Freedom Democrats’ moment turns 45

JACKSON – When the Democratic National Convention meets in Denver Aug. 25, the occasion will mark 45 years since the ragtag Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party burst onto the national stage and virtually disrupted the party’s 1964 national convention in Atlantic City.

To mark the short-lived, but amazing, impact of the MFDP on national politics, the Overby Center for Southern Politics and Journalism at Ole Miss has slated a symposium on Sept. 24 that includes several participants closely connected to the events of 1964.

But first, back to MFDP at the 1964 Democratic National Convention: Made up of black sharecroppers, maids, mechanics, school teachers and civil rights activists, plus a few whites, the freedom delegation arrived in Atlantic City at a time Mississippi was already in the national spotlight over the slaying of three civil rights workers that summer in Neshoba County.

Already promised support from several northeast delegations, the MFDP challenged seating the all-white delegation of the state’s Regular Democratic Party, for barring blacks from participating in the party process.

With network TV cameras rolling, former Ruleville sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer, the stubby, symbolic figure of the civil rights movement, described in wrenching testimony before the convention’s credentials committee how she was evicted from the plantation, later arrested, and beaten over voting rights. The dramatic Saturday afternoon TV broadcast of Hamer’s testimony not only stirred instant national sympathy for the MFDP cause, but sent LBJ into panic mode that his expected neat coronation could be derailed by the upstart Mississippi challenge.

He called a hasty press conference to get the networks to break away from Hamer’s testimony, (But they aired the full tape later in the evening.) The lengths to which Johnson went to thwart the MFDP challenge in following days is part of bizarre political history: He twisted arms to change credentials committee members and any other delegates leaning toward seating the MFDP delegation, even wire-tapping, then brought in the FBI (and later Secret Service) to keep the Mississippians from setting off a stampede.

(Please note: I was there at the Atlantic City convention, covering both Mississippi delegations from start to finish for The New Orleans Times-Picayune.)

When the credentials committee brought out a compromise to seat two at large MFDP delegates and any regulars who signed a loyalty oath, both delegations rejected the deal. The regulars were ordered home by Gov. Paul Johnson, but four decided to stay. An irate Bob Moses, the civil rights leader who was the architect behind the challenge, threatened to lead an invasion of the Mississippi seating area on the convention floor. That sent Lyndon Johnson and his Democratic Party brass into more desperate tactics.

The mostly unoccupied Mississippi seats on the floor were cordoned off by FBI and Secret Service agents (that was the first time I ever saw tiny rosebud-looking microphones in the lapel buttonholes of the SS agents) to repel any MFDP intruders, who never came.

While the freedom challengers may have failed in 1964 to unseat Mississippi’s regular Democrats, they succeeded in another major respect: The rules of the National Democratic Party were changed to warn all Southern Democrats that no delegation thereafter would be seated without containing blacks, removing all party racial barriers.

Not surprisingly, Mississippi that November voted overwhelmingly for Goldwater, giving Lyndon Johnson only 12.8 percent of the vote, though he swept the rest of the country.

Participating in the panel for the Sept. 24 Freedom Democratic Party symposium at Ole Miss’s Overby Center – co-sponsored by the William Winter Institute for Racial reconciliation – will be Lawrence Guyot, now of Washington, DC, who had been chairman of the FDP (but in jail at Hattiesburg for a protest arrest at the time of the Atlantic City convention), Rita Schwerner Bender, (wife of slain civil rights worker Mickey Schwerner) and John Dittmer, the former Tougaloo College historian who authored the definitive “Local People” history of the 1960’s movement.

It’s notable that the symposium will be held two days before the first 2008 presidential debate will take place on the Ole Miss campus. Think of this: 45 years after black Democrats from Mississippi battled unsuccessfully to sit in the party’s national convention, the Democratic Party will make Barack Obama, an African-American, its presidential nominee.

Anybody say “change?”

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through edinman@earthlink.net.