What a Difference 44 Years Make

With Barack Obama getting the Democratic nomination this week, it’s amazing to think that just 44 years ago, African Americans were excluded from the Democratic Party in some Southern states.

It was 1964. The Democratic National Convention was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The nominees were Lyndon Johnson for president and Hubert Humphrey for vice president. Blacks in Mississippi who had attempted to attend Democratic Party meetings had routinely been turned away at the door. They had not been able to participate in electing delegates to the Convention. And besides, the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party was demanding “separation of the races in all phases of society.”

Bob Moses and the staff of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) decided to fight back. They organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and attended the Democratic Convention. This group of 64 black citizens and four white citizens from Mississippi demanded to replace the all-white Democratic Party members from Mississippi. They argued that the existing delegates represented a segregated all-white party that had been illegally elected to represent their state, since segregation violated federal law.

One of the leaders was a sharecropper named Fannie Lou Hamer. One of twenty children and the granddaughter of slaves, she was evicted from the plantation she’d been raised on for registering to vote.

She remained an activist though, and after attending a literacy workshop in Winona, Mississippi, she was arrested on false charges and taken to jail, where she was brutally beaten.

At the 1964 Democratic Convention, Hamer gave a passionate speech and portions of it were played on national television. In her speech she asked:

“Is this America, the land of the free and home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

While I was researching my book A Thousand Never Evers, I read a lot about Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. But it was just last week I discovered that my father, Harvey Burg, actually played a small part in this piece of history. I was interviewing him about his job as a civil rights lawyer in Alabama in the 1960s. (Click here to read the full interview.) That’s when we got to talking about the 1964 Democratic Convention.

“I was privileged to be one of the civil rights workers advocating the seating of black delegates from this newly-formed Party,” my dad told me. He described how, after lots of fighting, the Democratic Party offered a “compromise,” which was two at-large seats.

The “compromise” was that members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would be able to observe proceedings but they still couldn’t vote for a candidate at the Convention. “The national Democratic Party officials said this was an important first step, and the President and Vice Presidential candidates urged the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to accept,” my dad explained.

Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi delegation, and the leading civil rights figures of the time went to a church in Atlantic City to discuss whether to accept the offer. “The meeting stretched on for hours and hours,” my dad explained. “It was one of the greatest demonstrations of democracy in action that I have ever seen in my life. National leaders of the civil rights movement like Roy Wilkins, Dr. King, John Lewis, Bob Moses, James Farmer, and of course, Fannie Lou Hamer, all discussed their heartfelt positions.”

In the end, though, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party rejected the compromise, because they did not want a symbolic or token victory. They wanted real change. “This principled stand set the change for a great many reforms to come,” my dad told me.

The next day, members of the MFDP resorted to direct action, picketing on the Jersey Boardwalk and protesting on the convention floor.

With that history in mind, it’s especially exciting to watch this political season unfold.

Classroom Resources: Check out this outstanding documentary on youtube.com titled “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired.” It covers civil rights in Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the MFDP. Ten minutes long and narrated by young people, it’s a natural for showing to middle and high school students. Also, teachers, for an in-depth account of the MDFP, read the chapter devoted to it in Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippiby John Dittmer.

Posted in Civil Rights, Educators, Shana's Posts on 08/27/2008 05:36 pm

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