Oxford AASC: Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

By: Robert Fay
 Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition What is This?

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

Political organization, primarily African American, formed to protest racial exclusion by the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention in 1964.

At an April 1964 meeting the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella group that sought to unite all civil rights organizations working in Mississippi, formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). MFDP organizers realized that registering voters would have no lasting impact in Mississippi unless blacks could also participate within the state party, which the all-white membership made impossible. The Mississippi Democratic Party refused to endorse either the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the national party's pro–civil rights position, or its presidential candidate, incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. In light of these exclusions and refusals, the MFDP hoped the Democratic Party would declare the MFDP its legitimate Mississippi representative at the 1964 national convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

To prove that the regular Mississippi party blocked black participation, the MFDP sent members to the regular Democratic precinct, county, district, and state conventions, at which the party chose its convention delegates. At the various conventions, blacks found that whites attempted to prevent their access in many ways, such as changing the location or time of a convention, denying blacks entry to the convention halls or, when they were present, denying them opportunities to speak or vote. In addition to proving that the regular party excluded blacks, MFDP organizers believed they needed to demonstrate that the MFDP had widespread support among Mississippi residents. Thus, in the face of white violence and intimidation, organizers tried to recruit blacks to register to vote and join the MFDP.

The MFDP selected forty-four delegates and twenty-two alternates to attend the Democratic National Convention. To be recognized as the official Mississippi delegation, the MFDP needed approval from the credentials committee. Although the delegation believed that it would receive the support it needed to unseat the regular Democratic delegation, Democratic nominee President Lyndon B. Johnson, fearing a general walkout by Southern Democrats, opposed seating the MFDP. Johnson went so far as to enlist the Federal Bureau of Investigation to gather information about MFDP strategy through wiretapping, posing as NBC reporters (with NBC's cooperation), and sending informants to infiltrate MFDP meetings.

The most dramatic scenes at the convention occurred during the nationally televised credentials committee meeting, which featured MFDP testimony, most memorably that of Fannie Lou Hamer, who movingly described her life as a former sharecropper and her eviction for registering to vote. Johnson, afraid that Hamer's testimony would inspire support for the MFDP, gave a live address on television during her testimony. His address interrupted the television broadcast of Hamer's testimony. He then mobilized Minnesota senator Hubert H. Humphrey, his prospective running mate, who was told that to retain the vice presidential nomination, he had to neutralize the MFDP. After a series of meetings, Humphrey offered a compromise: two “at large” seats, with the rest of the delegation designated “honored guests.” The MFDP ultimately refused, and Johnson then sought to quash remaining MFDP support by cajoling and threatening MFDP supporters, including one credentials committee member who, Johnson warned, would lose a judgeship if he continued supporting the MFDP. In large part because of Johnson's powerful influence, the credentials committee denied the MFDP any seats, although the national party stated that it would no longer allow segregated delegations.

MFDP delegates staged a sit-in on the convention floor, but security guards quickly removed them, and they left the convention feeling betrayed. Prior to the convention, many MFDP members believed they were working within the Democratic Party, but as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist and MFDP organizer Robert Moses said, the convention proved that Democratic support of blacks was merely “puddle-deep.” In 1968 the MFDP merged with other Mississippi civil rights groups to form the Mississippi Loyal Democrats, which, with Democratic National Committee support, successfully deposed the Mississippi Democratic delegation to the convention in 1968.Sign up to receive email alerts from African American Studies Center

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