Democratic Debacle

PrintPrintEmailEmailWhen several busloads of black Mississippians showed up in Atlantic City, they were there to drop a political bombshell.

Earlier this year Sen. John Kerry caused a stir by saying that the Democratic party “always makes the mistake of looking South.... Al Gore proved he could have been President of the United States without winning one Southern state, including his own.”

Kerry was lamenting the party’s perennial efforts to woo back the Southern states that once reliably stood in the Democratic column. For 70 years Republicans were effectively shut out of the “solid South,” a result of their having been the party of Lincoln, abolition, and Reconstruction. But over time, as the Democratic party emerged as a champion of black civil rights and then embraced the rights revolutions of other groups—women, gays, lesbians—white Southern voters shifted their support to the GOP.

Jimmy Carter gained the Presidency in 1976, but no other Democratic presidential candidate has won more than four Southern states; in 1972, 1984, 1988, and 2000 the Democrats lost the entire South. At the heart of this defection was not just a white backlash against civil rights but a sense that the party had embraced the social excesses of the late 1960s.

Many writers trace this rift to the disaster of 1968, when at its convention in Chicago the Democratic party simply imploded. That famously explosive week saw party regulars and antiwar insurgents trade vicious barbs while Mayor Richard Daley’s riot police—12,000 strong, augmented by 11,000 federal and National Guard troops—fought in the streets with upward of 10,000 protesters. The Democratic party entered the 1968 fall campaign badly divided and dispirited, and when Hubert Humphrey lost the November election to Richard Nixon, it was the start of a long decline. Since 1968 Democrats have lost six out of nine presidential elections.

Yet the woes of the Democratic party didn’t originate in Chicago, or even in 1968. They can be traced back to another convention, in another city, in another year. Forty years ago this summer, the Democratic party met in Atlantic City to nominate the incumbent President, Lyndon Johnson, for another term. Nobody knew it then, but that 1964 Democratic National Convention would be a turning point for the party. It was Atlantic City that sowed the seeds of the internecine wars that tore apart the Democratic coalition four years later in Chicago and that have left it wounded ever since.

By 1964, when thousands of delegates converged on the Jersey shore for the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City was but a dim reminder of the thriving resort town it had recently been. Commercial jet travel and air conditioning had made distant locations like California, Florida, and the Caribbean more attractive to vacationers. With its vast, decaying hotels facing the ocean across the famous but decreasingly populated Boardwalk, it was an odd site for a political coronation.

Still stunned by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the previous November, the Democrats had gathered to nominate his successor for the fall elections. Most people expected the week to be a highly orchestrated affair. To be sure, there was speculation about whom Johnson would tap as his running mate, but few observers anticipated any surprises. Yet some people knew more than others.

On Friday, August 21, just days before the convention’s opening gavel, several busloads of black Mississippians arrived at the shabby, beaten-down Gem Hotel, a mile from Convention Hall. A reporter watching them assemble for a prayer session saw “a hymn-singing group of dedicated men and women, who feel as though they had temporarily escaped from a Mississippi prison and who think they may be jailed when they get back.” They were sharecroppers, small businessmen, maids, and schoolteachers. Among them were a few whites, including the Reverend Ed King, the chaplain of Tougaloo College, a small black institution just north of Jackson. The Mississippians slept four to a room and dined frugally. They were “all dressed up in their Sunday-go-to-meeting best,” recalled the veteran civil rights activist James Foreman.

These men and women were representatives of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party (MFDP), and they were there to drop a political bombshell. On Saturday they would appear before the convention’s Credentials Committee and ask to be seated as the official Mississippi state delegation.

The idea was simple enough. For more than three years several civil rights groups, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), had worked together under the umbrella of the Council of Federated Organizations to coordinate voter-registration drives in Mississippi. Even in the American South, where only 40 percent of eligible black citizens were registered to vote, the Magnolia State was exceptional. Of its several hundred thousand black, voting-age residents, only 6.4 percent had managed to wade through the thicket of literacy and citizenship tests, poll taxes, and violence to register.