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Fighting For the Soul of the Democratic Party

In a year when civil rights activists were being gunned down and African Americans risked their lives if they attempted to vote, sharecroppers, maids, and small business owners from the grassroots of Mississippi organized the Freedom Democratic Party and took on the power structure of the United States.

ON THE EVENING OF January 31, 1964, Louis Allen was murdered outside his home in Amite County, Mississippi. Three years earlier, the 45-year-old independent logger had seen state legislator E.H. Hurst gun down civil rights activist Herbert Lee in cold blood, and after that Allen's life became a nightmare. When he learned that whites planned to kill him, Allen made plans to join his brother up North on February 1—one day too late. Both the sheriff and the FBI investigated the murder, but no one was ever charged. During that winter, the Ku Klux Klan had been riding high in Mississippi, and Allen's fate was grim evidence of the Klan's revival.

All this took its toll on the civil rights activists in the Magnolia State working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and other organizations that were part of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). So long as klansmen and the police could attack black people with impunity, it would be impossible for activists to organize local communities. After Allen's murder, “We were just defenseless,” SNCC leader Bob Moses recalled. “There was no way of bringing national attention. And it seemed to me that we were just sitting ducks. People were just going to be wiped out.”

Previous efforts to persuade President John F. Kennedy to safeguard human rights in the Deep South had failed, and now Lyndon Johnson was pursuing the same hands-off strategy. Faced with a reign of terror at home and political indifference in Washington, COFO leaders made plans for a “Summer Project” in 1964, a massive program that would bring upwards of a thousand volunteers to Mississippi, most of them white college students, to work with local people to increase voter registration, open community centers, and start “freedom schools” for black children. They would also help build the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (FDP).

The Freedom Democratic Party was one of the most important and distinctive institutions to emerge from the civil rights movement. It challenged white supremacy in the most repressive state in the South, combining grassroots activism with a radical social agenda.

FDP had its origins in the fall of 1963, when COFO conducted a “Freedom Vote” to dramatize the exclusion of African Americans from the political process in Mississippi. More than 80,000 blacks voted for black NAACP state president Aaron Henry for governor and white Tougaloo College chaplain Ed King for lieutenant governor in this mock election. The election's success led to the creation of an independent, black-led, state Democratic Party that would challenge the legitimacy of the state's white supremacist delegation at the national convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the summer of 1964.

The party came of age during the most violent year of the movement. The year began with Louis Allen's killing. In June, at the outset of the Summer Project, three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, were murdered in Neshoba County. Before the summer had ended, there were at least three other murders; a thousand workers had been arrested and 80 beaten; there were 35 shooting incidents; 30 homes and other buildings were bombed; and 35 churches burned. What would normally be regarded as a non-threatening activity—joining a new political party—in Mississippi's racially tense atmosphere became an act of defiance.

The immediate goal of the Freedom Democratic Party was to enroll thousands of members in preparation for its challenge to the formal Democratic Party. At precinct and county meetings, inexperienced sharecroppers, maids, and day laborers quickly mastered the art of political discourse. Summer volunteer Sally Belfrage attended a District FDP convention, where she observed “people straight out of tarpaper shacks, many illiterate, some wearing a (borrowed) suit for the first time, disenfranchised for three generations, without a living memory of political power,” who “caught on with some extraordinary inner sense to how the process worked, down to its smallest nuance and finagle.”

The 1964 Democratic National Convention was a turning point in the civil rights movement. When they reached Atlantic City, the 68 members of the Freedom Democratic Party delegation fanned out over the convention floor, imploring delegates to seat the FDP rather than the racially exclusive Mississippi delegation. The high point came when Fannie Lou Hamer, the former sharecropper who was one of the founders and leaders of the FDP, testified before the credentials committee and a national television audience. After describing her brutal beating at the hands of police officers in the Mississippi Delta town of Winona, Mrs. Hamer concluded dramatically: “If the Freedom Party is not seated now, I question America.” This high drama did not go unnoticed in the White House. President Lyndon Johnson feared that if the FDP were seated, he would lose the South and the election. The president hurriedly called a press conference to get Mrs. Hamer off the air. The networks, however, played back her testimony in prime time that night, and telegrams flooded Atlantic City in support of FDP.

In response to the pressure raised by FDP and its supporters, Democratic Party leaders proposed a compromise in which FDP representatives Aaron Henry and Ed King would be given two seats at large on the convention floor, while the remaining FDP delegates would be “welcomed as honored guests of the convention.” The national party also promised to eliminate racial discrimination in state delegations in all future conventions.

FDP delegates and their supporters were furious, believing they had been sold out by northern liberals. After an FDP sit-in on the convention floor, national party leaders tried to bring the Freedom Democrats back on board. At an emotionally charged meeting the following day, a parade of speakers, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin, attempted to sell the compromise—now official party policy—to the delegates, but to no avail. In the end it was Fannie Lou Hamer who stated the case for rejection simply yet powerfully: “We didn't come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we'd gotten here. We didn't come all this way for no two seats, 'cause of all us is tired.”

“With Atlantic City, a lot of movement people became disillusioned,” Bob Moses recalled. “You turned around and your support was puddle deep.”

The idea of an independent state black political party did not sit well with many northern liberals. After spending a few days in Mississippi in November 1964, Curtis Gans, then a staff member for Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), concluded that FDP was “harmful to the freedom and representation the Negroes seek.” The ADA, he concluded, should use its influence to “assist in a quick freeze of funds on those projects that have a Freedom Democratic Party orientation.” Gans 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 [Party].”

Nonetheless, after the 1964 convention FDP activists intensified their efforts to be recognized as the state's official Democratic party. More militant than the national party, FDP invited Malcolm X to speak at its convention, came out against the war in Vietnam long before Martin Luther King, Jr. publicly opposed it, and pushed the Johnson administration to expand the War on Poverty at a time when poor people were once again becoming unfashionable.

In 1965 the FDP challenged the seating of the Mississippi delegation to the House of Representatives, claiming that because blacks had been excluded from the polls, the election of the white segregationists was unconstitutional. Although it lost the challenge, FDP's aggressive lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill played an important role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Ignored by party leaders in Washington after 1965, FDP continued its work on the grassroots level, fielding candidates for state and local offices, and, in the fall of 1967, electing a Holmes County school teacher, Robert Clark, to be the first African American in the 20th century to sit in the Mississippi Legislature. But by then FDP was broke, and the civil rights movement itself was in decline. Out of necessity, in 1968 the Freedom Democrats joined with the “Loyalists,” a group of white moderates and their like-minded black allies, to mount another challenge against the white supremacist state delegation at the national Democratic convention in Chicago. That this Loyalist delegation was seated in a sense vindicated FDP. But a new breed of middle-class black and white moderates had captured the movement banner, and after the convention FDP continued to function only in isolated areas.

If the Freedom Democrats and their allies did not achieve all their goals during the movement years, they did bring about extraordinary changes in a state that had been locked up in the caste system. They transformed Mississippi, opening up the political process to African Americans. Today, there are nearly 850 black elected officials in Mississippi, more than in any other state. An FDP veteran, Bennie Thompson, sits in Congress representing the Mississippi Delta. Bob Moses has observed that the grassroots insurgency led by maids and share-croppers and small farmers and business owners “brought Mississippi, for better or worse, up to the level of the rest of the country.” That was no small achievement. It also reminds us of the distance still to be traveled.


John Dittmer teaches history at DePauw University. His book, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, won the Bancroft Prize and the Lillian Smith Book Award.

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