Democratic Debacle

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By the time Rauh learned of the plan the following day, the White House had already applied massive political pressure against the MFDP’s supporters. Johnson’s representatives used patronage appointments and hometown projects as both carrot and stick, promising presidential favors for those who backed the White House and none for those who didn’t. By Tuesday afternoon, when Reuther met with Joe Rauh, the compromise was a fait accompli . “The convention has decided,” Reuther told him. “This is a tremendous victory. I want you to go in there and accept it.”

The MFDP refused the settlement, whereupon Reuther threatened to terminate Rauh’s contract as the UAWs Washington, D.C., counsel. Rauh stood firm but by Tuesday night he no longer had the 11 votes he needed on the Credentials Committee anyway; neither did he have 8 state delegations to lean on in the full convention.

At a series of emotional meetings, the MFDP debated and rejected the Atlantic City compromise. “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats,” Fannie Lou Hamer told the packed Freedom-party caucus. A few hours later Lyndon Johnson said Hubert Humphrey would be his running mate. They swept to victory in November. But on election day the Johnson-Humphrey ticket lost Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi. The Mississippi regulars had backed Barry Goldwater.

For many people,” one SNCC activist said afterward, “Atlantic i— City was the end of innocence.” Bob Moses concurred: “Up until then the idea had been that you were working more or less within the Democratic party. We were working with them on voting, other things like that. With Atlantic City, a lot of movement people became disillusioned.... You turned around and your support was puddle-deep.”

Cleveland Sellers, a member of SNCC, put the matter in even sharper relief: “Never again were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the ‘good’ people of America could eliminate them.... After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation.”

The young men and women who put their bodies on the line in Mississippi were the most courageous, talented, and prescient political organizers of their generation. They left the 1964 Democratic National Convention no longer interested in working with the white liberal establishment. Many of them came to see it as their enemy.

To Stokely Carmichael, the fiery SNCC activist from Howard University, the lesson of the Mississippi Freedom Summer was “not merely that the national conscience was generally unreliable but that, very specifically, black people in Mississippi and throughout this country could not rely on their so-called allies.” The answer, for him, was to look inward—to reject integration as a solution for what was ailing black communities and to demand, not ask for, an equal share of national resources and power.

Within two years of the Atlantic City convention, Carmichael coined the term black power and replaced the more moderate John Lewis as SNCC’s national chairman. White members of SNCC were expelled, and the group steered itself toward an increasingly radical and separatist agenda. Even Bob Moses repudiated interracial cooperation, for a time. The late 1960s found him living in Africa, swearing off any future relationships with white people. By the close of the decade, SNCC had merged with the Black Panther party to represent the extreme of the Black Power movement.

White veterans of SNCC and Freedom Summer also returned to their college campuses and hometowns angry and disaffected. With names like Mario Savio, Tom Hayden, and Casey Hayden, they became the driving force behind the radical group Students for a Democratic Society. Turning their sights on every locus of adult authority—university administrators, Democratic-party officeholders, labor unions, the corporate establishment—they sparked a fury of protest that stretched from Berkeley to Morningside Heights, and from the steps of the Pentagon to Kent State. They occupied campus buildings, staged antiwar protests in cities across the country, and went into the streets of Chicago in the summer of 1968. To be sure, the New Left never represented more than a fraction of the sixties generation, but within its ranks were some of the most articulate and dedicated leaders of their day, and they visited a world of pain on Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic party.

Even if the MFDP delegates has been seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the student coalition might still have fractured and moved sharply to the left. The civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam were bound to create enormous strains. But the liberal leaders of the Democratic party hardly helped matters. They left the Mississippi activists with nowhere else to go. Many of the young men and women who attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention determined to work for the party and within the political process came back four years later to burn down the house that Franklin Roosevelt had built. They didn’t succeed, but they came awfully close.