June Jordan (1936-2002) was born on July 9, 1936, in Harlem, New York, the only child of Jamaican immigrant parents. She was a poet, essayist, teacher, feminist, civil rights activist, and self-identified Bisexual. While the students at most of the schools she attended were predominately White, at Barnard College, “No one ever presented me with a single Black author, poet, historian, personage, or idea for that matter. Nor was I ever assigned a single woman to study as a thinker, or writer, or poet, or life force . . . Nothing showed me how I might try to alter the political and economic realities underlying our Black condition in white America.” She left without graduating, but returned later. Her first book, Who Look at Me, a collection of poems for children, was published in 1969. She wrote 27 more books, the last three published posthumously. Jordan was the librettist for the musical Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. She taught at several colleges and at SUNY at Stony Brook, then founded the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley in 1991. She died of breast cancer at age 65.
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), American civil rights leader, women’s rights activist, community organizer, and spiritual singer. While having surgery in 1961 to remove a tumor, 44-year-old Hamer was also given a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent by a white doctor; this was a frequent occurrence under Mississippi’s compulsory sterilization plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. Hamer is credited with coining the phrase “Mississippi appendectomy” as a euphemism for the involuntary or uninformed sterilization of black women, common in the South in the 1960s. Hamer was an organizer of the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. She was extorted, threatened, harassed, shot at, and assaulted by racists, including members of the police, while trying to register and exercise her right to vote. She later helped and encouraged thousands of African-Americans in Mississippi to become registered voters and helped hundreds of disenfranchised people in her area through her work in programs like the Freedom Farm Cooperative. She unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and the Mississippi State Senate in 1971. In 1970, Hamer led the legal action against the government of Sunflower County, Mississippi for continued illegal segregation. She died of complications of hypertension and breast cancer in March 14, 1977, at age 59.
To read June Jordan’s poem, “1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer” click: