1964 DNC: “I question America”

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from Smithsonian NMAAHC Twitter feed @NMAAHC

The Freedom Summer before the 1964 Democratic convention saw courageous efforts to register black voters in Mississippi, as well as continuing civil rights organizing across the south. In June, Freedom Summer workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Mississippi. In July, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, passed with strong Republican support and despite opposition by Southern Democrats. With racism and tension running high, the national parties held their conventions in August.

Jackie Robinson, an observer at the Republican convention in San Francisco, said “I now believe I know how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany” (Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire, 404-5). Black delegates had walked out of the 1960 Democratic convention, protesting Kennedy’s concessions to Southern segregationists. Now, in 1964, Democrats again seated all-white delegations from southern states where black people died trying to register to vote. In 1960, black delegates had walked out of the Democratic convention in protest. In 1964, they fought to get in.

This week, with another national political convention in full swing, I am taking time to reflect on some inspiring moments from three conventions of the past: 1948, 1964 and 1968.

An integrated delegation elected by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged that state’s all-white official delegation. The most eloquent voice came from Fannie Lou Hamer, limping from permanent injuries inflicted during a brutal beating in jail. Hamer testified to the Credentials Committee about how she and seventeen others tried to register to vote on August 31, 1963 and ware turned away by highway patrolmen. Then that night:

“My husband came and said the plantation owner was raising cain because I had tried to register, and before he quite talking the plantation owner came, and said, ‘Fannie Lou, do you know — did Pap tell you what I said?’

“I said, ‘Yes, sir.’

“He said, ‘I mean that,’ he said. ‘If you don’t go down there and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave.’

“And I addressed him and told him and said, ‘I didn’t try to register for you, I tried to register for myself.’ I had to leave that same night.

“On the 10th of September, 1963, sixteen bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls wer eshot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also Mr. Joe McDonald’s house was shot up.

“And in June, the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter-registration workshop, was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus.”

She and the others on the bus were arrested and thrown in jail. In jail, she began to hear blows and screams.

“I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack. …

“After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack. The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat to set on my feet to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush. One white man — my dress had worked up high, he walked over and pulled my dress down — and he pulled my dress back, back up.

“I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.

“All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America …”

The best that the Democratic leadership, from President Johnson on down, would offer the MFDP was two token seats, as at-large delegates, not even representing Mississippi. Hubert Humphrey, who had championed civil rights at the 1948 convention, was sent to sell the deal to the MFDP. Fannie Lou Hamer told him: “Senator Humphrey, I been praying about you, and I been thinking about you, and you’re a good man. The trouble is, you’re afraid to do what you know is right.”

The Freedom Democrats rejected the offer. On the first night, they were smuggled into the convention by sympathetic delegates and sat down in the Mississippi seats — mostly vacant, because most Mississippi delegates, along with other southerners, refused to sign a pledge to support the party ticket. That worked once – but security tightened and by the next day all of the MFDP delegates and supporters were outside the convention, united in a protest vigil on the sidewalk.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was not seated in 1964, but they won rules concessions that would make all-white southern delegations impossible in the future. In 1965, LBJ pushed through the Voting Rights Act, which continued to be renewed until it was eviscerated by the Supreme Court in 2013. Furious over official support of civil rights by the Johnson administration, white southern Democrats left the party in droves in 1964.

After signing the Civil Rights Act, LBJ told Bill Moyers that the Democratic Party had lost the South for a generation. That’s a long generation, more than half a century and counting. In 2008, after President Barack Obama was elected, Bill Moyers told NPR:

“If you look at the colored map of the election last night, the Republican Party’s base is still the deeply racist states south of the Mason-Dixon Line – from South Carolina across to Arkansas. Those states have not changed in all these years. That’s one of the other tragedies of American life, is that the racist-saturated mentality of those deep Southern states, stemming from slavery and reconstruction and Jim Crow, remain in place.”

Though there is no final victory over racism or hate, the 1964 Democratic Convention is memorable for the the victories hard-won by Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, Freedom Summer, and the many martyrs of the civil rights movement.

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