Democratic Debacle


Watching the coverage from the Oval Office, Lyndon Johnson realized how potentially dangerous Hamer’s testimony was. He immediately called a press conference, forcing television coverage away from the credentials hearing. But to no avail. That evening the networks rebroadcast her testimony before a primetime audience. The next day newspapers ran photographs of Fannie Lou Hamer arm in arm with the family of Michael Schwerner in vigil on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Telegrams flooded in from across the country, urging that the MFDP be seated. By Sunday, Joe Rauh could count 17 committee members in favor of issuing a pro-MFDP minority report.

Around this time the President’s men began to line up their supporters. Most likely at the behest of the White House, Chairman Lawrence of the Credentials Committee postponed a vote on the Mississippi question—a vote the MFDP might well have won—and delegated the matter to a special subcommittee, chaired by Minnesota’s young state attorney general, Walter F. Mondale. Mondale, a protégé of Humphrey, understood that his fortunes rode on a successful compromise. If Humphrey became Vice President, Mondale would likely be appointed to fill his unexpired Senate term. Mondale stalled for time, adjourning his subcommittee until Monday. And the White House turned up the heat.

Johnson’s close aide Walter Jenkins asked Cartha D. “Deke” DeLoach, assistant to the director of the FBI, to set up covert surveillance of the MFDP and Martin Luther King, Jr. For several days the FBI used wiretaps and bugs to record and relay reports of the MFDP’s strategy sessions to the President’s advisers. At the same time, agents posing as NBC reporters (and working with the network’s explicit approval) tricked MFDP strategists into revealing “off-the-record” information that ultimately proved useful to Johnson’s surrogates.

Leaving nothing to chance, Johnson called Walter Reuther in Detroit, where the UAW leader was locked in tense, highstakes contract negotiations with General Motors. Johnson persuaded him to fly immediately to Atlantic City.

Reuther had already been asked by Johnson to put pressure on Rauh and the MFDP in the weeks before the convention. Reuther had reached his friend Rauh by telephone. It was, Rauh later recalled, “the most hysterical” phone call he received that week. “Walter said, ’I’ve been talking to the President and we have agreed that if you go through with this, we’re going to lose the election.’ I said, ‘Are you serious? Goldwater has been nominated! How can you lose it!’ He said, ‘We both think the backlash is so tremendous that either we’re going to lose the Negro vote if you go through with this and don’t win, or if you do win, the picture of your black delegation going on the floor to replace the white one is going to add to the backlash. We really think that Goldwater’s going to be President.'”

The party is still struggling, all these years later, to wrestle down the demons it unleashed at its convention in 1964.

On Monday afternoon, while Mondale’s subcommittee scrambled for a solution, Hubert Humphrey called together MFDP leaders, the leaders of the Credentials Committee, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bob Moses. At first, Fannie Lou Hamer was thrilled by the invitation. With “all that we had been hearing about... Humphrey and his stand for civil rights,” she later remembered, “I was delighted even to have a chance to talk with the man.” But Humphrey was looking to his own electoral fortunes, and instead of hearing out the civil rights activists, he made a plea for his political survival. In the absence of a compromise, he explained, his vice-presidential candidacy would be finished. Hamer was crushed. “Well, Mr. Humphrey, do you mean to tell me that your position is more important to you than four hundred thousand black people’s lives?” She walked out of the meeting in tears, leaving the Minnesota senator all the more torn between his convictions and his ambitions.

The early-morning hours of Tuesday proved a turning point in the negotiations. Arriving in Atlantic City at 3:00 A.M. , Walter Reuther hurried into a meeting with Humphrey, Lawrence, and Mondale.

As a young student in Detroit, Reuther had taken part in protests against segregated swimming pools and public facilities. He was a long-standing friend of the black freedom struggle, and at his urging the UAW and AFL-CIO had provided substantial funding to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But he was not about to break with Lyndon Johnson. Unbeknownst to the MFDP and its lawyer, he helped forge a deal that heavily favored the Mississippi regulars. According to the terms of this arrangement, the MFDP would be accorded special guest status, along with two at-large, nonvoting delegates (Aaron Henry and Ed King). The Freedom party would also receive a pledge that subsequent national conventions would apply a strict nondiscrimination standard in accrediting delegate slates. Finally, the Mississippi regulars would have to pledge allegiance to the Democratic ticket before taking their seats at the convention.