Building the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
Many expressed skepticism and uncertainty when the idea of forming a political party that would challenge the legitimacy of Mississippi’s “regular” Democratic Party was first put on the table. As SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael remembered, “folks thought that he [Bob Moses] was nuts. Or just fantasizing.”
But the idea fit within SNCC’s growing interest in developing “parallel structures” to those excluding or discriminating against Blacks. And, in April 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or MFDP, was formed.
The MFDP intended to persuade the national Democratic Party to accept this new party at its national convention scheduled for Atlantic City, New Jersey in four months –not much time to follow the guidelines required by the regular party, guidelines which the Mississippi regulars never followed themselves.
First, the MFDP had to prove that Black Mississippians were systematically excluded from the state’s regular party. This was a daunting prospect. The state’s Democratic Party was the political vanguard of white supremacy in Mississippi, where it was the party of “the local plantation owners and other businessmen and all local blacks’ employers, of Klansmen, White Citizen’s Council members, registrars, [and] sheriffs”–all of the white power brokers of the state. Beyond that, it was politically powerful in the corridors of Washington.
But over the summer of 1964, Black people tried to attend some of the 1,884 precinct meetings held in the state. Victoria Gray, a leader of the Hattiesburg Movement, recalled that “white officials played all kinds of games. They would say the precinct meeting was going to be in one place at a certain time. We’d get there and there would be nobody there. Or we’d get there and the meeting would be over. Or we’d get there and they just wouldn’t let us in.”
Given the exclusion from “official” party meetings, Black people organized their own, “parallel and public,” meetings at the precinct, district, and county levels. Volunteers brought to Mississippi for a summer project or COFO’s “Freedom Summer,” along with local activists and SNCC workers slowly built the party. Local MFDP chapters began hosting small workshop sessions and informational meetings, where local people discussed the concept of a parallel party and the importance of the Convention Challenge. “Our meetings were conducted so that sharecroppers, farmers, and ordinary working people could participate,” pointed out SNCC’s Bob Moses.
These workshop sessions grew into precinct meetings. One summer volunteer described the scene of a meeting in Vicksburg: “fear reigned at first–but soon people were excited about the prospects of the party … Hundreds of people risked their lives and jobs to come. Representatives were elected … Resolutions were introduced, minutes were kept.” It was an exciting time of grassroots democracy. Victoria Gray Adams remembered, “we were doing our politicking; we were making our speeches … It was the most exciting thing to think that we were going to the Democratic National Convention to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation.”
The precinct meetings were followed by conventions at the county and district level. According to a volunteer, these larger assemblies were dominated by “serious discussion of problems faced by the community, the county.” Delegates elected representatives for the statewide convention and drafted resolutions for the MFDP’s official platform. “It was just amazing seeing these people, many, or rather most, of whom never had any experience at all in politics running the meetings, electing the people and passing resolutions for the state platform,” exclaimed a volunteer stationed at Moss Point.
This radically democratic form of politics generated hope and excitement, ultimately reaching a crescendo as over thousand Black Mississippians descended on the city of Jackson for the statewide convention.
Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (New York: Scribner, 2003).
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Mary King, Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987).
Elizabeth Martinez, ed., Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers and Poetry of the 1964 Freedom Summer (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2007).
Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1995).
Cleveland Sellers with Robert Terrell, The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1973).