Early life, family, and education
Fannie Lou Townsend was born on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the last of the 20 children of Ella and James Lee Townsend. After some of their animal stock was mysteriously poisoned, Hamer suspected a local white supremacist had done it; she said of this incident: "our stock got poisoned. We knowed [sic] this white man had done it .... That white man did it just because we were gettin' somewhere. White people never like to see Negroes get a little success. All of this stuff is no secret in the state of Mississippi." In 1919 the Townsends moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi to work as sharecroppers on W. D. Marlow's plantation. From age six she picked cotton with her family. During the winters of 1924 through 1930 she attended the one-room school provided for the sharecroppers' children, open between picking seasons. She loved reading and excelled in spelling bees and reciting poetry, but at age 12 she had to leave school to help support her aging parents. By age 13 she could pick 200–300 pounds (90 to 140 kg) of cotton daily, despite having a leg disfigured by polio.
Fannie continued to develop her reading and interpretation skills in Bible study at her church; in later years Lawrence Guyot admired her ability to connect "the biblical exhortations for liberation and [the struggle for civil rights] any time that she wanted to and move in and out to any frames of reference." In 1944, after the plantation owner discovered that she was literate, she was selected as its time and record keeper. The following year she married Perry "Pap" Hamer, a tractor driver on the Marlow plantation, and they remained there for the next 18 years.
We had a little money so we took care of her and raised her. She was sickly too when I got her; suffered from malnutrition. Then she got run over by a car and her leg was broken. So she's only in fourth grade now.
—- Fannie Lou Hamer
The Hamers later raised two girls, whom they decided to adopt. One of the girls died of internal hemorrhaging after she was denied admission to the local hospital on account of her mother's activism.
Hamer became interested in the civil rights movement in the 1950s. She heard leaders in the local movement speak at annual Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) conferences, held in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The annual conferences discussed black voting rights and other civil rights issues black communities in the area faced.