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The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party:  Shaking Trees From the Root

Unita Blackwell speaking at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty, Image Credit: Alabama Department of Archives and History

Mississippi has rarely been a two-party state. One political party always overwhelmingly dominates statewide offices and legislative seats, and that party's power is inextricably tied to race.

Between 1820 and 1965, state leaders adopted solid Democratic Party dominance that was anything but “democratic.” Ruling Democrats were an authoritarian regime that violently excluded African Americans who dared participate in politics. The conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 brought a brief chapter of true democracy with the onset of Reconstruction, when the federal government installed new laws bringing suffrage for Black Mississippians. But Mississippi's fossilized racism needed more than the fleeting interest of a conflicted federal government to topple.

The powerful cotton planters who had first whipped the state into joining the Confederacy still owned their sprawling plantations, and they backed vigilante-style assaults upon democracy. Planters and their terrorist agents overwhelmed the fledgling Reconstruction system with riots, violence and blood. White people, furious at the prospect of genuine democracy, attacked public buildings occupied by duly-elected Black politicians. They attacked a crowd of more than 1,500 Black Republicans and their families at a political rally in the Mississippi town of Clinton in 1875, culminating in the infamous Clinton Massacre. A historic marker at the site of the attack refers to the event as a “riot,” and counts only nine people among the dead, but historians claims white mobs hunted down and assassinated 50 to 100 men, women, and children over the following days.

In neighboring Louisiana, a nearly identical mob of more than 150 white men surrounded the Colfax courthouse and fired weapons and a cannon into the building, attacking legitimately-elected Black politicians and their staff. When the Colfax courthouse occupants surrendered, the mob continued to fire upon them, and lynched others. Race terrorists murdered between 60 to 150 African Americans in the attack.

The U.S. government failed to react. The racist U.S. Supreme Court threw out the convictions of the Colfax murderers in their infamous 1876 United States v. Cruikshank decision, officially removing 14th Amendment protections from the actions of individuals. That decision left lynching murders to be prosecuted by local sheriffs and police chiefs, many of whom were sympathetic to Ku Klux Klan violence, or even Klan members.

After the supreme court surrendered federal prosecution of murder and terrorism, the all-white Democratic Party in the South became a ceiling of fists punching down upon the states' Black population. Mississippi joined the ranks of the Democratic Party's “Solid South,” and for more than a century the South rarely elected Blacks or Republicans. That was, until the antics of Unita Blackwell and her companions.

Workers with the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), consisting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP, had been working the Delta area for years, tutoring Black residents on how to register to vote and organize against systemic disenfranchisement. But voting could only go so far in a one-party political system if the dominant party flagrantly excluded certain races.

Even as new Black registrants began to surmount onerous poll taxes and poll tests in 1964, Mississippi’s Democratic Party leadership was still barring Black people from participating in state party meetings. The restrictions ensured only white members would represent the party at national conventions and select party candidates. It was soon obvious that the next step in COFO’s voting rights fight would have to include challenging the party’s legitimacy as a democratic body. Workers like Blackwell founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as a counter to the bigoted “official” party to give new Black voters something to sign up for.

​Sights on the Enemy: Party Leaders

As part of its “Freedom Summer” campaign of 1964, MFDP upstarts challenged the bigoted state party by claiming status as the “only democratically constituted body of Mississippi citizens” and holding duplicate precinct and county meetings. With its army of Freedom Summer students and SNCC volunteers MFDP workers gathered “freedom registration” signatures among potential voters to pick delegates. From there, organizers intended to route the all-white Democratic Party at the 1964 national convention in Atlantic City.

"We wanted all of the seats, or half, of the delegation that was representing Mississippi," said Blackwell in an interview.

The MFDP delegation contained almost 70 members, including, Blackwell, Fannie Lou Hamer, Hartman Turnbow and many other local civil rights figures. All were determined to either supplant entrenched national party bigots or broadcast their racism to the world stage. Members prepared for a theatrical seizure and replacement before national cameras. Even the ride to Atlantic City was not without drama. In her book Barefootin: Life Lessons From the Road to Freedom, Blackwell claims the MFDP’s interstate bus had to crash a Klan roadblock in Tennessee to safely reach their destination.

After arriving and booking hotel rooms (with five to six members to each room) representatives converged on the convention floor and began circulating an alternative to the segregationist party's political platform. They also fraternized with other state delegations, parading the formal party’s explicit racism before national voters.

In her book, Blackwell says she targeted the delegations of Wisconsin and Minnesota. She said in a separate interview that she also met with the Democratic delegation of Iowa.

“We told them about things that happened in our state and how we were denied the right to participate in the political process and then asked them for their support when the MFDP challenge went to the floor of the convention for a vote,” Blackwell wrote in Barefootin'.

“I told about going to the courthouse and being denied the right to register to vote and having crosses burned in my yard. I told about how our people were being killed and how we’d been denied work … how we had no money. I told it all. ‘The white people have taken away everything they could from us,’ I said, ‘but they haven’t taken away our dignity.”

Blackwell said her two states, Wisconsin and Minnesota, voted to support the MFDP, and that “many of the other states our delegates spoke to were supportive, as well.”

Democratic President Lyndon Johnson would sign the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 the very next year, but at the time of the convention, the Texas Democrat was desperate to placate his party’s racist Dixiecrat enclave, including delegates in his own state of Texas. Johnson needed support to survive to the November election, and openly encouraging subversive MFDP maneuvers on the convention floor was no way to curry Dixiecrat favor. He went so far as to interrupt Hamer's widely circulated convention speech.

"I'll never forget the president, Johnson had a message to the people, because that was the only person who could cut off Miss Hamer because every TV station across this nation was listening to the credential committee ... and Miss Hamer had captured the United States, and he knowed it," Blackwell said.

Minneapolis Attorney General Walter Mondale and the Democratic Party Credentials Committee attempted to meet halfway with racists by arranging for the MFDP to get two powerless “at-large” seats amid an all-white Dixiecrat wing. Freedom party workers were expecting such a maneuver before they had even left Mississippi, and were already hostile to the prospect.

"We had a meeting in Jackson, Mississippi, and the people told us that when we left there on them two buses headed to Atlantic City ... that if we didn't get half of those seats ... just tell them to keep them all and come on back home, Blackwell said.

"Betrayal" From Above

Blackwell, Fannie Lou Hamer and other members of MFDP’s Delta delegation were surprised that notable Black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., NAACP head Roy Wilkins and SCLC director Andrew Young pressed for them to accept the compromise. They promised extraordinary measures from Johnson if he won the White House without MFDP interference, but members balked.

Mississippi branch NAACP head Aaron Henry and white Mississippi activist and Delta Ministry Founder Rev. Ed King were promised the two seats, but sided with Blackwell, Hamer and the rest of the Mississippi delegation against the compromise.

Blackwell said she personally considered the compromise “throwing some scraps out to the dogs.”

"They came to (our hotel) door, told us what it was, and gave it to us, and we said 'nope! That hotel was jumping that night," she said.

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party members mingle in 1964, the same year the MFDP decided to demand seats at the national party convention in Atlantic City. Citation: After MFDP Meeting; 1964, Herbert Randall Freedom Summer Photographs, Special Collections, The University of Southern Mississippi.

Regardless of whether the MFDP accepted the compromise the segregated state delegation appeared damaged. Forced to confront their rank racism before party peers from more civilized states, white Mississippi delegates appeared to lose their taste for participation, and left many of their seats unoccupied the following day. Some members of the MFDP moved up and took their abandoned spots. It was a sign of things to come for the Democratic Party.

Dixiecrat separatists leapt from the sudden spotlight upon their racism. They abandoned the Democratic Party that year, with white Mississippi voters overwhelmingly choosing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in November. Gov. Paul Johnson did not endorse the Democratic Party's candidate that year, despite being a Democrat himself. Goldwater instead appealed to white Mississippi when he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed poll taxes and businesses refusing customer service based on race. Overt segregation was slipping out of fashion nationally, however, and Goldwater went on to lose the general election that year.

The media bonanza of speeches and arguments at the Atlantic City convention triggered Party restructuring at the national level, which made it more inclusive of race and gender. When Democratic administrations succeeded in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mississippi Dixiecrats fled to the Republican Party in earnest, following GOP calls to limit federal desegregation efforts. Racist philanderers like U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond (who championed segregation while impregnating underage Black maids) blazed the trail to the GOP.

The flight of racists continued throughout the next four decades. As of 2023, race largely determines party membership in Mississippi, with most African Americans voting Democratic and the Republican Party being a homogeneous party of white voters.



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