Freedom Summer and the Democrats

November 16, 2012

Lance Selfa tells the story of Mississippi Freedom Summer and its outcome.

LEADING FIGURES in the Democratic Party often portray themselves as inheritors of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s and the struggle for voting rights in the southern U.S.

However, this analogy between the civil rights movement and today's Democratic Party campaigns is faulty for several reasons. Most importantly, the struggle for voting rights brought thousands of Blacks into militant activity against vicious police repression from the Southern state and local governments--dominated throughout the region by none other than the Democratic Party--and their accomplices in the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens' Councils.

The struggle for the mere right to vote--a fundamental democratic right denied to African Americans by segregationist legislatures and racist violence for decades--required much more than simply pulling a lever for some candidate.

In many areas of the rural South, it required the setting up of political institutions outside the control of the Jim Crow Democratic Party that ran the Southern governments.

The History of Black America

Arguably, the most openly racist Southern state was Mississippi. The White Citizens' Councils--the racist organizations of merchants and businesspeople formed to fight desegregation--ran the state government through their candidate Gov. Ross Barnett. In 1962, Barnett had provoked the intervention of federal troops when he barred Black student James Meredith's admission into the University of Mississippi.

Mississippi was the poorest state in the country, and Blacks living in rural areas suffered terrible conditions. Many went without indoor plumbing or running water. Moreover, they lived in constant fear of terrorism at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens' Councils.

For these reasons, organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and other groups united in the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) launched "Mississippi Freedom Summer" in 1964. In addition to establishing Freedom Schools, community centers and other initiatives to aid the local Black population, the goal of Freedom Summer was to register as many Black voters as possible.

Within weeks of the campaign's opening, racists had killed a number of activists and local Black residents, bombed the civil rights workers' offices and torched several Black churches connected with the project. During that summer, at least 38 civil rights workers were shot, and three--CORE's James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman--were killed.

WITH THEIR participation in the segregationist Democratic Party blocked by the terrorism and discrimination, COFO decided on a different strategy. Since the Jim Crow Democratic Party wouldn't allow Blacks to register, Blacks would create their own non-segregated political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

Within weeks of its April founding in Jackson, Miss., the MFDP registered 60,000 voters and nominated a delegation to represent it at the national Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, N.J. On the grounds that it was the only freely elected delegation in the state--the only one for which all of the state's citizens could vote--the MFDP planned a floor fight to be seated in place of the all-white Jim Crow Democratic delegation.

The MFDP was organized outside the machinery of the Democratic Party and, in many ways, challenged some of the party's central features. More than anything, it exposed clearly the national party's willingness to placate the racist Dixiecrat wing.

When the convention Credentials Committee met to consider the MFDP's petition for seating, MFDP lawyer Joseph Rauh, closely connected to Vice President Hubert Humphrey and United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, called witness after witness to testify to the brutality that voting rights workers were met with in Mississippi.

The most charismatic of these witnesses was Fannie Lou Hamer, a middle-aged Black woman, who told of the "woesome times" that she had faced in trying to register to vote in Democratic Sen. James Eastland's home county. Hamer told of being thrown off a plantation where she had worked for 18 years, being shot at and beaten until her skin turned blue--all for attempting to register to vote.

She concluded with a question: "Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings?"

Though Hamer's powerful testimony made the MDFP seating a central event of the 1964 convention, President Lyndon Johnson was determined that the MDFP would not get in the way of "his" convention--a planned coronation before his run for reelection against Republican Barry Goldwater.

Johnson wanted to avoid a floor battle that would damage the television image of party "unity" he wanted to project. More importantly, however, LBJ feared the defection of the "white South" to the reactionary Goldwater. As Democratic Texas Gov. John Connolly put it to Johnson, "If you seat those Black buggers, the whole South will walk out."

Johnson turned to Democratic liberals like Humphrey--who gave his support in exchange for the position of Johnson's running mate--Reuther and Rauh to urge the MFDP to give up its demands. Johnson also turned to leaders of the NAACP, CORE and SCLC to fashion a rotten "compromise" between MFDP and the Democratic Party leadership.

Humphrey's lieutenant, then-Minnesota Attorney General Walter Mondale, won the civil rights leadership's acceptance of a compromise which called for the seating of only two MFDP delegates--to be chosen by the Credentials Committee--alongside the entire Jim Crow delegation. With civil rights leaders throwing their weight behind the liberals' sellout, the Credentials Committee voted to seat the Jim Crow delegates.

THE MFDP delegation voted down the compromise overwhelmingly, calling it a "back-of-the-bus" agreement. It staged a protest in the convention hall, seizing the Mississippi delegation's seats until the Democratic leadership called on security guards and police to eject them from the convention floor.

As SNCC activist Cleveland Sellers later wrote of the MFDP confrontation with the supposed ally of civil rights in Washington:

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

Organization of Afro-American Unity leader Malcolm X summed up the MFDP experience:

The frustration of these Black representatives from Mississippi when they arrived in Washington, know, that the Great Society was going to include them--only to see the door close in their face.

It takes power to make power respect you. It takes madness almost to deal with a power structure that is so corrupt--so corrupt! So 1965 should see a lot of action. Since the old methods haven't worked, they'll be forced to try new methods.

For SNCC and CORE, the MFDP experience--combined with the contradictions and problems of the nonviolence strategy for voting rights workers who daily faced death threats--signaled those organizations' break from their liberal origins as they increasingly looked to more radical Black nationalist politics.

Within a couple years, "Black Power" would replace "Freedom Now" as the slogan for a movement that was starting to demand much more than civil rights.

This article first appeared in the August 1987 issue of Socialist Worker.

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