April 1964

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) founded

On August 28, 1963, over 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington. When it was SNCC’s turn to address the crowd, chairman John Lewis took to the podium and asked “Where is our party?” “The party of Lincoln is the party Goldwater,” he declared, “The party of Kennedy is the party of Eastland.” Where was a political party dedicated to civil and political rights of Black Southerners? According to SNCC’s Mississippi project director Bob Moses, this line of questioning led SNCC “step-by-step to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.”

Between 1961 and 1963, SNCC established several voter registration projects in the state. It was a slow and tedious process to persuade local Black citizens to try to register to vote–reprisals, including murder, kept many away from “dat mess.”

Victories were small. Very few Black people were getting on the voting rolls. Bob Moses dejectedly noted that it was impossible to register Black voters when “the full resources of the state” were used to fight civil rights gains. County registrars used the literacy test to block eligible Black citizens from registering.  “We had tried for months and months to get people registered,” recalled Annie Devine, who had quit her job as an insurance saleswoman to join the Movement in Canton, Mississippi. “The [literacy] tests that people had to take were too hard.” The test required applicants to interpret any section of the state constitution to the satisfaction of the county registrar–virtually impossible given the hostility of registrars. Furthermore, local and state police also harassed and arrested civil rights workers in a concentrated effort to destroy fledgling local movements.

Photograph of Bob Moses at a COFO office in Jackson, Summer 1964, by Matt Herron, Take Stock Photography

“We were organizing against the entire state apparatus of Mississippi,”  declared Lawrence Guyot, a SNCC organizer from Mississippi who had joined the Movement while a student at Tougaloo College. In addition, he pointed out, “The whole country was totally indifferent to voting.  [So] we had to nationalize the problem.” In a first step in that direction, in the fall of 1963, COFO initiated a “Freedom Vote” campaign and symbolically ran its own candidates in the November gubernatorial race. 80,000 Black Mississippians cast a “Freedom Ballot,” disproving once and for all that political apathy was the main cause of their disenfranchisement.

The Freedom Vote paved the way for a more permanent political organization. “We had registered thousands for the freedom vote,” explained Moses, “and from this process the answer leaped out, perfectly obviously–a political party, a freedom party.”

In April 1964, Black Mississippians from around the state gathered in Jackson to partake in a brand new political enterprise. They agreed to form a parallel political party as “an instrument in which [they] could shape and articulate ideas and one that could move into political action.”  They called the party the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and elected a temporary State Executive Committee, “thus marking the organization of the party.” Open to all without regard to race, the MFDP was designed to encourage grassroots political participation. Moses recalled, “it was a political party that we felt would be responsible to the people we were working with, an organization that they actually controlled.”

Sources

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).

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).

Joseph Sinsheimer, “The Freedom Vote of 1963: New Strategies of Racial Protest in Mississippi,” Journal of Southern History (May, 1989), 217-244.

Interview with Bob Moses by Joseph Sinsheimer, November 19, 1983, Joseph A. Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University Libraries.


Interview with Bob Moses by Joseph Sinsheimer, November 19, 1983, Joseph Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University

COFO, “Overview of Political Program,” undated, MFDP Records, WHS

COFO, “Freedom Registration,” undated, Edwin King Papers, WHS

“Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: Information Sheet,” undated, MFDP Records, WHS