Democratic Debacle


Shortly after he signed the Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson told his aide Joseph Califano, “I think we’ve delivered the South to the Republican party for your lifetime and mine.” Maybe so, but he was determined to hold onto the region long enough to ensure his own re-election; the opinion polls might show him leading the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, by an enormous margin, but he was desperate not to stoke the fires of sectional conflict. Only one thing stood in the way of party harmony: the Mississippi Freedom Democrats.

If the national convention agreed to seat the MFDP instead of the Mississippi regulars—and this wasn’t entirely unimaginable after the chair of the delegation, Lt. Gov. Paul Johnson, infuriated many Northern Democrats by saying that NAACP stood for “niggers, alligators, apes, coons and possums"—all hell would break loose among the other Southern state delegations.

What precise words Johnson and Humphrey exchanged in late August may never be known, but by the time the MFDP began presenting its case to the Credentials Committee on Saturday, August 22, it was clear that Johnson had dangled the Vice Presidency before his friend from Minnesota. However, the prize carried a steep price. Humphrey would have to cash in on his liberal credentials to stop the convention from seating the MFDP. “I always had the feeling, and it was implicit,” one of Humphrey’s advisers later explained, “that if Humphrey messed this up, Johnson was not going to make him the running mate. It was a kind of test for him. If he couldn’t do it, so much for Humphrey.”

The MFDP didn’t make Humphrey’s task easy. From the moment the Mississippi activists disembarked in Atlantic City, they began buttonholing members of Northern delegations, recounting the violence and coercion they met with when trying to vote. They brought props, including a replica of Mickey Schwerner’s burnt-out station wagon. They put picketers on the Boardwalk outside Convention Hall with enormous banners bearing likenesses of the three slain civil rights workers.

The MFDP’s lawyer, Joe Rauh, was a veteran labor attorney and a close adviser to both Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers (UAW). Rauh had been a bitter enemy of Lyndon Johnson throughout the 1950s but had recently closed ranks with the President and headed up the White House effort to push the Civil Rights Act through the House of Representatives. Now he found himself once again challenging Johnson on a matter of liberal conviction.

His strategy was simple. He expected a majority of the convention’s Credentials Committee to oppose seating the MFDP, but he needed only 10 percent of its members—11 delegates—to force the drafting of a minority report, and then he needed just 8 state delegations to request a formal conventionwide roll-call vote on the minority report. If he could carry the MFDP that far, the convention debate could turn into a free-for-all, much as it had in 1948.

By another twist of fate, the Credentials Committee was chaired by the former Pennsylvania governor David Lawrence, a party boss who had swung his support behind Hubert Humphrey’s strong civil rights plank at the 1948 convention. Now working to smooth the way for Johnson’s re-election, Lawrence tried to schedule the Saturday hearings at a conference room that was too small to accommodate spectators or television reporters. Rauh managed to defeat this maneuver, and in front of a national television audience he had a string of witnesses testify about the brutality of Jim Crow. Rita Schwerner, Mickey Schwerner’s young widow, spoke, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., who told the committee that “if you value your party, if you value your nation, if you value the democratic process, then you must recognize the Freedom party delegation.”

By far the most stirring testimony was that of Fannie Lou Hamer, a 46-year-old ex-sharecropper who was said to be SNCC’s oldest but most dedicated field organizer. The youngest of 20 children, Hamer had spent all but two years of her life in Sunflower County, Mississippi, the home of the segregationist senator James Eastland. In 1962, when Hamer attempted to register to vote, the landowner she worked for had demanded that she withdraw her application. “I didn’t go down there to register for you,” she told him. “I went down there to register for myself. ” He kicked her off his plantation, and she went on to become an outspoken, energetic SNCC organizer, enduring prison time and police beatings alongside her younger co-workers.

In a voice that was unschooled yet full of eloquent resilience, wearing new city clothes over her short, stout frame, and bearing an expression of both sadness and hope, Hamer told the Credentials Committee that “if the Freedom party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”