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Story of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
"We didn't come to compromise"

August 6, 2004 | Page 12

TODAY, THE Democrats like to call themselves the "party of civil rights," but the struggle of Southern Blacks to win the vote tells quite a different story. ELIZABETH WRIGLEY-FIELD and AARON HESS recount the history of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party of 1964.

FORTY YEARS ago, the U.S. government claimed, as it does today, to be the "the leader of the free world" and the greatest champion of democracy. But the reality for Black Americans in the South was a political system that was unfree and undemocratic to its core.

In 1964, the civil rights movement launched a head-on confrontation with the Jim Crow segregation system in Mississippi--the heart of the Deep South and the poorest state in the nation, with the worst voting record for Blacks. After years of voter registration efforts by civil rights activists, only 6.7 percent of eligible Mississippi Blacks were registered--fewer than in 1896.

Blacks were disqualified by racist laws and discouraged by violence and terror. The governing Mississippi State Democratic Party openly celebrated segregation in its 1960 constitution as the "American Southern way of life."

Throughout the early 1960s, voting rights activists requested help from the Democratic Kennedy and Johnson administrations--and didn't get it. So in the summer of 1964, civil rights activists, led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), adopted a more aggressive approach.

Hoping to expose the extreme racism in Mississippi on the national stage, SNCC organized Freedom Summer. It recruited a thousand Northern college students to launch an ambitious voter registration plan and organize "freedom schools" to teach reading, math and political organization to local Blacks. And it launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)--a parallel party modeled on the Democrats but, unlike the official Democratic Party in Mississippi, open to Blacks.

Local law enforcement, pro-segregation Citizens Councils, and the Ku Klux Klan made Freedom Summer the most violent summer of the civil rights movement. Three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were brutally murdered shortly after the summer began.

Despite the national media attention their assassinations attracted, the federal government still refused to protect activists. In the face of terror and intimidation, however, activists refused to back down.

By the end of the summer, 63,000 Blacks had registered in the MFDP and elected 68 delegates to go to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. By contrast, only 1,600 Blacks were able to vote in Mississippi's regular Democratic primaries.

The MFDP insisted that it was the legitimate delegation from Mississippi since it had run the only primaries open to all citizens. The MFDP also pledged loyalty to the national Democratic Party and its presidential candidate, Lyndon B. Johnson--whereas the majority of the Mississippi Democratic Party's delegates actually supported his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater.

In Atlantic City, the MFDP argued to the credentials committee that it should be given Mississippi's seats at the convention. The highlight was the emotional testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper who recalled how she had lost her job and was viciously beaten in jail when she tried to register to vote in Mississippi.

Johnson interrupted her testimony with a hastily called press conference. But millions of TV viewers still saw Hamer's famous declaration, "If the Freedom Party is not seated now, I question America." Soon the convention was besieged with telegrams supporting the MFDP.

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JOHNSON FACED a dilemma. He relied on the support of liberals and Blacks in the North, but counted on the party's segregationist Dixiecrat wing to deliver votes in the South. The MFDP threatened this alliance. As Texas governor John Connelly told Johnson, "If you seat those Black buggers, the whole South will walk out."

The Democratic Party leadership was also worried about a movement whose radicalism they might be unable to contain. As the New York Times reported during the convention, "the liberal concern is that a failure of the civil rights movement to accept the ambiguities and frustrations of politics could have dangerous consequences."

So Johnson pulled out all the stops to thwart the MFDP's challenge. He arranged FBI surveillance of MFDP activists and charged the party liberal Hubert Humphrey with the task of preventing them from being seated--eventually rewarding him with the vice presidency for a job well done.

Finally, Johnson offered the MFDP a phony "compromise." Two members of their delegation--chosen by Johnson--would be seated as at-large delegates, while the entire delegation chosen by Mississippi's all-white primary would be seated.

Humphrey sent in United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther to help sell this rotten deal to established national movement leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. But after hours of debate, the MFDP voted to reject the compromise. Instead, they rallied outside the convention hall and occupied seats inside until Johnson had them forcibly removed.

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THE SPLIT over Johnson's compromise revealed a larger political dispute. Pro-civil rights liberals sought "unity" with the Democratic Party at any cost--even if it meant sacrificing the MFDP's key demand. They saw building a coalition with the national party as a vehicle through which Blacks could gradually gain power.

But as the socialist Julius Jacobson commented, "It is a utopian scheme. No such coalition is going to capture the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has its own coalition: a network of hardened political machines which is not going to permit itself to be taken over by Freedom [Party] visionaries."

For their part, the activists who rejected the compromise were unwilling to sacrifice their own struggle for illusory unity with the Democrats. Fannie Lou Hamer summed it up: "We didn't come all this way to compromise for no more than we'd gotten here...We didn't come all this way for no two seats, 'cause all of us is tired."

After the convention, the forces in the movement who had supported the compromise moved to regain control from the grassroots activism of SNCC. The Democratic Party and its allies worked to put the brakes on the movement's radicalization by granting some reforms while attacking the most militant activists.

The liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) issued a report recommending a voting rights act, because "quick granting of voting rights will mean quick recruitment by the Democratic Party, which will mean quick scuttling of the Freedom Democratic Parties and SNCC control." The threat of a challenge to the Democratic Party helped ensure the Voting Rights Act, the most important piece of civil rights legislation, passed--and something Democrats still try to claim credit for today.

Among the activists who had rejected the compromise, there were different ideas about what to do. The strategy of appealing to the federal government had failed--and it wasn't immediately clear what should replace it. In frustration, some people left the movement altogether. But the core of activists that stayed on learned from the experience.

As SNCC Executive Director James Forman put it, "Atlantic City was a powerful lesson...No longer was there any hope...that the federal government would change the situation in the Deep South. The fine line of contradiction between the state governments and the federal government, which we had used to build a movement, was played out. Now the kernel of opposites--the people against both the federal and state governments was apparent."

Disgusted with their liberal allies' willingness to sell out Blacks' demands, many activists began demanding more radical changes in American society. For many, the convention was a turning point toward a new phase in the movement--Black Power.

"Never again were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the 'good' people of America could eliminate them," explained SNCC's Cleveland Sellers. "We left Atlantic City with the knowledge that our movement had turned into something else. After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation."

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