Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the 1964 Presidential Campaign

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage I describe the complications facing Lyndon Johnson during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the role of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that campaign, and Johnson's electoral showdown with Republican Barry Goldwater.

Lyndon Johnson had long felt like an unwanted interloper, and rankled that some Democrats saw him as an illegitimate heir to the Kennedy throne. Thus, Johnson hoped that the 1964 Democratic National Convention that summer in Atlantic City would be his coronation, an untarnished celebration of that year’s many legislative accomplishments. Unfortunately, in spite of movement in the direction of expanded black civil rights, the signs loomed of a national white backlash against reform legislation, and the atmosphere threatened to spoil the Democratic celebrations.

George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, entered the Democratic presidential primaries and carried 34 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, 30 percent in Indiana, and a shocking 43 percent in Maryland. When Wallace’s insurgent campaign failed to unseat Johnson, many of these voters began drifting to Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, who portrayed civil rights laws as the intrusion of a growing and increasingly tyrannical federal government into states’ rights. Rioting in Harlem and other American cities in the summer of 1964 provoked white anger and increased Johnson’s fear of a challenge on the right.

The president, however, perceived a more direct challenge from Southern African Americans seeking to put a stop to the all-white segregationist delegations from the South that had been a feature of Democratic Conventions since the 1830s. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) had been organized during Freedom Summer. Using a black panther as its symbol, the MFDP planned to challenge the credentials of Mississippi’s all-white delegation on the floor of the 1964 convention. The MFDP held its own primaries, with black representatives elected as delegates from cities and rural communities across the state, as well as four white delegates. The delegates would charge that the Mississippi regulars conducted primaries that ignored black voting rights and were thus in violation of federal law and could not be legally seated. One of the MFDP delegates, Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper who had suffered an involuntary sterilization under Mississippi’s eugenics laws, said, “When we went to Atlantic City, we didn’t go there for publicity, we went there because we believed that America was what it said it was, ‘the land of the free.’”

President Johnson didn’t want a credentials fight at his convention. Seeking to not embarrass the president, liberals proposed seating both the all-white Mississippi regulars and the Freedom delegation. Governor Paul Johnson of Mississippi told the president his delegation would walk out if forced to share a place with the dissenters, while Gov. John Connally of Texas warned that other Southern delegations could walk out as well. Johnson promised Hubert Humphrey a position as his running mate if he could persuade the Freedom delegation to drop its credentials challenge.

Hamer and the other delegates refused to play along and instead presented testimony to the credentials committee on the violent and corrupt oppression of black voting rights in Mississippi. With television networks broadcasting the testimony, Hamer related how she had been beaten in a Mississippi jail for her voter registration efforts. A state highway patrolman ordered black prisoners to beat her. “The first Negro began to beat, and I was beat until I was exhausted . . . After the first Negro was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolmen ordered the second Negro to use the blackjack. The second Negro began to beat . . . I began to scream, and one white man got up and began to beat me on my head and tell me to ‘hush.’ ”

Upset that the Freedom delegation was getting all the attention, President Johnson called a press conference while Hamer was still testifying. Television coverage shifted to the White House briefing room, and audiences missed the testimony of Rita Schwerner, widow of the recently murdered Michael Schwerner. A compromise was offered that would allow two Freedom delegates to sit with the regulars while sixty-six other Freedom Party members could sit as non-voting observers with other delegations. Unwilling to accept even this watered-down proposal, and a demand that they pledge loyalty to the Democratic presidential ticket, the all-white regular delegation walked out of the convention along with the Alabama delegates. The walkout didn’t spread, however, which Lyndon Johnson declared as victory. The convention voted to insist that the 1968 Mississippi delegation had to be integrated. Hubert Humphrey was rewarded with this outcome by being named Johnson’s running mate.

The Democratic ticket overwhelmingly defeated GOP nominee Goldwater that November. The Arizona senator frightened off mainstream voters with a convention nomination speech in which he declared, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Later, Goldwater dismissed the hydrogen bomb as “merely another weapon.” The night before the general election, the Johnson campaign ran an ad in which a young girl pulled petals from a daisy and counted them, then a voiceover counted down to a missile launch and the screen filled with footage of a mushroom cloud. The ad was designed to remind voters of the dangers of nuclear weapons, and to imply that Goldwater’s attitude toward them was irresponsible.

The next day, Johnson carried 61 percent of the popular vote and beat Goldwater 486-52 in the Electoral College. Goldwater’s sweep of the Deep South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, where he carried the votes of whites angered by Johnson’s support of civil rights legislation, represented the only cloud on the political horizon for the Democrats.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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