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The civil rights workers who spent the summer of '64 going door to door didn't have much success at getting blacks registered for the vote, but it was much easier to sign up for the new Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). So by August, the new party had 60,000 black members, and some white ones. MFDP Chairman Lawrence Guyot organized the effort to build a legal convention delegation based on the rules of the national Democratic Party.

"We paralleled the state organization of Mississippi where we could, where it was possible to do so and remain alive," Guyot says. "We had our registration form, we conducted precinct meetings, we conducted convention meetings, we conducted county meetings, and congressional district meetings, we elected a delegation. We then put that delegation on the way to Atlantic City."

Guyot stresses the Freedom Democrats followed one key rule of democracy that the regular all-white Mississippi Democratic Party systematically violated: The MFDP was open to everyone.

At its national convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Democratic Party prepared to nominate President Lyndon Johnson; the Party wanted unity, not controversy. The delegates elected by the MFDP—64 blacks and four whites—arrived in buses and asked to be seated in place of the all-white delegates from the regular state party. Testifying before the credentials committee, the Freedom Democrats argued theirs was the only legitimate delegation from Mississippi.

"My name is Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer. And I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi," Mrs. Hamer began in televised testimony that would electrify the nation.

Hamer detailed how Mississippi's white power structure used the state's political and legal systems to oppress and brutalize black citizens.

"If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America," Hamer said. "Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings in America?"

"The clincher was her retelling of her beating in the Winona jail," says Leslie Maclemore, then a young Freedom Democrat delegate from northern Mississippi, and now a political scientist. "She told it in such a way [that] if you could have stopped the reel right then and there and said, 'Let's take a vote up or down on these Freedom Democrats,' without the intervention by the hardened political pros, Fanny Lou Hamer would have won the day."

But the hardened political pro running for President, Lyndon Johnson, feared that if the MFDP delegation were seated, he would lose the Southern white support that he thought he needed to defeat Republican Barry Goldwater. So Johnson asked Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, his choice for Vice President, to negotiate with the Freedom Democrats.

Bob Moses characterizes it this way: "Johnson is the President and Johnson says, 'If you want to be Vice President, you deliver this. You get this monkey off our back.'"

Rather than making a clear decision between the two Mississippi parties, Humphrey directed his young protégé, Walter Mondale, to propose a compromise: two members of the MFDP, one black and one white, would be seated as delegates at-large. Members of the all-white Democratic party would be seated, but only if they promised to support Johnson for President. In addition, the national party promised never again to seat a segregated delegation.

Most of the delegates from the all-white regular party were Goldwater supporters; all but four of them left the convention. The Freedom Democrats rejected the compromise, too. "The compromise was two seats. And Miss Hamer said, 'Well, we ain't gonna take no two seats. All of us sixty-eight can't sit in no two seats,'" recalls Unita Blackwell.

In retrospect, the Mississippians' challenge to the Democratic Party was a historic success, Walter Mondale argues. "They came with a powerful moral case, recounting the indisputable fact that blacks in Mississippi were sealed out of the Democratic Party, and that our Party finally had to do something about what was a moral disgrace." Never again, Mondale points out, was a segregated delegation ever seated at a Democratic convention.

But many in the Mississippi movement were stunned at the national Party's refusal to simply seat the Freedom Democrats. The compromise proved to some that in a pinch, powerful liberals would choose tokenism over principle.

"In the end they just didn't have the guts to do it," says former SNCC staff member and MFDP organizer Frank Smith. Democratic Party leaders "agreed with us, they all knew it was wrong, they all knew it violated the Constitution, they all knew it had to be done sooner or later. They all knew all of the right things. They just couldn't do it at the time. It disillusioned us a great deal. I think it disillusioned, actually, the civil rights movement quite considerably."


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