Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

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Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party


The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a predominantly African-American party that existed from 1964 through the early 1970s, was one of America's most significant third political parties. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) did not establish the MFDP to permanently replace the regular Mississippi Democratic Party. On the contrary, SNCC intended the MFDP to be an alternative that would allow black and white Mississippians to be in a party that shared the same views as the national organization.

The MFDP contested the right of the regular Mississippi Democratic Party to represent the state's black voting-age population at the 1964 and 1968 conventions of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). They did this because the state Democratic Party and state election officials had deprived most blacks of the opportunity to take part in state politics, and because the regular Mississippi Democratic Party opposed the civil rights positions of the national party. At the state Democratic Convention of July 1964, delegates passed a resolution calling for the immediate repeal of the recently passed Civil Rights Act of 1964. Furthermore, the party repudiated the Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, urging white citizens of the state to vote for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater. The MFDP supported the national Democratic Party's positions and nominee.

Initially, black Mississippians organized the MFDP in part to take the place of the regular state party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention if the state party walked out over the issue of civil rights. But, in addition to being a party waiting in the wings, the MFDP registered black voters by the tens of thousands. Thus, it succeeded in empowering blacks in Mississippi politics for the first time since the end of the nineteenth century, despite white harassment. It emphasized political education to help black Mississippians learn about the political process, so as to make informed choices once they exercised their right of franchise in earnest.

The idea for the formation of the MFDP developed shortly after the end of SNCC's "Freedom Vote" campaign to protest the 1963 Mississippi gubernatorial election. Responding to the success of that campaign, Robert Moses of SNCC proposed that blacks participate in mock state elections to vote for "Freedom candidates." To create national attention, the Freedom Summer campaign used white northern college students to help SNCC conduct a mock protest vote by registering thousands of blacks to express their outrage with the wholesale disfranchisement of blacks in Mississippi. Realizing the futility of registering thousands of blacks without challenging the discriminatory practices of the state Democratic Party, in April 1964 SNCC founded the MFDP to run candidates in Mississippi and to contest the loyalty of the Mississippi Democrats to the national party. SNCC took these measures to expose the fact that few blacks could take part in precinct meetings of the regular state party. In the few cases where party officials permitted blacks access to meetings, they denied blacks the right to speak or vote. After experiencing similar treatment at county conventions and the state convention, MFDP members conducted their own precinct meetings and held their own state convention in June 1964 to select delegates to the DNC Convention in Atlantic City who would support the national ticket.

Members of the MFDP went to Atlantic City believing that their planned contest of the seats assigned to the state party had a reasonable chance of success. In reality, the MFDP leadership received an education on how politics at the national level operated. While a number of MFDP delegates sincerely believed that moral persuasion would lead the DNC to refuse the regular state party the state's allotment of seats, President Johnson had his own agenda. Johnson, running without opposition for the nomination for president, wanted a smooth convention. He feared a southern walkout if the DNC seated the MFDP. Johnson ordered the FBI to wiretap the MFDP office, as well as the hotel rooms of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin. Johnson knew the positions of civil rights groups and key leaders throughout the convention. He also threatened the patronage of those who might have been inclined to support the MFDP. In addition, he coerced Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers union, to threaten to cut off financial support to SNCC and the MFDP in Mississippi if the challenge was not withdrawn.

This threat did not alter the determination of the protestors. Before a televised hearing of the Credentials Committee, the deeply affecting testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer led Johnson to stage a news conference in an effort to stop public opinion from mounting to the point that he had to give seats to the MFDP. Johnson forced Hubert Humphrey to try to convince the challengers not to go forward. This was a test of Humphrey's personal loyalty, and Johnson told him the vice presidential position on the ticket depended on how he handled the controversy. Humphrey offered the MFDP two seats representing the state of Mississippi, and the rest of the MFDP delegation were to be "honored guests" at the convention. The MFDP refused this offer, demanding at least the seats proportionate to the state's blacks of voting age. Unwilling to compromise, the challengers got no seats, but they did manage to obtain the credentials of sympathetic delegates from states that disapproved of the regular Mississippi delegation. Several members of the MFDP staged a sit-in demonstration on the convention floor, but security guards quickly removed the protestors.

MFDP members left the convention embittered by their experience. Feeling betrayed by the actions of northern liberals and civil rights moderates such as King and Rustin who had supported the compromise option proposed by Humphrey, the MFDP and SNCC became more militant after the convention. The DNC did unseat the regular Mississippi Democrats in 1968 (as promised at the 1964 convention) when the state party persisted in denying access to blacks. As a consequence of this action, the Mississippi Democratic Party ended the discriminatory practices and customs it had used to exclude blacks from meaningful participation in party affairs.

See also Freedom Summer; Hamer, Fannie Lou (Townsend, Fannie Lou); Moses, Robert Parris; Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

Bibliography

Andrews, Kenneth T. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Erenrich, Susan. Freedom is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. Montgomery, Ala.: Black Belt Press, 1999.

McLemore, Leslie B. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: A Case Study of Grass Roots Politics. Ph.D. diss., University of Massachusetts, 1971.

Payne, Charles M. I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

michael a. cooke (1996)
Updated bibliography