In June 1963, blacks attempted to cast votes in the Mississippi primary election but were prevented from doing so. Unable to vote in the official election, blacks organized an alternative "Freedom Ballot" to take place at the same time as the November voting. Seen as a protest action to dramatize denial of their voting rights, close to 80,000 blacks cast freedom ballots for an integrated slate of candidates.
With participation in the regular Mississippi Democratic Party blocked by segregationists, COFO built on the success of the Freedom Ballot by founding the MFDP in April 1964 as a non-exclusionary rival to the regular party organization. The MFDP hoped to replace the regulars as the officially-recognized Democratic Party organization in Mississippi by winning the Mississippi seats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention for a slate of delegates elected by disenfranchised black Mississippians and white sympathizers.
Building the MFDP was a major thrust of the Freedom Summer project. After it proved to be impossible to register black voters against the opposition of state officials, Freedom Summer volunteers switched to building the MFDP using a simple, alternate, process of signing up party supporters that did not require blacks to openly defy whites by trying to register at the courthouse.
In the face of unrelenting violence and economic retaliation, the MFDP held alternate local caucuses, county assemblies, and a state-wide meeting (as prescribed by Democratic Party rules) to elect delegates to the national Democratic Party Convention scheduled for Atlantic City, New Jersey in August.
The MFDP sent its elected delegates by bus to the convention. There they challenged the right of the Mississippi Democratic Party's delegation to participate in the convention, claiming that the regulars had been illegally elected in a completely segregated process that violated both party regulations and federal law, and that furthermore the regulars had no intention of supporting Lyndon B. Johnson, the party's presidential candidate, in the November election. They therefore asked that the MFDP delegates be seated rather than the segregationist regulars.
The Democratic Party referred the challenge to the Convention Credentials Committee. The MFDP delegates lobbied and argued their case, and large groups of supporters and volunteers established an around-the-clock picket line on the Boardwalk just outside the convention, which garnered considerable publicity.
The Credentials Committee televised its proceedings, which allowed the nation to see and hear the testimony of the MFDP delegates, particularly the testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer, whose evocative portrayal of her hard brutalized life as a sharecropper on the plantation owned by Jamie Whitten, a long time Mississippi congressman and chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, galvanized the nation.
After that, most knowledgeable observers thought the majority of the delegates were ready to unseat the regulars and seat the MFDP delegates in their place. But some of the all-white delegations from other southern states threatened to leave the convention and bolt the party (as they had done in previous years) if the regular Mississippi delegation was unseated, and Johnson feared losing Southern support in the coming campaign against Republican Party candidate Barry Goldwater. To ensure his victory in November, Johnson maneuvered to prevent the MFDP from replacing the regulars. After a frantic scramble, he ordered the chairman of the Credentials Committee not to decide the matter, and not to send the issue to the convention.
With the help of Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Party leader Walter Mondale, Johnson engineered a "compromise" in which the national Democratic Party offered the MFDP two at-large seats which allowed them to watch the floor proceedings but not take part. The MFDP refused this "compromise" which permitted the undemocratic, white-only, regulars to keep their seats and denied votes to the MFDP.
MFDP leader and Mississippi NAACP President Aaron Henry stated:
"Now, Lyndon made the typical white man's mistake: Not only did he say, 'You've got two votes,' which was too little, but he told us to whom the two votes would go. He'd give me one and Ed King one; that would satisfy. But, you see, he didn't realize that sixty-four of us came up from Mississippi on a Greyhound bus, eating cheese and crackers and bologna all the way there; we didn't have no money. Suffering the same way. We got to Atlantic City; we put up in a little hotel, three or four of us in a bed, four or five of us on the floor. You know, we suffered a common kind of experience, the whole thing. But now, what kind of fool am I, or what kind of fool would Ed have been, to accept gratuities for ourselves? You say, Ed and Aaron can get in but the other sixty-two can't. This is typical white man picking black folks' leaders, and that day is just gone."
Hamer put it even more succinctly:
"We didn't come all this way for no two seats, 'cause all of us is tired."
Even though they were denied official recognition, the MFDP kept up their agitation within the Convention. When all but three of the "regular" Mississippi delegates left because they refused to support Johnson against Goldwater, the MFDP delegates borrowed passes from sympathetic northern delegates and took the seats vacated by the Mississippi delegates, only to be removed by the national Party. When they returned the next day to find that convention organizers had removed the empty seats that had been there yesterday, the MFDP stayed to sing freedom songs.
The 1964 Democratic Party convention disillusioned many within the MFDP. For a while, it became more radical after Atlantic City. It invited Malcolm X, of the Nation of Islam, to speak, and opposed the war in Vietnam.
Many Civil Rights Movement activists felt betrayed by Johnson, Humphrey, and the liberal establishment. The movement had been promised that if they concentrated on voter registration rather than protests they would be supported by the Federal government and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Instead, at the decisive moment, black civil rights and justice itself had been sacrificed for the political interests of white politicians. As SNCC Chairman John Lewis later wrote:
As far as I'm concerned, this was the turning point of the civil rights movement. I'm absolutely convinced of that. Until then, despite every setback and disappointment and obstacle we had faced over the years, the belief still prevailed that the system would work, the system would listen, the system would respond. Now, for the first time, we had made our way to the very center of the system. We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep and found the door slammed in our face.
Though the MFDP failed to unseat the regulars at the convention, they did succeed in dramatizing the violence and injustice by which the white power structure governed Mississippi and disenfranchised black citizens. The MFDP and its convention challenge eventually helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The MFDP continued as an alternate for several years, and many of the people associated with it continued to press for civil rights in Mississippi. After passage of the Voting Rights Act, the number of registered black voters in Mississippi grew dramatically. The regular party stopped discriminating against blacks and agreed to conform to the Democratic Party rules guaranteeing fair participation. Eventually, the MFDP merged into the regular party and many MFDP activists became Party leaders. There is only one Chapter of FDP still active, and it is located in Holmes County, Mississippi.
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