Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) grew out of a Freedom Vote successfully carried out by civil rights organizations in the fall of 1963. The Vote, in which 80,000 Mississippi blacks participated in an alternative ballot to the November election, demonstrated that black citizens would participate in the political process if it were open to them, and that it was possible to organize large numbers of disenfranchised voters quickly. Civil rights leaders realized that such numbers represented a potent force that might be used to break open an entrenched political structure that had been locked tight against blacks since the days of Reconstruction.
The MFDP was formally inaugurated on April 26, 1964 and when MFDP candidates were ejected from precinct meetings of the regular Democratic Party, the new party established its own precinct, district and state-wide organization and began the process of building strength for a challenge to the regular Mississippi Democrats at the Party's national convention to be held in August in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Carefully following rules established by the Democratic Party, the MFDP held local caucuses, district meetings, and finally a state nominating convention at which 68 delegates (including four whites) were selected to represent the party in an attempt to unseat the regular Mississippi Democrats at Atlantic City. Meanwhile, civil rights advocates fanned out across the country to garner support for the challenge. By the time MFDP delegates began arriving in Atlantic City on August 21st nine state delegations and 25 congressmen had pledged to support them.
But President Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic establishment where not eager to back this new force for change. Johnson, who feared that a revolt of Southern Democrats might elect the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, marshaled all his political power to ensure a nominating convention free of controversy, and he personally assured Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson that the MFDP delegates would not be seated. Thus, the one and only issue of the convention focused on whether the Credentials Committee would certify and seat the MFDP delegates.
The Credentials Committee met on Saturday preceding the convention. Its rules stipulated that eleven members (10% of the committee) could issue a minority report subject to a vote on the convention floor, and eight delegations could force a role call vote on that report by the entire convention. These numbers gave Joseph Rauh, the MFDP attorney a certain amount of confidence as he orchestrated the delegation's testimony before the Credentials Committee on Saturday afternoon. Delegation Chairman Aaron Henry and Vice Chairman Ed King testified, as did Martin Luther King and Rita Schwerner, recently widowed wife of Mickey Schwerner, one of the three civil rights workers killed by the Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi. But it was Fannie Lou Hamer who brought down the house with her vivid description before television cameras of her beating in the Winona, Mississippi jail for attending a civil rights meeting.
Meanwhile, in Washington Lyndon Johnson although publicly professing indifference to the convention proceedings, was following every detail of the credentials hearing. As Mrs. Hamer launched into her testimony, Johnson sensing a public relations disaster for his cause called a hasty press conference that drew network television coverage away from her. Johnson had also arranged for 27 FBI agents plus informants and stenographers to tap phones and bug the rooms and headquarters of the MFDP and Martin Luther King. Throughout the convention agents fed him reports of the twists and turns of the seating challenge, and Johnson applied pressure to members of the Credentials Committee and to Hubert Humphrey, who was told he would not be named Vice Presidential candidate unless he stopped the challenge.
Unable to resolve the seating issue, the Credentials Committee appointed Walter Mondale, a Humphrey protegee, to head a small committee charged to come up with a solution. Mondale's compromise, presented to the Committee on Monday, called for a pledge of loyalty to Johnson by the regular Mississippi Democrats, the awarding of two seats as Members-at-Large to the MFDP delegation, and a commitment to bar any discriminatory delegation at the next Convention in 1968. It was rejected, not only by the MFDP, but also by the Mississippi Democrats, all but three of whom returned home in disgust. They had planned to support Goldwater anyway.
The impasse continued into Tuesday. The compromise favored by the MFDP called for seating all members of both delegations who would pledge loyalty to Johnson. But Johnson, who feared that the seating of any black delegates might precipitate a walkout by five to eight southern delegations, began to ratchet up the pressure. Walter Reuther, President of the United Auto Workers Union, left negotiations he was conducting on behalf of 550,000 autoworkers and flew to Atlanta. Humphrey scheduled a meeting in his hotel suite with the MFDP leadership, Martin Luther King, Reuther, and Bayard Rustin. Reuther threatened King with loss of UAW financial support if he did not support the compromise. Earlier he had informed Joseph Rauh that his job as UAW general counsel was on the line.
Meanwhile Rauh at a meeting of the Credentials Committee was under intense pressure to accept the Mondale compromise. As he stalled for time to consult with the MFDP delegation the room rang with shouts of "Vote, Vote, Vote!" The compromise was passed by acclimation amid shouts of "No!" from opposition members. Across the street, the negotiators in Humphrey's suite were interrupted by a pounding on the door. "It's over!" Mondale was on television announcing that the compromise had passed and implying that the MFDP had accepted it. Bob Moses exploded in anger. "You cheated," he shouted, whirling to accuse Humphry and Reuther of sham talks as a diversionary trick.
The MFDP delegates gathered for a tumultuous meeting at their headquarters in the basement of Union Temple Baptist Church. Rauh and others who had favored accepting the compromise were accused of treachery. Some delegates began to favor accepting the compromise, but Moses convinced the delegation to hold fast while they still had some time to round up votes for a minority report.
That evening as the Convention opened the Mississippi section was empty, but friendly supporters smuggled their passes out to MFDP delegates, about two dozen of whom managed to get into the convention hall and occupy the Mississippi seats. The Mondal compromise was accepted by acclamation, and Joseph Rauh with tears in his eyes returned to the podium the two rejected at-large seats awarded to the MFDP.
On Wednesday morning the MFDP delegation met once more at Union Temple Baptist to reconsider the compromise. A phalanx of speakers including Rauh, Senator Wayne Morse, Bayard Rustin and Aaron Henry urged acceptance of the compromise. Martin Luther King straddled the fence, but local Mississippi leaders, including Hamer, Victoria Grey and Annie Devine argued that the delegation would be letting down constituents back home in Mississippi by accepting. Fannie Lou Hamer summed it up: "We didn't come all this way for no two seats!" Once again the compromise was rejected.
For SNCC staff members and other civil rights workers, the Atlantic City Convention was final proof that their strategy of enlisting the American liberal establishment by forcing the issue in the South would not work. A period of profound disillusionment and reevaluation followed. Many concluded that they could not depend on white allies to achieve power ' they had to seize it for themselves. It is no exaggeration to say that the failed MFDP challenge sowed the seeds of the Black Power movement. As SNCC member Cleve Sellers put it: "After Atlantic City our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation. 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 our movement had turned into something else."
For local Mississippi blacks, the effect was somewhat different. They had successfully organized a party strong enough to take on the Democratic establishment at its own convention and they did not retreat back to lives of rural intimidation. When Congress reconvened the following January, the MFDP went to Washington to challenge the seating of Mississippi's all-white congressional delegation. One hundred and forty nine House members supported them. In Mississippi they organized schools, daycare centers, food banks and farming cooperatives. Fannie Lou Hamer summed it up, "There was no real civil rights movement in the Negro community before the 1964 Summer Project. There were people that wanted to change, but they hadn't dared to come out and try to do something. But after the 1964 Summer Project Negro people in the Delta began moving."