Democratic Debacle

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Second, they would sponsor another mock election, this time to select delegates for the 1964 Democratic National Convention. To that end the Council of Federated Organizations created a new political entity, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party, and invited every black and white citizen of voting age to participate in local, county, and statewide caucuses to choose delegates who would go to Atlantic City. The MFDP followed Mississippi election law to the letter, acting as though it were, in effect, the state Democratic party. Since most black citizens were artificially disenfranchised, and since the MFDP opened its delegate caucuses to people of all races, the new organization would argue that it, not the regular state party, held rightful claim to Mississippi’s slate of convention delegates.

Freedom Summer, as the experiment came to be called, was at once fractious and glorious. Roughly a thousand white undergraduates, law students, clerics, and medics converged on Mississippi, where they bonded and clashed with movement veterans and confronted a world they’d scarcely known existed. Summer volunteers bunked with black sharecroppers and local activists, who opened their homes to movement workers; they helped staff “freedom schools,” where some 2,500 children learned about black history and African culture; and they suffered beatings, intimidation, and jail.

Above all, the experiment in interracial cooperation drew enormous media attention. On Monday, June 22, just weeks into the project, Americans learned of the disappearance of three voter-registration workers—James Chaney, a 21-year-old black native of Meridian; Michael Schwerner, a young, Jewish New Yorker; and Andrew Goodman, a summer volunteer from Queens College, in New York City. The three had gone on a fact-finding mission to the rubble of the Mount Zion Church, just outside the small town of Philadelphia in central Mississippi. The Mount Zion congregation had agreed to house one of the state’s first freedom schools, and in response local whites had burned the church to the ground.

FBI agents later determined that Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman made it to Mount Zion safely but were arrested by Neshoba County’s deputy sheriff Cecil Price on their return journey, held in jail for several hours, released, stopped outside town, again by Cecil Price, and turned over to members of the Ku Klux Klan. Weeks later, after a massive and well-publicized manhunt, their bodies were found beneath an earthen dam. Both Goodman and Schwerner had been shot once; Chancy had been shot several times and mutilated.

In total that summer, Mississippi Klansmen were responsible for at least 35 shooting incidents and 6 murders, the burnings of 65 homes and churches, and the beatings of at least 80 volunteers. By August, in the wake of this orgy of violence, the mock-election organizers and MFDP delegates were of little mind to walk away with anything short of a total victory in Atlantic City. At James Chaney’s funeral, on August 7, David Dennis, CORE’s state field secretary, delivered an angry, impassioned eulogy that concluded, “If you go back home and take what these white men in Mississippi are doing to us ... if you take it and don’t do something about it... then God damn your souls!”

Johnson had chosen Humphrey, but at a steep price.

For Hubert Humphrey, much about the Atlantic City convention was sadly ironic. At 53 he was just starting to show his age. The full shock of black hair that had once swept back from his high forehead was now receding, but his quick smile and the glow in his eyes revealed the same youthful passion he had possessed in 1948 when, as the Wunderkind mayor of Minneapolis, he had thrown the Democratic National Convention—then meeting in Philadelphia—into turmoil.

A founding member of the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action, Humphrey was locked in a tight race for the U.S. Senate in 1948. Nonetheless, his zeal for the cause of racial justice and his powerful ambition—he wanted to be the leader of the national party’s liberal wing —led him to contest the Truman administration’s lukewarm platform plank on civil rights. His own substitute plank called for a ban on the poll tax, a federal antilynching law, the establishment of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, and the integration of the armed forces.

Southern Democrats were already furious with Truman for his seeming apostasy on race issues, and many Northern delegates feared that Truman’s plank could drive the solid South out of the Democratic party. Still, Humphrey won the support of several Northern leaders, who got behind him not only out of conviction but also with the knowledge that their cities were attracting large numbers of blacks from the South and that the future wasn’t with Jim Crow.