is”—Hamer refused to sugarcoat the problems impoverished Black women were facing throughout the United States. She publicly foregrounded the physical, psychological, and emotional abuse Black women endured at the hands of white doctors and police officers. She also highlighted how the state fully endorsed and protected these violent acts. In bringing these issues to the center of civil rights concerns, Hamer sent a powerful message to activists—then and now—about the enduring power of public testimony to transform American society. Much like earlier activists Frederick Douglass, who boldly confronted the sin of slavery, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who risked her life to confront and condemn lynchings, Fannie Lou Hamer used her voice to shed light on the injustices Black people endured. Through her courageous words, she revealed how exposing the acts of violence that often happen in the dark or outside the purview of those who choose not to see is a crucial part of the struggle to dismantle racism and gendered violence. “The wrongs and the sickness of this country have been swept under the rug,” she told audience members at Harvard University in 1968, “but I’ve come out from under the rug, and I’m going to tell it like it is.”

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