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August 1964

MFDP Challenge at Democratic National Convention

A man on the boardwalk in Atlantic City with portraits of James Chaney and Andrew Goodman in the background, MFDP Records, WHS

Almost immediately after arriving in Atlantic City, the MFDP delegation set up a 24-hour vigil for James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner on the busy and popular boardwalk. With the city bustling with visiting politicians and media, MFDP delegates wanted to be sure that the three civil rights workers murdered in Neshoba County earlier that summer were not forgotten or ignored. The MFDP delegation knew that it had a tough fight ahead although they had been given verbal support from some of the Democratic Party leadership. They were challenging real power at the national level and the needs of Black Mississippians had never been much of a priority there.

Black Mississippians, with the help of summer volunteers and SNCC field secretaries, had spent the entire summer building the MFDP. Now, sixty-eight delegates from Mississippi–”black, white, maids, ministers, farmers, painters, mechanics, schoolteachers, the young, the old”–were in Atlantic City to take the next step.

Dressed in their “Sunday best,” they, along with COFO and SNCC workers pressed the validity of the challenge to delegates from other states. James Forman even spied SNCC’s “Ivanhoe Donaldson and Charlie Cobb, the blue jean twins of Mississippi … all dressed up in Ivy League outfits … lobbying with delegates from Northern states, and lobbying hard.” The MFDP delegation was optimistic. Democrats from New York, Oregon, and Michigan, as well as civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and CORE’s James Farmer, endorsed their bid for the seats.

However, the delegation had to convince the Credentials Committee, a jury of 108 party members, of the legality of the Convention Challenge. A number of witnesses testified that Black Mississippians were systematically excluded from the regular state Democratic Party. The last to take the stage was Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper who was evicted from her home for trying to register to vote and viciously beaten in the Winona Jail for her civil rights activities. “She had Mississippi in her bones,” remembered Bob Moses later. And, recalled Charles Sherrod, “no human being confronted with the truth of [her] testimony could remain indifferent to it.”

Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer on a television screen during her testimony, MFDP Records, WHS

Mrs. Hamer’s testimony was so powerful that President Lyndon Johnson called a press conference to push her off the air. Johnson’s nomination was certain, and he knew he had locked up the Black vote. But he feared a white Southern backlash if the MFDP was seated. Therefore, he used everything in his arsenal to derail the challenge and force MFDP supporters to back down.

Finally, after much arm-twisting from the Johnson administration, party leaders offered the MFDP delegation two at-large seats at the convention to be filled by Aaron Henry and Tougaloo College chaplain Edwin King. The party also pledged to eliminate racial discrimination in all future conventions. The delegation rejected this “compromise.” As MFDP vice chair Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “we didn’t come all this way for no two seats.”

For SNCC, the MFDP rejection was a turning point in the organization’s history. “Never again were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the “good” people of America could eliminate them,” recalled Cleveland Sellers. “After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation.”

Sources

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).

James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972).

Fannie Lou Hamer, “To Praise Our Bridges,” The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, And Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990, edited by Clayborne Carson et al. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 176-179.

Mary King, Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987).

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, 1990).

Charles Sherrod, “Mississippi at Atlantic City,” The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, And Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990, edited by Clayborne Carson et al. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 186-189.

Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony before the DNC Credentials Committee, August 22, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer Institute @ COFO, Jackson State University

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“A Primer for Delegates to the Democratic National Convention Who Haven’t Heard About the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party,” 1964, crmvet.org

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Letter from Ella Baker to delegates of the Democratic National Convention urging support for the MFDP challenge, July 20, 1964, crmvet.org


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The legal brief submitted to the Credentials Committee at the National Democratic Convention, August, 1964, crmvet.org

Position Paper on Reasons for the rejection of the compromise at Atlantic City, September, 1964, MFDP Records, WHS