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International Socialist Review Issue 38, November–December 2004

Civil Rights Betrayed:
How the Democratic Party Shut Out the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party


THIS YEAR marks the fortieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, and of the campaign waged by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to win voting rights for Blacks in Mississippi–the most violent, enduring stronghold of segregation in the American South. The history of the civil rights movement’s struggle to defeat the "Mississippi monolith" should be remembered for the tremendous courage and sacrifice of its participants, some of whom sacrificed their lives. It is also a history that contains valuable lessons for a new generation of activists determined to fight racism and the system that thrives on it–including, crucially, a lesson about the treacherous role of the Democratic Party.

Understanding the Black freedom struggle in Mississippi can also deepen our understanding of how such movements politically advance. Taken together, the experience of Freedom Summer and the MFDP represent one of the pivotal moments in the fight for Black liberation in the 1960s. After this experience, to paraphrase a leading MFDP activist, Cleveland Sellers, Black activists began to move from civil rights to Black liberation.1

Both Freedom Summer and the MFDP were initiated by Black activists working in a Mississippi-based coalition of civil rights groups called Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an organization that was originally formed in 1961 to free the jailed Freedom Riders. Most of the activists belonged to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which grew and radicalized over the course of the early 1960s to become the most militant vehicle for civil rights organizing in the South. These young activists worked in close collaboration with local Black residents who had many years of experience between them organizing against the Jim Crow establishment and the racist terror of the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils.

The backdrop to the new initiatives of SNCC and others in Mississippi was a rolling tide of civil rights struggle flooding through the Upper South, uprooting the foundations of Jim Crow in many states. Civil rights activists had long understood that, in Martin Luther King’s words, "There could be no possibility of life-transforming change anywhere so long as the vast and solid influence of Southern segregation remained unchallenged and unhurt."2 With King leading injunction-defying protests of thousands of Blacks in Birmingham, Alabama, in June of 1963, the civil rights movement posed the greatest challenge yet to the South’s apartheid social order. The violent response of local authorities, broadcast on national news, shocked the nation and swung public opinion more strongly behind the movement. More importantly, the defiance of Birmingham’s Black residents, including children, gave confidence to millions of Blacks across the country that racism could be confronted and beaten. Victory in Birmingham touched off hundreds of demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts; the Justice Department reported 14,000 arrests across the South in the summer of 1963 alone.3

The central strategy of the civil rights movement at this time, formulated most clearly by King, was to disrupt the Jim Crow social order from within, by means of non-violent civil disobedience, in order to compel change from without, through the intervention of the federal government. Essentially, the movement’s strategy was to provoke the segregationists into a double-bind: they could either capitulate to the demands of the movement, or react with repression, which publicly dramatized, in King’s words, "the essential meaning of the conflict and in magnified strokes made clear who was the evildoer and who was the undeserving victim."4 With the meaning of the conflict exposed before a sympathetic public, the federal government would be forced to intervene against the state and local authorities.

It is a myth that Blacks never acted in self-defense, never fought back with force against the brutality of the segregationists. This myth is often invoked by commentators, liberal and conservative alike, who hold a sentimental, schematic view of the civil rights movement whereby the principle of nonviolence and partnership with the Democratic Party in the early 1960s are tragically forsaken for Black Power, urban riots, and revolutionary politics later on. In fact, local Blacks in Mississippi and elsewhere had kept arms in self-defense for many years. And the first Black urban rebellion of the 1960s took place in Birmingham itself, sparked by the bombing of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) headquarters by Klan terrorists. Indeed, as the movement gained strength, but faced persistent opposition from the white power structure, tension emerged between the strategy of nonviolence and a new generation of young, radicalized poor and working-class Blacks who were not content to turn the other cheek in the face of racist violence, or wait for change to come through federal mandates.5

Nonetheless, the strategy of mass, nonviolent civil disobedience formulated by King did produce stunning results. The number of desegregated restaurants, motels, cinemas, and other public places grew enormously in the months after Birmingham. Business elites in many towns and cities across the South wished to avoid the disorder and negative media attention created by confrontations with the movement. So they closed ranks against the hard-core segregationists and supported reform.

In the monolith of the Deep South, however, activists were faced with a political order determined to entrench and defend itself through the most violent means. Since 1961, activists had focused on voter registration as an avenue for breaking through the segregation system. But by 1964, Mississippi still had the worst rate of Black voting in the country, with only 6.7 percent of eligible Blacks registered–a lower rate than in 1896. This rate was maintained by racist laws that disqualified most Blacks from registering, and a reign of violence and terror that discouraged many from trying.

When racist laws weren’t enough to keep Blacks from voting, violence and retaliation were used. Names of those who tried to register would be printed in local newspapers for the next two weeks so that racists would know which Blacks to target. Those who tried to register were frequently fired from their jobs, beaten, arrested on trumped-up charges, or even murdered. The vigilante killing of a Black logger named Louis Allen in 1964 compelled leading SNCC activist Bob Moses to decide that outside assistance from whites was necessary to force the federal government to intervene in Mississippi: "We were just defenseless; there was no way of bringing national attention. And it seemed to me like we were just sitting ducks."6 Other SNCC activists opposed Moses’ plan, pointing to the effective self-defense of local residents. But Moses’ strategy won broad support, and Freedom Summer was soon launched.

Freedom Summer and the MFDP

Throughout the early 1960s, activists had requested help from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations–but were refused. So in 1964, SNCC determined to expose Mississippi’s brutal racism on a national stage by recruiting a thousand Northern white college students from elite schools to come to Mississippi, launch an ambitious voter registration drive, and organize Freedom Schools to teach reading, math, and political organizing skills to local Blacks. This was known as Freedom Summer.

Alongside voter registration for regular elections, Freedom Summer also launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)–a parallel party modeled on the Democrats, but open to Blacks. The Mississippi Democratic Party organizations

were all white, as was the official delegation sent to [the Democratic National Convention in] Atlantic City. At their statewide meeting the white Democrats passed a series of resolutions denouncing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, urging the United States to get out of the United Nations, demanding a purge of the U.S. Supreme Court, and calling for "separation of the races in all phases of our society."7

The Chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party boasted that the Mississippi convention "could seat a dozen dead dodos brought [to the Democratic National Convention] in silver caskets and nobody could do anything about it."8

The MFDP plan was to elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City–and then try to have them seated at the convention as the delegation from Mississippi. As SNCC organizer Cleveland Sellers asserted, "We were thinking far beyond Atlantic City. If our venture was successful, we intended to utilize similar tactics in other Southern states…the way would have been clear for a wide-ranging redistribution of wealth, power and priorities throughout the nation."9

Freedom Summer proved to be the most violent summer of the civil rights movement, as local law enforcement, White Citizens Councils, and the Ku Klux Klan launched a wave of terror against activists and local Blacks. By the end of the summer there had been "1,000 arrests, 35 shooting incidents, 30 homes and other buildings bombed, 35 churches burned, 80 beatings, and at least six persons murdered."10

The tenor of the summer was set when, shortly after the summer volunteers started arriving, three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, were brutally murdered. The murders attracted national media attention and an FBI investigation because Schwerner and Goodman were white.

This double standard was put into sharp relief when the FBI’s investigation uncovered the bodies of Black civil rights workers who had been murdered earlier in the summer. As soon as they were shown not to be Chaney, Goodman, or Schwerner, they were completely ignored.11 As Freedom Summer organizer Dave Dennis put it, "It was almost a daily thing. A body was found here. Two bodies were found floating in a river…. They were finding people, black people, floating in rivers and every place else, and nothing was being done about it."12

But even the Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman murders did not produce federal protection for civil rights activists or enforcement of voting laws in Mississippi.

In the face of this terror and violence, SNCC went ahead with building the MFDP. Despite initial difficulties, it was very successful: by the end of the summer, 63,000 Blacks voted in primaries; in contrast, only 1,600 Blacks had been able to register in the regular Democratic primary in Mississippi.

And the MFDP got thousands of local Blacks not only to vote in its elections, but to actively participate. Some of the delegates were established movement leaders; others were new to politics but were trusted in their communities. One summer volunteer described the delegates: "The delegates were teachers, housewives, packinghouse workers, a toy factory worker, in short a genuine cross-section of the community…. It was tremendously interesting to watch and indicative, I think, of the innate political nature of all men."13 He should have said "men and women"–many of the delegates were Black women.

Showdown in Atlantic City

Ultimately, the MFDP elected sixty-eight delegates and they, along with civil rights leaders from across the South, traveled to Atlantic City for the Democratic National Convention and demanded to be seated as the delegation from Mississippi.

The MFDP delegates argued that they, not the state’s official Democratic delegates, were the legitimate delegation because they had run the only primaries open to all citizens, regardless of race. Furthermore, they pledged total loyalty to the Democratic Party, and to its sitting president and candidate for reelection, Lyndon B. Johnson, in contrast to the regular Mississippi party delegates, who supported Johnson’s segregationist Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater. In fact, the Mississippi Democratic Party "recessed" rather than adjourning before the Atlantic City convention in order to reconvene after the convention and declare their support for Goldwater.

In a very dramatic scene, the MFDP delegates made their case for being seated at the convention to the credentials committee in a room packed with television crews. The highlight was the emotional testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer, who recounted her own experience trying to vote in Mississippi. She had been an illiterate sharecropper who was taught to read by the movement in Mississippi, which she quickly took a role in leading. When she tried to register to vote, she and her husband were fired from their plantation jobs. She had been jailed, beaten until she was nearly dead–but first, they beat the woman in the cell next to hers until she was unconscious, so she would know what she was going to face.

Johnson was horrified at having all of this recounted on national television, so in the middle of her testimony, he hastily called a press conference, and the news organizations dutifully shifted focus. But the networks replayed the testimony all night, and millions of Americans heard Fannie Lou Hamer’s famous declaration,

If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?14

Soon the convention was besieged with telegrams from all over the country urging support for the MFDP.

But Johnson was determined not to seat them–a pledge he had made to Mississippi’s governor before the convention even began. Johnson’s dilemma was that he needed the support of liberals and Blacks in the North, but he also counted on the party’s segregationist Dixiecrat wing to deliver votes in the South. The MFDP’s challenge threatened this alliance. As Texas Governor John Connally told him, "If you seat those Black buggers, the whole South will walk out."15 Johnson and the Democratic Party could not let that happen.

What about the possibility of alienating potential liberal and Black voters? Johnson felt that he could take their votes for granted. As historian Harvard Sitkoff explains:

Where else could they go? Certainly not to the GOP, which had nominated Barry Goldwater in a blatant turn to the far right. Johnson believed he had the Blacks and "conscience liberals" securely in his corner. It made sense now to solidify his support among Southern white… Democrats.16

In addition, many Democratic politicians were deeply anxious about the trajectory of a civil rights movement radicalizing with an intensity they might not be able to contain. As the New York Times reported ominously 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."17

Under Johnson’s instructions, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a team of twenty-seven agents on a secret mission in Atlantic City to make sure nothing "to embarrass the President" occurred at the convention.18

Johnson charged the liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey with the task of preventing the MFDP delegates from being seated at all costs. Humphrey did such a good job that Johnson ultimately rewarded him with the vice-presidency.

Johnson’s strategy was to offer the Freedom Party a "compromise." Instead of their sixty-eight delegates being seated as Mississippi’s delegation, two MFDP delegates would be seated at-large, while the entire segregationist delegation from Mississippi’s regular party would be seated. The MFDP would not even get to choose their own two delegates; they would be chosen by the national party leadership.

This rotten deal was so far from what the MFDP came to Atlantic City asking for that the Johnson administration realized a serious effort would be needed to enforce it.

The Democratic Party leaders’ first task was to ensure that no liberal delegates from other states would try to float a better deal that the MFDP might hold out for. This was accomplished with the aid of a Black congressman, who gained the MFDP activists’ trust in order to procure their list of supportive delegates, claiming he would use it to build support among others. Instead, every delegate on the list got a phone call urging them to forget about any alternative to the Johnson deal. A number of delegates were threatened with losing their jobs and bank loans if they did not fall in line.

Having thus ensured that Johnson’s "two-seat" compromise was the only deal on the table, Humphrey recruited union leader Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), to pressure key MFDP allies in the civil rights movement to back it. Together Humphrey and Reuther acted as a kind of "good cop, bad cop" team in this endeavor. Humphrey emphasized his support for the general goals of the MFDP while raising the specter of a Goldwater victory in the election to argue that movement leaders had to completely unite behind Johnson–by abandoning any hope of displacing the pro-segregation Mississippi delegates. Meanwhile Reuther, behind the scenes, threatened the same MFDP supporters with political retaliation if they opposed Johnson’s deal. Reuther told the MFDP’s attorney, Joseph Rauh, who was also a lawyer for the UAW, that he would be out of a job if he didn’t back the compromise. Rauh fell in line. Reuther also warned Martin Luther King: "Your funding is on the line.… The kind of money you got from us in Birmingham is there again for Mississippi, but you’ve got to help us and we’ve got to help Johnson."19 King also wound up supporting the compromise.

The support of pro-civil rights liberals for Johnson’s compromise crystallized a growing tension within the movement. The liberals, in effect, sought to secure unity with the Democrat Party at any cost, to the point of endorsing a compromise that preserved the status of segregationists within it.

The wider political logic of this view was formulated by another supporter of the Johnson compromise, veteran civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin. In an influential essay written in 1964 titled, "From Protest to Politics," Rustin argued that the future of the civil rights movement’s success depended upon its capacity to build what he called a "coalition of progressive forces" that would, through "ineluctable gradualism," amass influence within and through the Democratic Party. To keep this "coalition" together on the gradualist road, Rustin insisted, the movement would be forced to accept compromises like that offered to the MFDP by Johnson. To scorn such compromise, as did Black nationalists such as Malcolm X, was to reveal one’s "impotence" and "no-win" tendencies. Rustin’s piece was specifically directed against activists who threatened to rupture the liberal "coalition."20

But as Julius Jacobson would comment two years later about Rustin’s coalition:

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 Budget visionaries or permit the Party to be torn apart, with its consequent loss of political power, prestige, patronage, etc.21

Or as Charles Sherrod, an MFDP delegate, put the matter succinctly, "It would have been a lie to accept that particular compromise. It would have said to Blacks across the nation and the world that we share the power, and that is a lie!"22

Despite the best efforts of Democratic leaders and liberal supporters of the compromise, including hours of contentious debate with MFDP supporters, MFDP delegates overwhelmingly rejected it as a "back of the bus" deal.23 This was accompanied by a deep sense of disillusionment with the national party and its operatives. As Fannie Lou Hamer put it, with "all that we had been hearing about…Hubert Humphrey and his stand for civil rights, I was delighted to even have a chance to talk with the man." But when Humphrey urged the MFDP not to press for being seated because it would hurt his chances of getting the vice-presidential nod, Hamer stood up and said, "Well, Mr. Humphrey, do you mean to tell me that your position is more important to you than four hundred thousand Black people’s lives?" 24 She left that meeting in tears.

Experiences like that made activists unwilling to drop their demands in the name of unity. After hours of very heated argument, the MFDP voted to reject the compromise. Instead, they turned to direct action, occupying seats inside the convention hall until Johnson had them forcibly removed. They then organized a mass rally outside.

A movement turning point

After the convention, the civil rights movement was divided over the results. The forces that had supported the compromise moved immediately to regain control of the movement from the grassroots activism of SNCC. As one NAACP organizer put it, arguing against a proposal to have strategy meetings held in Mississippi rather than in New York, "We need a top-level meeting. I have been listening to the crying of people from Mississippi for seventeen years.… We need high-level meetings so we can cut away the underbrush."25

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. In November 1964, an internal report of the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action (ADA)–whose board included Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther, and the MFDP’s now-former lawyer, Joseph Rauh–recommended that the ADA push hard for 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." But at the same time, the ADA should "assist in a quiet freeze of funds on these projects which have a Freedom Democratic Party orientation."26

The threat of a challenge to the Democrats–alongside a powerful national movement struggling for federal legislation–helped ensure passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the most important civil rights legislation, and something Democrats still try to claim credit for today.

But for the section of the movement that had rejected the Atlantic City compromise, the way forward was much less clear. Activists were angered by the betrayal of the MFDP by the Democratic Party liberals, combined with the slow pace of civil rights in the face of the federal government’s unwillingness to intervene decisively to enforce them. But they were not sure what should replace the old strategies. Coming on the heels of the extreme violence of the summer, and the persistence of Black voter disenfranchisement in spite of the laws abolishing Jim Crow, many activists were suddenly not even sure it had been worth it. In frustration, some left the movement altogether, including some of the people who had played the largest roles in organizing Freedom Summer.

But the core of activists that stayed on ultimately did so on a far stronger political footing. As SNCC’s 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.27

Harvard Sitkoff sums up the significance of the MFDP experience for the civil rights movement. Atlantic City

completed SNCC’s alienation from the mainstream of the movement and its estrangement from the federal government and the Democratic Party…. The treatment of the Freedom Democrats snapped the frayed ties that bound SNCC to liberal values, to integration and nonviolence, and to seeking solutions through the political process. The time had come for SNCC to formulate new goals and methods. To its battered and bloody field troops, the American dilemma had become irreconcilable and the American dream a nightmare. "Things could never be the same again," SNCC’s Cleveland Sellers wrote later. "Never again were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the ‘good’ people of American could eliminate them. After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation."28

For many civil rights activists in Mississippi, this solidified an idea they had been moving toward since their failure to be seated at Atlantic City–that Blacks could not rely on liberal allies within the white political structure to win their rights, but would have to win them for themselves.

Aaron Hess and Elizabeth Wrigley-Field are members of the International Socialist Organization in New York City.

1 John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 302.

2 Quoted in Jack M. Bloom, Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 18.

3 Ibid., 177.

4 Ibid., 176.

5 For a discussion of Black armed self-defense in the South during the civil rights struggle, see the following books: Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981), 122—23, 164. Carson shows that many Black farmers had guns to defend themselves against the Klan, and that even SNCC activists who were avowedly nonviolent found it necessary to arm themselves in Mississippi. Howell Raines, ed., My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 416—23. Charles Sims, a member of the armed self-defense group the Deacons of Defense, talks about the group’s activities defending civil rights organizers throughout the South in the 1960s.

6 Dittmer, 219.

7 Ibid, 273.

8 Quoted in Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963—65 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 458.

9 Peter B. Levy, The New Left and Labor in the 1960s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 29.

10 Bloom, 181.

11 Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 103.

12 Dennis quoted in Bloom, 181.

13 Dittmer, 280.

14 Quoted in Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954—1965 (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1987), 241.

15 Dittmer, 290.

16 Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 182.

17 Anthony Lewis, New York Times, August 25, 1964. Available in Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party vertical file in Tamiment Library, New York University.

18 Quoted in Branch, 461.

19 Quoted in Levy, 39—40.

20 Bayard Rustin, "From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement," Commentary 39 (February 1965).

21 Julius Jacobson, "From Protest to Politicking," New Politics V, No. 4 (Fall 1996), 49.

22 Charles M. Sherrod, "Mississippi at Atlantic City," in Clayborne Carson et al, eds., The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 189.

23 Sitkoff, 184.

24 Quoted in Dittmer, 294.

25 Ibid., 317.

26 Ibid., 317—18.

27 James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (New York: MacMillan, 1972), 395—96.

28 Sitkoff, 185.

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