Chude Pam Parker Allen
Willie B. Wazir Peacock
|Charlie Cobb, August, 2004|
Freedom Ballot 1963
Medical Care in Mississippi
Freedom Summer Voter Registration
Freedom Summer Cops
Freedom Summer Dangers
Freedom Summer Dealing With Death
Complexities & Nuances of Repression
Building the MFDP
MFDP's Power Base
Atlantic City Context
Atlantic City Challenge
Hazel Brannon Smith
The Delegates Meeting
Role of SNCC
Why the "Compromise" Was Rejected
Vigil on the Boardwalk
Role of LBJ & Democratic Party
Northern Support for MFDP Challenge
Political Implications of the Challenge
After the Rejection
Back to Mississippi
Political Repercussions of the Challenge
MFDP Congressional Challenge
From Atlantic City to Selma
The Movement in Alabama
|If you participated in the Mississippi Movement, and are listed in the Veterans Roll Call you can add your comments to this discussion by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org.|
Mike: The thought was that the right to vote is the hook on which to organize the Black community in Mississippi, not equal accommodation, not school integration, but the right to vote. And that's because when Bob [Moses] went to Mississippi in 1962 and met with people like Amzie Moore and Steptoe, and I think he met Aaron Henry then as well, all the local Black leadership said what they wanted to focus on was the right to vote. And so when Bob developed the first work in McComb, initially it was around the right to vote.
And then the young people in the high school I don't know if you all remember this but the young people in the high school started getting involved in direct action stuff [sit-ins & protests]. And the guy who invited Bob into Pike County, where McComb is, actually dissociated himself from Bob because all of a sudden their kids were getting thrown in jail, and that had not been part of the deal. And Bob was unwilling to dissociate SNCC from what these high school students were doing, even though it was not the strategy that SNCC had gone into Pike and Amite Counties with.
There was some big ceremony in the legislature not too many years ago about the Summer Project, and the guy who accompanied Bob to that ceremony was this same guy who repudiated Bob down there in that county. He's now a quite old man, if he's still alive. But it was quite something to see that they had reconciled and that he was part of this. It was a very touching thing for me to see that photograph. But the whole Pike and Amite Counties thing really became unraveled around that stuff. And then of course the killing of Herbert Lee.
Jimmy: Now Herbert Lee, he was the one that was walking up to the courthouse steps, because he wanted to register to vote and was shot in broad daylight?
Mike: He was shot in broad daylight, but it was actually
Bruce: In a lumbar yard or a cotton gin. Some industrial place where he had come in to do his farm business.
Chude: Louis Allen was also shot. He had seen Lee shot.
Betita: That's right. He was a witness.
Mike: Herbert Lee was killed by the State Assemblyman. Allen was killed later.
Bruce: And Allen was working at whatever that place was, or he was also there, and saw it.
Mike: And Allen later stepped forward to be a witness. For the Justice Department, who wanted to file suit and needed witnesses. Allen at first declined to be a witness, and he was himself then killed.
Mike: The killing of Herbert Lee really shut things down there [McComb], and so SNCC shifted its major focus to the Delta, and Greenwood became the next beachhead. Voter registration and community organizing, from day-one of Bob's beginning work in Mississippi were the strategies. How it unfolded, what the specific forms were, I think, kind of emerged out of the experience. But I know COFO was created to make it possible for everybody to have a piece in Mississippi. I mean CORE was specifically given the 5th Congressional District. SCLC had the Citizenship Program. I think the some national Negro women's organization, what was it?
Jimmy: Dorothy Height.
Mike: Yeah, Dorothy Height. I think Dorothy Height's organization [National Council of Negro Women] had a specific piece. I think only the Urban League refused to participate. The NAACP had a piece of some kind, so everybody could come under that COFO umbrella. Out of that the next thing was the MFDP.
Mike: In December of '62, Sam Block asked me to come to Greenwood when he was out here [California] on a speaking tour. So, on the July 4th weekend  I went to Atlanta, and from there to Greenwood for the Delta Jubilee. I don't know if all of you remember, but on the July 4th weekend, Theodore Bickell, Bob Dylan, and the Freedom Singers had a concert on a farm over by Mrs. It was a woman whose son integrated the movie theatre in Greenwood? I mean, he was fearless.
Anyway, it was like this triangular piece of land with highway, major state highways on two sides and lined with cop cars and state trooper cars, and this folk-concert that was pretty strange. And I remember Bob Moses did not want me there. There had been a bad experience with Carl and Ann Braden. They had come in to the Delta. The repression against local people increased when white Civil Rights people were present. And so Bob did not want to have that experience again. I think the Bradens had been there in '62. So I remember Sam and Bob and Jim Foreman went off to a corner, and they had a big discussion, but the agreement finally was that Dick Frye and I would be placed at the Greenwood office to see what would be the reaction to whites being in the Delta.
Mike: That summer  was the beginning of a systematic effort to demonstrate that Black people in the Delta wanted to vote, and the tool, the vehicle to do that, [was the Freedom Ballot]. It was very systematically planned, door to door, visiting people, asking them to register for the Freedom Ballot. And the idea was that people would register and come and vote at one of the local Black churches. [Though this] was obviously not the quote, unquote, "legal ballot," everybody realized that it was a test of whether we can really get people to put their bodies on the line for the right to vote, because they would have to show up in a public place and check a ballot. And nobody really knew what was going to be the turnout for this thing. It was a very precarious place for the Movement to be, to face a test like this, which was very different from militant students or young people doing direct action.
[Eventually] 73,000 people voted in that Freedom Ballot, which took place in November of 1963. Voting in local Black churches.
So I worked the summer on that and then I came back [to San Francisco]. I was back here very briefly, and I got a call from Joanne Bowman who was working in the Jackson office, and she said, "Bob Moses would like you to come down and help with the Aaron Henry campaign." Because Aaron Henry and
Betita: Ed King.
Mike: They were running for Governor, [and Lt. Governor] on the Freedom Ballot.
So I went back. I'd come back here around Labor Day. I went back there mid-September. And there had been a break-through. The Federal Communication Commission had ordered a Jackson radio station to give Aaron Henry four 30-second spots, equal-time spots. And it happened that a guy named Gene [Giallessi?] who was a radio engineer from KSFO, a local station here, was down there with high quality radio recording equipment.
I brought [Leigh Marsh] with me when I came on this second trip, a young woman who I talked into coming down there with me because she had secretarial skills, and they needed those in the Jackson office. So the three of us drove to Clarksdale, and I'll never forget it, because there were people at both the front and back doors of Aaron Henry's house sitting with guns. I mean, they had guns in their laps. There was no fooling around. "Anybody attacks Aaron Henry's house, they're going to have to deal with us."
It took a long time [to make the recordings for the radio spots] because Gene Giallessi was a perfectionist, and his perfectionism combined with Aaron Henry's nervousness because there were cop cars coming around, and we didn't get out of there until late that night.
And on the way back, in Tchula, is where I had this auto accident where I almost got killed. And Leigh Marsh, Gene Giallessi and I were unconscious. All our stuff got confiscated, and in Tchula they wouldn't treat us. The Black undertaker in Tchula, somehow Leigh Marsh hooked up with him and got him to take us in his hearse to Jackson, to the university hospital.
Betita: In a hearse.
Mike: Yeah. Because it would be flat in the back, right? [Laughing]
Bruce: In a lot of rural counties, the hearse regularly doubles as the ambulance. That's the normal thing.
Jimmy: As the ambulance, yeah.
Chude: That happened in Holly Springs also. It was the hearse that took the person who was wounded the time Wayne Yancy was killed. The hearse took the other person to Memphis for treatment.
Mike: So anyway, we were taken to the Jackson hospital, and I didn't I mean, I was unconscious all this time. I woke up the next day in the hospital. And I discovered only very recently, when the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission documents were made public, that there was a debate in the governor's office about whether they were going to charge me with drunk driving or not. I mean I had not had a stitch of anything to drink. So all these tapes that we had worked that whole day, making these four 30-second tapes, were confiscated. All my files were confiscated.
Don: What caused the accident?
Mike: I think it was really an accident. Others don't, but I was hit, run off the road.
Don: So why do you think that was an accident?
Mike: Well, it was head on. It was a car coming toward me. Not coming up behind me and pushing me off. I mean it's not inconceivable that someone could scare me into veering.
Don: That's the hard way to do it.
Mike: Yeah, that's the hard way. [Laughing] Especially since I was driving a little Volkswagen. You could push it off with not much, So anyway, that's the essence of that story.
Hardy: [In 1964] SNCC had put out the call for people to come down to work on the Mississippi Summer Project. I had just met Mike Miller a few months earlier at the Friends of SNCC office in San Francisco. So I volunteered. I was of five people who volunteered out of the Sacramento office for the Summer Project. That was when Ralph Featherstone first came into SNCC. I think Ralph had been a school teacher (speech therapist) in Washington, D.C. There was the Howard University contingent already involved, and had been earlier. Carmichael [Kwame Ture] and some of the other people had been earlier, Courtland Cox and all these people.
I went to Holly Springs. Chude was there in Holly Springs. And there were a lot of other people there, Cleve Sellers and Ivanhoe Donaldson, and people like that.
When we got there, we did two basic jobs. One was to establish the Freedom School and the second was voter registration. Those were the two things. And it was at that time with voter registration that we began to canvas, and we knocked on people's doors and talked about registering to vote. A few weeks later, maybe a month later, was when we started talking about the Mississippi Challenge [to the Democratic Party at the convention in Atlantic City]. It was not the immediate thing we did when we first got there. It was voter registration that we were primarily doing. And then they started talking about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).
Hardy: Along with all the rest of the stuff we were doing, we were doing voter registration. We were registering people to vote and holding Freedom Meetings in all these different churches.
And we had one in Oxford [MS], now the famous time when they turned the mob loose on us in the square. They stopped us [when we were] coming back from a meeting. A crowd [of whites] grew, and then they told us we could leave. That was kind of interesting, because of all the racial stereotypes brought out by the Sheriff, because we had a guy named Carl Young [an Asian-American] and so if you were a white person, a girl, you got picked up for being " What the hell are you doing?" They asked Carl, "Why wasn't he in the laundry," that was the kind of stereotype they had. They had all of us lined up outside, and then they told us, once the mob got riled up, they told us we could leave. And they drove us to the city limits, and we left. And we got chased all the way back to Holly Springs. Ray drove very dangerously, we could've gotten killed, really. We were lucky.
Hardy: We were getting a few people registered in Holly Springs. A few. Holly Springs was not like Greenwood and other places, because of the sheriff, Flick Ash. He is now a State Representative from that area and had volunteered to come to the reunion, but he didn't show. But he was on the list to come to the reunion that we had last September . He's in the Legislature. We worked on a kind of relationship with him where we could take people in and register people to vote [without the kind of violent police-intimidation faced elsewhere], but I don't know how many people we got registered.
I can't say how many, because they made us stand there all day long. We started the Freedom [Day] about nine, ten o'clock in the morning, and we would march up the hill to the courthouse, and we might be out there all day long trying to get a few people registered to vote. But there wasn't as much violence as there could have been. And I think that was, It wasn't because the locals didn't want to be turned loose on us as much as I think it was the sheriff. Because the local police were really bad, the city police. They were really bad. But the sheriff, he also was running liquor and stuff and shit like that. I mean, we knew he was running liquor.
Bruce: But in general, during all the voter registration and Freedom Summer which took place in 20 or 30 counties I guess, very few people were actually registered. That was one of the fundamental problems.
Hardy: Yeah, there were few people registered. I don't know how many. But we were doing two things. See, we were trying to get people to register to vote and also we were signing people up to participate in the [MFDP] convention that was going to come up [in Jackson].
Bruce: Right. But at a certain point the Freedom Summer voter registration work switched from sending people down to the courthouse to try to register and fail, to try to legally register people to vote and not be able to, and instead it was switched to the Freedom Registration where there would be this parallel voter registration, a parallel setting up of precinct meetings and a parallel development of a delegation that was then the delegation that challenged at the Democratic convention [in Atlantic City].
Hardy: Yeah, it was something similar to that, but I don't think it was a major switch. I think we were doing both at the same time, because one of the ways we could mobilize people was to have a Freedom March to register to vote.
I mean, this was a big day for Holly Springs when you said you were going to have a Freedom March. I mean, the police were lined up with their guns and dogs and fire trucks and shit. The high school kids were ready to react, and they were a key component. They were going to do their thing. And they couldn't even register they weren't even old enough to register to vote. And so it was a big thing that was carried on. I would say that those two things were happening in June and July. Near about the end of July, we were getting ready for the [MFDP] convention. So a lot of time was put into doing precinct work, setting up, getting delegates to go to Jackson, Mississippi to participate in the MFDP convention.
We were also doing a little bit of labor work, labor organizing, during that summer. We [Freedom Summer volunteers] were in Tupelo, Mississippi and eastern Mississippi near Meridian. If you know anything about Mississippi, that's the industrial part of the state, which borders Alabama. It's interesting because in the [Delta] in [Mississippi] it's Black Belt cotton and all that kind of stuff, and then you go to the eastern part of Mississippi and they got lumber and timber and furniture making. And then you cross into Alabama, and you're in the Black Belt again, Green County, Sumter County, Lowndes County and all those places. And I worked a lot in Fayette County, Tennessee, which at that time was about the fourth poorest county in the United States. It had a whole Civil Rights history before we got there.
Hardy: My main job was to register people to vote downtown in Holly Springs, to attempt to register people right in front of the sheriff, et cetera. I got arrested once or twice. I walked around all day long with a microphone system and a recording system, but it had no batteries in it a lot of times. We also had a guy there, a white guy there, I think he was born South African. His name was Davey, John Davey or something like that.
Hardy: Davies, yeah. And his job was to watch me all day long because he looked just like an FBI man. I mean, this guy looked just like an FBI man. I think he had been at graduate school, and he was British I think, not South African. And he dressed like the FBI. He would be standing there all day long watching me talk to people. He had a pair of glasses with a lens on them, and they didn't know who he was. Nobody in town knew exactly who this guy was [so the local cops were afraid to harass voter registration because they thought Davies was FBI]. Every day he would be up there. And I would continue to walk around the square and talk to people and try to register people.
One time, the last time I got arrested, I wouldn't cooperate. I just kind of put my hand up in the air like this, and the guy drew a gun on me. And the sheriff led me to jail. And we walked to jail, which is right off the square, and before they could get me locked up, SNCC had got the word that, Somebody had gone back to the Freedom House and told Ivanhoe [Donaldson] or Cleve [Sellers] that I had been arrested, and so they came down and they got me out of jail. We came back to the Freedom House, and they told me to go right back up there. We had an argument about that. They said you had to go back up there. I said, I just got arrested, man. What? Are you crazy?' [Laughing]
And they said, "You've got to go." And so I went back up there, and there I was. And the sheriff was really pissed then. I mean, not the sheriff so much as the local police, the city police. They were really pissed. But there I was up there. And that was important because then the people got the idea that we were staying. Because we went right back up there to confront them.
Hardy: All of this activity took place in about two months. Freedom Schools, register to vote, some direct action, attempt to get the Democratic Party to open up, [and organizing MFDP]. During that whole period, there was a little violence, not a lot. But they did burn down a church. We talked these people into having these meetings and shit, they had the precinct meeting and all that, and the next thing their God- damned church was burned down. That kind of stuff happened.
Betita: I was sent down there by SNCC. I wasn't working full-time on staff [then], I was somewhere on my way to that. To go to every project and talk to people, at all the projects about, to volunteers primarily, about what they could do to support the ongoing [MFDP] Challenge [at the Convention in Atlantic City]. So I got this car, and I drove all over all by myself. I was crazy, and there was some violence. One of the first places I went to was McComb which had been bombed the day before, the night before.
I went over to McComb to try to get some support from there, from church people there for what was going on. Anyway, all I'm saying is that my job was to try to get volunteers to come, to support the Mississippi Freedom Party Challenge and to continue to work in some way when they went home, back to their various northern neighborhoods. But there was definitely a climate of violence when I went. I went all over.
Hardy: I was speaking of Holly Springs. I wasn't speaking of Marshall County.
Betita: No, I know. I think it varied. But there was violence in other places. I could sort of feel it intensifying maybe as the Challenge was building. I don't know, but there was a sort of climate like that that I could pick up. The volunteers were a mixed bag. Some of them wanted to keep on working, some didn't, which was not surprising. But I remember, I drove home to this project headquarters, the whole damn garage door was blown away and half the place. "Well, now let's go vote.' [Laughing]
Hardy: [In Holly Springs] we were affected a lot, in my opinion, that we were so close to Memphis. Because we could drive 50 miles down Highway 78, [to Memphis]. [But farther south in] Tallahatchie County, about three counties down, the shit was rough. That was where Frank Cieciorka, and I, and three others, they drew the guns on us and threatened to kill us. In fact the [local people] were scared to talk to us at the time. "We don't want to talk, just leave us alone."
And one time this guy he went with a white girl from Stanford. They drove to Jackson. We told them not to go together; they went anyway, and the [engine] block froze up on this old ass car, on the interstate. Cleve sent me and Howard and a couple people to go pick them up. We weren't sure where they were, We couldn't find them. We saw the car. But on the freeway we couldn't find them. And they were of course hiding, and so we had to call back and say, "We can't find them." And they said, "Look, you got to check to see if they're in jail." Well, how the hell do you check to see if they are in jail? I mean, you go into a town, man, it ain't exactly like [laughing] "How you doing, sheriff?" [Laughing]
I mean, "We're going to ask you if you got Black folk locked up here." Shit! I mean, so we had to figure a way to go in there. So what we did was we pulled up, and we had all these damn cars with antennae on the back like we were cops or some shit, you know. So we were a dead giveaway. Everybody knew what kind of car we drove. So we go in there, and we walk in. [It was a] a real small jail. We just walked in and said, "Do you have so and so? Do you have anybody locked up here?" And the guy says, "No, we don't have anybody in jail now." "Thank you." And we were out the door, right? [Laughing]
And so we came out, and the little town was, you have to drive five miles over the road to get back to the interstate. So we got back, and it was getting dark. It was almost about 4:30 in the afternoon, and we were, shit man. We can't find them. We drove up and down again. We can't find them. And we decided we were going to go back to Holly Springs. So we are driving along the freeway slowly, where we're near a car, and we hear somebody screaming our name. And they had been up on top of this hill, hid in the grass. They had enough sense to go up there. Deep grass. And they were screaming and hollering, and we stopped, and they ran down and of course got in the car and we drove back to Holly Springs.
Mike: But you know what? A couple of times I've been reminded of this, and you reminded me again. What's remarkable to me is here's this context where you can clearly make this general rule: It's a racist state. They're not going to let Blacks vote. Da-da-da. And yet when you get into the real detail of places, there are these little nuanced differences that are really interesting. Like the sheriff up there in where you are.
Hardy: Holly Springs. Flick Ash, yeah.
Mike: There's a little bit of margin of difference there. Where I was, in Greenwood , Dick Fry and I were picked up. We weren't there two weeks, picked up by the cops, brought to the jail. Sam Block called the chief, Chief Larry. They're on a first name basis. "Chief, don't mess with those white boys. They know the governor of California." [Laughing] It was a total bluff. It's a total bluff that Sam makes. [Laughing]
So we're standing, Dick and I are standing there at the booking desk, and we can see the glass, you know the window to Larry's office, and he's talking back and forth with the cop who picked us up. And we were scared to death, because when we walked into the jail house, the cop who picked us up yelled to the prisoners up above, the white prisoners, "Got me some nigger lovers here, boys. You're gonna have a picnic pretty soon." [Laughing]
We thought we were going to get really the shit beat out of us. So we're standing there. Five minutes go by. Ten minutes go by. Nothing is happening, and these two guys are arguing. Pretty soon the cop who picked us up comes back out and says, "All right you boys, get back in the car." [Laughing]
So he takes us on a little tour of the Black section of Greenwood. He's showing us, "We built this school here. We built this recreation park."
Betita: He was making a good impression.
Mike: What is going on? And he drops us back at the Freedom House. And he says, "Now you boys are guilty of co-habitation of the races." [Laughing]
"You've got to be out of the state for 48 hours." So we walk into the Freedom House, and everybody burst out laughing. There was big applause. "What's so funny?" And then they told us this story about Sam just totally buffaloing the chief into letting us go. [Laughing]
Chude: There was such a relationship, at least on our project, between Wayne Yancy, one of our voter registration workers, being killed, and within a week or two, not very much longer than that, the three bodies of Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner were found. So my memory of the organizing for the MFDP was imbued with this sense of death and killing and loss. It added an element to it that,
You know, most people knew that the three people who disappeared in the beginning of the summer were dead, but the actual finding of the bodies, It was like this spur then. It gave everybody this kind of focus, and for us dealing with personal death on our project. It was like what else could we have to do but to organize people into the MFDP? That was the kind of response we had to the loss of someone we knew as well as the loss of three people that we hadn't necessarily known.
Don: It's for a different discussion, but the counties were different, dramatically different. And within the counties things were different.
Jimmy: Same thing in Alabama.
Mike: In Holmes County, in Lexington there was a newspaper I think it was called the Lexington Advertiser owned by a white woman [Hazel Brannon Smith] who also had a plantation or something, who took her Black workers to register to vote.
Hardy: I think what we tend to forget is that you'd see these guys [cops] every day. We'd see them all the time. But [after awhile] there was a little bit of respect. I remember once, going to take a lady to register to vote, and I was scared shitless of this city policeman, a tall, skinny guy. You know, a poor white guy. He carries his gun half way around here some damn way, right? And we went in to register to vote, and the Black lady is trying to register to vote, and had finished filling out the form, and the white lady [the Registrar] told her, "No, Miss who-ever-she-was, you didn't make it. Blah, blah, blah."
And I'm arguing with her. "Let's look at it" and all that. And the guy comes in, this little deputy comes in, and like pulls his gun and I'm thinking here I am arguing with a white woman in the middle of Holly Springs, Mississippi. I'm going to get blown away. I walked over to the sheriff's office, "Sheriff, look. You've got to come in here and protect me, man," I said to him. "Because, you know, I'm out there doing my job, and you've got to do yours." [Laughing] Right? And he came out there and told that guy, "Put that god-damned gun away."
Don: It was often like that. I was in a car. I was driving. I had my white girlfriend sitting next to me, and a Black couple sitting in the back. The cop stops us, and he tells me, "Get out of the car." He thinks I'm drunk, and he wants me to walk up and down to the junction. I do it once or twice, and he talks about my droopy eyes. And he starts saying, "I think he is drunk." And it's just a general harassment. And there's my girlfriend sitting in the car, and I just lose it. And I say, "Either arrest me or get the fuck out of my way." And he pulls his gun. His hand is shaking, and his white fellow officer grabs his hand and takes the gun out of his hand. I mean, I was crazy, and he was crazy. [Laughing] And calmer people worked it out.
So, they had the ability to kill with impunity, and yet look how few people were killed. So obviously it's a very confused situation with what's going on there. Why didn't they kill hundreds of people? I mean, at Attica [prison in New York where the guards] killed 39 people in five minutes, more than died in the South during this immediate period.
Chude: I think the fact that the three disappeared before even the second group got in, one of whom was a volunteer who had been within the state less than 24 hours, right? I think that because it had just started, the emphasis went down from then on, everybody that did anything in Mississippi knew that they were going to get harassed by the media, if nothing else.
Bruce: Chude, I think that's true, but I think that what Don and others are saying is also true, that in the South there was a personal element. This was true in Alabama. It was true for me in Grenada, Mississippi. Often we were dealing with them as people, I'm a person, you're a person. We're having a personal interaction. You could never really predict what would happen, and sometimes you could just, as a person, do something like Hardy said, go tell the sheriff, "Hey, protect me." When I was in Crenshaw County [Alabama] in Luverne, we were being attacked by a mob, the chief of police came out and rescued us. Because we were dealing people to people. As opposed to places like Attica or Los Angeles when I was involved there, where they were, Everyone was formed up in their institutional organizational teams.
Don: That's right.
Bruce: It was differenent in L.A, or Selma, or Grenada, when the police were under, when there were 20 or 30 of them acting as a military unit in confrontation with us, and everything was controlled by the political domination of what they wanted to do.
Don: And we had one-on-one relationships [in the South].
Bruce: And we had these one-on-one relationships. Now some of those one-on-one relationships were brutal and vicious, when the politics was dominant in the sheriff. Like the sheriff of Grenada County [Mississippi], Suggs Ingram, who completely owed his election to the Klan. And you know, you couldn't go to Suggs [Laughing] and say, "Protect me" because he would jail you. Same with Jim Clarke in Selma. But with others,
Hardy: I didn't say protect. I said do your job. But you got to remember something, if you were going to have a Freedom Day march, somebody's got to talk to the sheriff before you just start in the god-damned street. You got to have an agreement. That's what I was trying to tell a group of young people about this. When they were talking about, you know, picking up a gun and shit. And I said, "Well, you know, look. You've got to have some kind of relationship with these guys, because you've got to make sure that you don't get a bunch of people killed when you lead somebody down the street."
I also think that back when you [Don] were driving along that road and you met that sheriff and he met you, and there were maybe one or two people, there was no love lost, but there is that basic kind of respect.
Bruce: Remember too, that in Mississippi and in Alabama, outside of Jackson and Birmingham and Montgomery, there weren't but two or three or four law enforcement people in a whole county. You had one sheriff. Maybe one or two deputies. In Mississippi, they had one beat constable [for each beat] maybe four or five in a county. These were small enough numbers that you could know them and they knew you. It was only when the state troopers came in 20s and 30s and 50s, and 100s that they had this military-unit mentality.
So the police who we were dealing with in rural Alabama and Mississippi, we could deal with them as individual people. Some would be racist dogs. Some would be rational. Some would not be rational. But when you got them all lined up in their army under the control of Al Lingo [Commander of Alabama state troopers] like they did at the [Edmund Pettus] bridge [in Selma], and he orders "Troopers advance!" it was different. See that was when you weren't dealing with them as people, as individuals [and they weren't dealing with us as individuals].
Don: Another factor is that they thought we had the FBI. They really did. They thought we had the federal government. And that there was a potential price to pay, However unrealistic it was, they did believe that, and that was a tempering factor in a lot of this.
Jimmy: But one of the funniest things I ever saw was with Scott B. in Lowndes County [Alabama] one Saturday. We were attempting to register people to vote, and he got in an argument with Lux Jackson. He was a sheriff. And they were arguing, and Lux reached for his gun, and you know how Scott B. used to wear the chicken bone around his neck. He raised it up and [Lux] was backing with the gun. He was backing up. [Laughing]
Scott B: What happened was that we were registering people to vote and here we were out there in the sun. And [women] were in their best, ironed dresses, and everyone was sweating in the sun. Lux Jackson came out and said no one was going to be registered. I got mad. I got so damn mad. When he went back to reach for his gun, I went, "What the hell's a gun? I got this!" And I was acting like, you know, "the cross is on you." It wasn't nothing but a bone. He got all shook up, "What the hell?" [Laughing]
And when I would get mad, I would bite the bone. I was trying not to cuss. [Growling] It sounded like what's that called? talking in tongues. But I wasn't talking in tongues. I was just .... because I was so mad. "You mother-fucking son of a bitch." I couldn't say that because of the church board and that kind of stuff, but I was so angry that I didn't care. "You got a gun? So what, shoot me!" It don't give a damn to me. I will just get your butt. And he flipped out.
Wazir: It seems like every time someone [cop or sheriff] became unconfident or maybe got hit with the truth, they backed down. Like you got a chicken bone, you just tell him whatever, I mean he could have shot you right there.
Hardy: I think the situation we were in, the whole damn South around racism is a big contradiction. I mean, it's all mixed up. That's number one, but number two, I think, in my opinion was that I think Don is right to a certain extent. They thought we had all these contacts. In Washington.
Wazir: But so what? So what if we got connections? I'm the sheriff of this town. So what? I'm saying why weren't they
Don: Why weren't they willing to die for their convictions?
Wazir: That's what I'm saying. I'm saying, if he's so confident, you know, they did it 10 years ago. I'm going to murder this person. It was Emmett Till or something, and they got off scot-free.
Don: Well the SNCC rule that I remember the most in relation to what you're asking is don't provoke them, and they probably don't have the killer instinct in them.
Hardy: I don't think they had a killer instinct as a single individual. When they were in a mob, it was a whole different question.
Wazir: When they in line with a bunch of people who were in agreement. They starts moving, well I better move too.
Bruce: When they were under orders.
Wazir: But put three under the same orders, would they have marched out there like that?
Jimmy: No, but see, there's another component here. Out of all these Black people that were being killed and even white people that were being killed, the people that were doing the killing didn't have to be concerned about whether they would have to suffer the consequences, because they knew that they wouldn't.
Don: They wouldn't be caught.
Jimmy: Well, you didn't have any Blacks on the jury, and all the people that were on the jury, like in the Tom Coleman case [for the murder of Jonathan Daniels in Alabama] that I was involved with, they grew up with Tom Coleman and knew the Colemans for 100 years. They weren't going to convict him of anything.
Don: Why didn't they just kill with impunity? All these Northern students? All these whites working with
Hardy: Well, if you were a sheriff in Holly Springs, in Marshall County, one of those counties, you weren't really, You were the sheriff, but you weren't really the power in those places. Because you know who had the power? The guy that owned the bank. [Laughing] The one that ran the agriculture extension office. That was a whole different set of white people. I grew up in Tuskegee, same thing in Tuskegee. There were a whole bunch of white people who controlled the power.
Wazir: Allen Parker.
Hardy: Yeah, Allen Parker in Tuskegee. I mean, this guy owned two or three stores. He was the man.
Jimmy: And the bank. [Laughing]
Hardy: See? In every one of those counties, you had the same thing. It might not be the owner of the store, but it might be the owner of most of the land.
Bruce: I think there's something else too. Even if you take the worst of them, the Klan, The Klan was really great on ambushing and catching you by surprise, coming up behind you. But they were not so tough for a face to face confrontation. Earlier in the discussion, Mike was saying that at Aaron Henry's house they had guys sitting around with guns. They protected you. The Klan would usually not do a face to face confrontation. I told you all before the story about how we were chased out of Brantley, Alabama by the Klan, and we was chased all the way to Luverne. And two days later we came back with Al Turner, and we were just sitting on the porch and the Klan came by one after one in their cars, looked at us, saw we were not running, and they did nothing. Because [they could see we were ready for them.]
And they were also in some ways being driven by fear. I was once put in a cell in Selma with one of the posse who had attacked us on marches, who had attacked folk on the bridge. He had been part of Jim Clark's posse, had then been arrested by Clark for armed robbery, put in the cell. Clark puts me in the cell and says, "Here's one of those, blah, blah, blah." And the guy beat on me and stuff, but afterwards we got to talking, because there was just both of us in the cell and what can you do? I said, "Well, why did you do this? Why were you in the posse? Why were you in the posse that went down to Wilcox County, to Camden [to attack marchers there]? That isn't even your county.?" He said, "Well, Jim Clark told me I had to go. And if I hadn't gone, I would have been, Jim Clark would have retaliated against me." And in fact, it may well be that the reason he was in jail there was he somehow went afoul of Jim Clark. So in a way, fear. Fear of Black people, fear of integration, fear of Jim Clark, fear of this, fear of that, was motivating
Chude: Fran O'Brien [a white volunteer] was kidnapped by the Klan. She got left at the end of the driveway [waiting for a her ride to pick her up] after a meeting. The next car that comes isn't another civil rights worker. It's the Klan. The way she described it is that, she always said that they couldn't believe their good luck. And they took her down the road. But then they really didn't know what to do with her. So they said to her, "We're going to make you say you're sorry, little girl." It was very interesting that way with women, trying to trivialize and make you little, right?
And she wouldn't. And so there they were. You know, what are they going to do? But they really didn't want to kill this woman. They didn't really want, I mean, they didn't want this thing to happen, so they took her back. But in another place, she could have been raped and killed, right? I mean, it just depended on who the people were.
Hardy: You know, these sheriffs, I mean, there was a lot of stuff going on. Like in Holly Springs, the sheriff didn't want too much trouble, because he would have lost a lot of money if he had brought the state investigators in there. He would have lost a lot of money because he was selling liquor out of both sides of the god-damned car, right? [Laughing]
Don: In short, it's more complicated than we make it usually.
Betita: I want to offer a very weird comment here. The South lost the Civil War and has never gotten over it. It's a very complex They can kill you, but maybe not. Anyway, I really think there is a whole regional set of memories and culture there.
Wazir: I'm looking at it, and I'm comparing Hitler, and I'm hearing this hate that comes out. I mean, people hate people who smoke weed. Even people who used to smoke weed. And I'm just hearing this hate, and I'm sitting here comparing Hitler, and I'm sitting here it always comes down to this one point. Everybody, I mean, from my generation, we're thinking "George Bush, well, he's just waiting for martial Law." Well, why would he wait? There's only one thing. When you go in somewhere, your troops have to be confident about what they're doing. They actually have to be like, "Those god-damned hippies." Or they actually have to be like, "Those god-damned niggers."
Mike: I mean, if we look, what are the facts? The fact of the matter is that you could kill with impunity, and people knew that. People knew that. You had the Emmett Till history. You had a whole long history of lynchings of people,
Bruce: Medger Evers, Jonathan Daniels.
Mike: That's right. And nobody got convicted of anything. And the federal department, the Justice Department, FBI, did essentially nothing. That was widely known. And yet, very few people got killed in the course of the Civil Rights Movement.
Bruce: And I have to say that part of that was because of the discipline we had of non-violence.
Jean: I'm having a real problem with this conversation. I really am. To me, it doesn't seem like so few people got killed. I mean, to me, the South seems like a nightmare, a fucking nightmare. It was then, and it is now. And so I'm not prepared to talk about how few people got killed when all I see around me is bloodshed during those years.
But the other thing I want to say is that I'm also not prepared Maybe I still haven't established enough distance after 40 years, but I'm not prepared to talk about how you get along with these white boys, with these guns. How you could or how you couldn't. To me, they were bigots. They were armed bigots. They were killers. So, I have a problem with this discussion. And I don't know whether it's because I'm a woman and therefore I pick up more of the pervasive sense of lurking violence there. But I'm certainly not prepared to compare this county to that county, or that sheriff to that one. As far as I'm concerned, they were all killers. They may not have pulled the trigger, but they were involved in them. And we know that. So I don't understand the conversation.
Wazir: Well, I guess the reason I brought it up is how come they didn't do it in the light?
Jean: No, no, I do understand you. And it's a good question.
Wazir: How come they did it only in the dark? I mean, when it came time to really be in the light
Hardy: I think, what some of us are referring to, when you're locked into a confrontation with another person or with a group of people and you two are locked. That becomes a level of respect.
Jean: There wasn't any respect on my part!
Betita: Other people called it fear.
Don: It doesn't matter what we call it. The question is why did it happen? Why didn't they do everything they could have done [against us]? And that's what we're talking about.
Bruce: So at a certain point, the MFDP went through the whole stages of a normal process that leads to the selection of delegates to the Democratic Convention. And the significance of that, besides the Challenge, was that it showed that people did want to vote and were being denied. Because up to that time, Mississippi and segregationists were saying, "Well, Black people don't want to vote. It's just a few outside agitators "
Hardy: We only had like 12 weeks in Mississippi and not even that many before we had to be in Atlantic City. Not a lot of weeks, number one. Number two, after we left [Atlantic City] the Congressional Challenge started. One of the things we used at the Congressional Challenge was that people had been denied the right to participate in the regular Democratic Party of Mississippi, which is the one we were trying to test first before we could do the MFDP. That's how it worked. Then we had to go to [regular Democratic Party] precinct meetings. We had to try to go to these places and get shut out, and we knew we were going to get shut out. At the same time we were doing that, we were setting up these [MFDP] precincts and all these kind of meetings.
Chude: All of which were open.
Hardy: Not integrated. They were open. They [white Mississipians] could come if they wanted to, but
Don: Whites came to MFDP meetings.
Bruce: Other than Ed King? [Laughing]
Hardy: Yeah, that was Jackson. You see, Jackson was kind of unique for a lot of reasons as compared to where we were [Holly Springs].
Mike: I think the voter registration and participation in the Democratic Party line is a little fuzzy here. First, people wanted to register to vote. They couldn't register to vote. Why? Because this all- white Democratic Party keeps them from being able to register to vote.
Hardy: And the county registrars.
Mike: Who are controlled by this party. So we're going to go and participate in that party so that we can change it. So, we show up to participate, and they won't let us. Well, because of that, we're going to have our own party which is going to be loyal to Lyndon Johnson. We publicly declared to support Johnson for re-election. I mean, we're going to go to Atlantic City and say, "We're the legitimate Democratic Party of Mississippi, because this all-white Democratic Party won't let people participate in it. [And won't support LBJ.]
Chude: I didn't do voter registration but I did do Freedom Democratic Party registration towards the end of the summer when it became a push. I think in the early part, you might go to someone's house, and you would talk to them about would they like to vote and would they go down [to the Courthouse] to try to register to vote, and if they weren't willing to do that, then you said, "Well, would you sign up for the Freedom Democratic Party?'
Chude: You see, you always had that second thing to fall back on. If you're not ready to go down there and face the police or stand in line to try to pass the test that you know they're not going to let you pass. "If you're not ready to do that, would you be willing to do this?"
Don: But if they were willing to go down, then you wouldn't bother to sign them up?
Chude: I think they probably still signed everybody up.
Hardy: [By late July it was mostly MFDP work.] We had to get people registered up in the MFDP. We had to have local meetings in churches. We had to have a convention, they had to pick delegates to the MFDP Convention that was held in Jackson. And they had to go to Jackson. And then [the national MFDP delegates had to] get ready to go to Atlantic City.
Chude: It had to start with trying to register people, have people go down and register, because if all of a sudden they had all been allowed to register, then the MFDP Challenge wouldn't have been That first step was, you know, let's try to do it. And was it Wazir last time was remembering in the spring of trying to go to Democratic Party meetings? So the whole thing was set up to have to show, continue to show, that it wasn't open.
But I do remember, as a Freedom School teacher, I do remember that the emphasis was on trying to register people to vote. And when the voter registration workers would speak to the kids, first thing every morning in our Freedom School, one or two of the voter registration workers would give a report. It was like a "State of the Voter Registration Project Report." So everybody was always kind of up on what was happening, and at some point, it did start shifting into "get people registered into the MFDP."
Hardy: If you ask the question, "Where were they [MFDP] the most strongest?" You'd probably find that they were the strongest mostly in the Black Belt counties. When you get into the cities like Jackson and Hattiesburg and Biloxi, that's when you run into the Mississippi Democratic Conference, I don't know what they called it, what the name was. The same in Alabama.
Mike: That's basically a class question.
Hardy: So it's a class question that gets involved, but it's also the place where in both states, there are areas which produce the first strong number of elected officials: sheriffs, agriculture extension, all those people, all got elected out of those counties.
Bruce: Counties where the MFDP was strong.
Mike: Another dimension I think is this. When you think about what happened in the efforts to go north, [in comparison] there wasn't enough patronage to buy allegiance very deep into [Southern] Black communities. I mean, there wasn't any. But when you came north, you ran into a different kind of situation. And organizers whose experience was in the south didn't know how to deal with that.
Email from Charlie Cobb, August 25, 2004
This longish commentary from Bob Moses found in chapter 3 of our book Radical Equations is relevant (typos mine because this from a draft in my files):
Today's commentary and analysis of the Movement often misses the crucial point that in addition to challenging the white power structure, the Movement also demanded that Black people challenge themselves. Small meetings and workshops became the spaces within the Black community where people could stand up and speak, or in groups outline their concerns. In them, folks were feeling themselves out, learning how to use words to articulate what they wanted and needed. In these meetings, they were taking the first step toward gaining control over their lives and the decision-making that affected their lives, by making demands on themselves.
This important dimension of the movement has been almost completely lost in the imagery of hand-clapping, song-filled rallies for protest demonstrations that have come to define portrayals of 1960s civil rights meetings: dynamic individual leaders using their powerful voices to inspire listening crowds..
Our meetings were conducted so that sharecroppers, farmers, and ordinary working people could participate, so that Mrs. Hamer, Mrs. Devine, Hartman Turnbow, all of them were empowered. They weren't just sitting there. It was the message of empowerment for grassroots people these meetings generated that was delivered to the entire country on national television at the '64 convention by the sharecroppers, domestic workers, and farmers who formed the rank and file of the MFDP. They were asking the national Democratic Party whether it would be willing to empower people in their meetings in a similar way.
The answer was "No." In Atlantic City, the Credentials Committee delayed making a decision about the MFDP and we went into a "negotiation" session in Hubert Humphrey's suite at the Pageant Motel. Walter Reuther, and Bayard Rustin were there as well as Martin Luther King. Ed King, Aaron Henry and Fannie Lou Hamer were there representing the MFDP. At the meeting we were told that the Democrats were willing to give the MFDP two symbolic seats at the convention and that Ed and Aaron had been chosen to fill those seats.
No one from the MFDP had been consulted, not even Aaron and Ed. We rejected it right there in front of Humphrey and Reuther. We told them there was no way we could accept that decision without the delegation discussing it and deciding whether it was something that they could accept. Suddenly, someone knocked on the door, leaned in and shouted, "It's over!" And when we looked at the television, there was Walter Mondale announcing that the MFDP had accepted the "compromise." He hadn't approached anyone from the MFDP either. I stomped out of the room, slamming the door in Hubert Humphrey's face. Although Senator Humphrey was probably caught by surprise too, I was furious. I had doubted that our delegation would be seated, and even the pretense at negotiation was not wholly unexpected; but here the Democrats were saying we'll pick your leadership too.
In the years since that convention the MFDP has been attacked for being unwilling to accept the offer of two seats. They've been accused of ignorance, and if you think knowledge is book knowledge, they were. They hadn't been through the schools; they hadn't been processed in the ways in which most of the delegates to the convention were processed. Their knowledge was about life, not books, especially about life in Mississippi. And they understood the relationship of the politics they were trying to challenge to the life they wanted to lead. They were as cognizant of that as anyone needed to be. They were relying on this knowledge, plus the ability to speak directly to the truth to qualify them for admission as the proper delegation.
And yes, I must state unapologetically, the issue of seating them was also a moral one that challenged the political expediencies of the national Democratic party. We were trying in part to bring morality into politics, not politics into our morality. The MFDP was raising an important question with this country, and with the Democratic Party, it being one of the major political institutions in the country, an important question: Generations of Black people had been denied access to the political process; could they get it now? They, the sharecroppers and others who made up the constituency of the MDFP were the voice of the real "underclass" of this country and to this day I don't think the Democratic Party, which has primarily organized around the middle class, has confronted the issue of bringing into its ranks the kind of people who were represented by the MFDP poor people actively into its ranks.
We were challenging them not only on racial grounds, obvious racial grounds, but we were challenging them on to recognize the existence of a whole group of people white and Black and disenfranchised who form the underclass of this country. Senator Humphrey was blunt about the party's unwillingness to face up to this when we "negotiated" at the Pageant Motel. Under no circumstances was Mrs. Hamer going to be part of any officially recognized Mississippi delegation. "The President will not allow that illiterate woman to speak from the floor of the convention," he said. No, they weren't prepared to hear her; it's not clear that they are now."
Wazir: Well, what happened in Atlantic City: The delegates arrived in Atlantic City, and we had a little brief workshop there and people were caucusing. The delegates were doing things that they hadn't done before, and that was that they were learning to lobby and caucus, to get the credentials committee on their side, to vote, to seat them, as opposed to seating the regular Democratic Party.
The regular party was totally white. No Blacks. With the population of Mississippi being what it was, not one Black delegate was a part of that delegation. Prior to coming there, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had followed all the rules of selecting the delegates. They had the correct precinct meetings. They publicized where the precinct meetings would be held and all of that, whereas the regular party didn't do that. They wanted to make sure that it was kept among themselves. And plus the fact that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had both the major races in Mississippi represented. We had white delegates.
So it was a feeling that since we had followed all the guidelines of the laws of selecting delegates of the Democratic Party and according to how the Democratic Party delegates are selected, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party felt very strongly that we were the ones that would qualify, we had met all of the qualifications of becoming the party that should be seated to represent Mississippi.
We followed through with the work of talking to all of the credential committee members, to present the case for being seated. Then there was an offer of two seats. So the meeting of the delegates ensued.
Wazir: The press was excluded from [the MFDP] meeting, but they did allow Hazel Brannon Smith from Holmes County, which pissed Hodding Carter Junior the Third to his highest degree of pissivity. He was really pissed off about that. Why Hazel and not him? Somebody explained it to him, but he didn't accept it.
Bruce: She was a journalist?
Fred: I don't remember the name of her paper, but it was in Holmes County, in Lexington, Mississippi, and she had been an outstanding journalist who had told it like it is over the years. And she wasn't from quote "liberal Greenville, Mississippi" where,
Bruce: She was African American?
Wazir: No, no. She's white. As you know, we had about three delegates and two alternates from Holmes County. One that stands out is Hartman Turnbow. Hazel Brannon Smith is the one who really put the light on Turnbow when he defended his home that night when the mob came to burn him out and kill him for attempting to register to vote. And somebody got shot [that night], somebody died, and they had a quiet funeral the next day, they buried this person. Then they tried to arrest Hartman Turnbow on some other charge. And she publicized it. She put it in the paper what actually went down. So they couldn't just those are the kinds of things that she did.
And this earned her the right to be there as a person, not just as a journalist, in the meeting with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in Atlantic City, New Jersey. And this was made clear. She did earn the right She is doing her thing in a very hostile area of the Delta Hill area. And she had taken some very drastic stands, standing alone and all that kind of stuff. She paid her dues so to speak. She paid her dues. And she, as a person, not only as a journalist, she had proven that she was trustworthy and had proven it over again.
[She left the meeting at the same time as SNCC and the other speakers] and she did not leak to the rest of the press what was discussed in the meeting. She did not do it, whereas I don't know about the other press persons that were raising hell because they weren't permitted to come.
Wazir: We had the delegates meeting to make the decision about whether or not they would accept this "compromise." We had various speakers to speak to them about the importance of accepting or not accepting those seats at large which had no voting power whatsoever.
Wazir: Now, there were those who spoke to the delegation to accept these two seats. Just about everybody that spoke, spoke for them to accept those seats. Bayard Rustin, he's the one that said, which some of the people in political science say that he spoke correctly, "When you enter the arena of politics, you've entered the arena of compromise." And I remember the way he said it, [Laughing]. Hartman turned and] looked at him strange because the way he was talking, [With an accent rolling all of his R's] "When you enter the arena of politics, you have entered the arena of compromise." Hartman turned to him and said, "Uh-huh, but there ain't going to be no compromise."
Jimmy: He sounded like Booker T. Washington.
Wazir: And then Jim Farmer of CORE spoke. Son of thunder. He got that big voice thundering out there. And he spoke, and he spoke beautifully, but it all came back down to the fact that it was sort of like, "We've come this far, and we've gotten through the door. We've got their attention. And maybe that's really a winner. They have offered us something. We should take it." That's what it boiled down to.
And then Martin spoke, and he said everything that the other people said. And then, you know, he's poetic, and then he unsaid it. [Laughing] You didn't have to be listening too hard to know which side he was on, but in case there were people there to leak stuff to the press, he said what the establishment, what Johnson probably wanted him to say. But then he unsaid everything. And essentially, what King said was that, "You all have struggled and you've gotten this far. You apparently know what you're doing, and you know what you want, the reason why you came here. You know what you want, and you know what you deserve, so make your decision based on that." It sort of reminded me a little bit of what Bob Moses said when Fannie Lou Hamer came to him troubled, asking him what she should do.
And essentially that's what Bob said was that "You don't need anybody to tell you what to do. It's up to you all. This is your thing. You're the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Delegation. You are Mississippians." He didn't say it like that, but in other words, "You are the grassroots people who have come to an understanding of what it means to have the vote and what it means to have representative government and how to do that, so you know what you need to do. So you don't need to ask me."
So based on that, the delegation, we left; we, the SNCC organizers and all that and Farmer and all those people, we left. We left it to them, and they voted unanimously to not accept those two seats at large. There were two delegates who wanted to do it, and that was Dr. Aaron Henry and Ed King.
Bruce: Who would have been the two at-large delegates.
Wazir: They would have been the two at-large delegates. As a matter of fact, now that Bruce brought that up, this had been decided before, We came to find out that this had been decided before the Democratic Convention convened. Aaron Henry I don't think Ed went, but Dr. Aaron Henry had been down on the Johnson ranch a week or so before the convention. He had been there. So the strategy was already in place. If they had to give up anything, that was these two seats at-large.
But anyway, almost unanimously I would say, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party voted not to accept those seats. That they came with nothing, and if they had to leave, And those seats were nothing, and they had worked hard to be legitimate as far as following all the rules of how delegates are selected, all the precinct meetings in the regional, that they had set up in all the, whatever the meetings are before you get to the state. And they selected them just according to the law. They had done everything. So this is why they felt that to be more, to be together, like that was a victory, to go back without accepting that compromise.
Chude: Wazir? I've never thought about the compromise outside of the whole question of "you can have two delegates, and we name who they are." But that's not actually what the word compromise means, right? I mean compromise actually means, I put out on the table "I want this." You have whatever your position is, and we come to a compromise, which means both sides give something up. So was there any discussion about a counter proposal?
Fred: What you're asking is a very key question, a very good one. Wazir, I was a little bit distant from some of this as you might remember. What was the preparation for the delegates going to Atlantic City before they left Mississippi? Did they play any "what-if" [strategy planning] games before they left? Or was it an all-or-nothing ball game?
Don: Or was it even talked about?
Wazir: There was no emphasis, I'll put it this way there was no emphasis put on "what-if's" at all. The emphasis was put on preparing the people to be knowledgeable about what they were doing as far as the procedures and all that goes into being a delegate and a representative as a party coming out of the state of Mississippi and being a legitimate party, because they're following all the laws and the rules.
Fred: So the process and procedures was the name of the game. Negotiations were not emphasized at all.
Bruce: There was enormous lobbying around the country, to line up votes, first in the Credentials Committee and then among the [national Democratic Party] delegates as a whole. And so many votes had been lined up in advance to support the Mississippi Challenge to seat the MFDP, that until the MFDP delegation reached Atlantic City, there was an expectation that victory was at hand, because the majority had already been lined up. It was only when Johnson and Humphrey and Mondale started working on it to subtract and take back the committed [pro-MFDP] votes, that all of this negotiation and compromise came up.
Fred: That gets back to the "what-if" preparation.
Wazir: Well, the way the work had been done, like Bruce was talking about, the question of "what-if" just didn't come up, because from Bella Abzug to everybody else, we had the Credentials Committee. I mean overnight, after Humphrey and Johnson and Mondale got through working the thing, calling people, "Well, you know your husband and you wanted that judgeship for your husband' and whatever. He knew just which buttons to punch, within less than a 24-hour period, when it came time for the Credentials Committee to vote, things had changed.
Don: And there was the threat that Humphrey would not get the Vice Presidency.
Wazir: He would not get the Vice Presidency.
Chude: But it still strikes me that, what happens to me in these discussions is I begin to see things from a different angle, because I've always dealt with it only as "This was the compromise." And now I'm sitting here thinking, "That's not what compromise means."
Jean: It wasn't even a compromise.
Jimmy: It wasn't even a compromise.
Chude: So I'm curious about people like Bayard Rustin getting up and saying, "When you enter the political arena, you have to deal with compromise." Well, why is this a compromise? This is not a compromise.
Don: Well, what he's saying, what they're meaning, is that you get into, You get elected to Congress, and there's some terrible bill that you're terribly against, but you know that you have to give your support for it if you're going to get something later on. So it very often
Chude: But you weren't being given anything.
Don: It's an ultimatum in the form of a compromise. In this case, they're saying, "This is going to be the first integrated convention ever, [the regular Mississippi delegation] will probably walk out anyhow the minute it happens, and you'll end up having the seats, and you'll make history." And that's the compromise. This is their position. This is how they framed it. The compromise was what you would end up with. The two seats was the mechanism to do it. But it was a unilateral compromise. It wasn't two sides sitting down on the floor, except that all of our supporters were those who were participating in arriving at that offer. My understanding, what I was told, I was not there, was that on the eve of the convention, it looked like the Challenge was going to succeed.
[Several]: It did. It did.
Mike: Well, what do you mean by "succeed?" It was going to get a minority report out of the Credentials Committee.
Don: No, no. They were going to reject the Mississippi delegation.
Mike: That's not my recollection. My recollection is that we believed we would get a minority report, which required seven or nine votes. And that once on the floor of the convention, the convention would adopt the minority report.
[Many]: Right, right, right. Correct, correct.
Don: And then on the eve, Lyndon Johnson who didn't want to lose any southern votes, held Hubert Humphrey as hostage. That either, this hostage, who was the ultimate liberal at that point, that if Humphrey did not arrange for this problem to go away, he would not get the Vice Presidency.
Wazir: That was true right there. And don't forget Walter Mondale was playing a role there in there too.
Mike: Walter Reuther too.
Wazir: Yeah, all three were. They were working overnight. They did the work of Three people did the work of 68 people. I'm talking about our delegates. They went and un-caucused them [the Credentials Committee]. [Laughing] If there is such a word. And got them where LBJ wanted them by morning.
On the eve of [the convention] we had already talked to all of these credential committee people, and everybody was on board. Billy, Ms. Abzug the "Hat lady," everybody was up for it. But by the next day, things had changed. So you can see, now you can get the spirit or the feeling of how pissed off and upset the Mississippi delegation, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was, because they had been deceived and lied to. And here are people who looked up to the national whatever of the United States of America
Fred: As their saviors.
Wazir: As being integral, right. And got up there and find the whole rug being snatched out from under you. I think it had health repercussions on Ms. Hamer. She talked about the disillusionment a lot of times when I talked to her in private about it. The same things. She was not prepared for it after getting behind the green door of what's going on this politically. There were things I wasn't prepared for.
Mike: Even with Johnson turning all of his screws, I think there would have been a solid minority on the convention floor for seating MFDP.
Wazir: There was never a doubt in my mind that what you were saying would have happened.
Jean: Which is why Johnson was so desperate not to get it to
Wazir: They would make sure it didn't come up on the floor.
Bruce: He might have lost it on the floor.
Mike: Well, that's what we thought at the time. If we could get an official minority report to the floor, we would win on the floor. If that's the case or not, I don't know. They might have been able to turn a lot of screws in a lot of places, but I don't think they could have turned enough screws to keep a quarter to a third of the vote on the convention floor from supporting the MFDP. Because there were a lot of people, like people I knew in the Bay Area. I mean, people who were delegates from California who came out of the CDC or came out of ILWU or came out of formations that were not part of this Leadership Conference, ADA, Walter Ruther, NAACP coalition that was Washington based.
Fred: As I remember, when I recall, it was my feeling that the desperation was that Johnson could not take a chance of it coming on the floor of the convention. He had to do what he did at the time. It was clinch time.
Hardy: I think you're right. I remember a little bit of a news release now. It also would have been a disruption. Part of what I think Johnson's notion was that he said, "Look, I can't get any of my program through if I got Senator Eastland and all these guys pissed off." And that was the thing. Those were the people who had the seats, and those were the people who made a challenge to him Because both delegations walked out. Well the MFDP never got in, and the white delegation walked out.
Mike: Correct me if I'm wrong, the walkout was because the resolution was adopted that said, "By the next convention."
Hardy: If you don't bring an integrated delegation here in the next four years [you won't be seated]. And they walked out.
Chude: That was one of the questions, could Johnson keep them in by undercutting the MFDP.
Mike: Well, yeah, that was the administration's illusion, that somehow they're going to keep the South.
John Lewis of SNCC, wrote the following assessment in his book, Walking With the Wind.
Wazir: And we got accused of making that decision. Don't forget that. SNCC got accused of, And that's why the word went out not to deal with SNCC any kind of way. They don't know how to compromise.
Don: Well, you know there's an irony. In the same way that the Civil Rights Movement was thought to be Martin Luther King, MFDP was thought to be SNCC. So, I mean, it was always that way. The assumption was that SNCC was pulling the strings.
Chude: That somehow, essentially, poor people can't think for themselves.
Wazir: That's right.
Fred: I thought it was marvelous to have people like Jim Farmer and Martin and Bayard come and speak to those people, but those delegates, I mean, they knew the names, but they didn't know those people. They had never done a day's work with any of those people. And they asked them to come in, at that point in time, and it was important to try and convince them that politics is all about compromise rather than somebody who has been working with that group to help them think through the process and arrive at a decision. And I thought it was a mistake for SNCC folks to walk out of the room and say, "Hey you guys are on your own now! Make your own decision!" That's a bunch of crap.
Wazir: Well, you might be right there, Fred, that it was a bunch of crap, but we spent all this damn time preparing people for a victory that we thought was winnable. Maybe we were stupid, as SNCC people, to think that, in our preparation. But that was, And our approach to organizing the people from the beginning, even for getting them to attempt to register to vote, that you can do this. You can get registered to vote. You can vote. You can do it. This was our mantra all the way through.
We couldn't turn around and do the work of turning the Credentials Committee people who had committed [to supporting the MFDP challenge]. The delegates had talked to these people, and they had been prepared before they came to the convention to vote, to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Not winning was not on anybody's mind. We hadn't prepared to be guilty as such. We had not prepared that if this happened, blah, blah, blah.
And they weren't looking to those three guys for leadership. Jim Farmer, Martin, or Bayard. They weren't looking to them for leadership, but they did listen to them very well. And we left the room, and they made a decision based upon what they knew, all the work they had done to get there.
Fred: All I'm saying, Wazir, is that bam! There's a problem now, and our expectations are not going to be met.
Don: Fred, do you think it would have been a different result if SNCC had been prepared?
Fred: No, all I'm saying is that someone or a couple of people should have been there to help those delegates think through the decision they were going to make. That's all I'm saying. Not make it for them, but help them understand the situation they were in, that people had backed out on them, their support was gone.
Wazir: Aaron was there, and Ed was there. They didn't listen to them. They were there in the discussion when we walked out.
Fred: There's a credibility problem there.
Wazir: Well, let's see how much credibility they had Aaron on at that time, or Ed. Ed hadn't lost any credibility at that time. And neither had Aaron. We knew some things, as organizers, yeah. We knew some things. But as organizers, we had not translated that to the people. That wouldn't have been a good thing to do. We hadn't done that. But they were left in there among the delegates. And I want to say one more thing. These weren't no dumb people. Aaron Henry's brother-in-law, Reverend Merrill W. Lindsay, who had ran, stepped out and ran for Congress, he was in that room too as a delegate. Jimmy Travis was in that room as a delegate from Jackson.
Jimmy: Yeah, that's right.
Bruce: And Jimmy Travis was on SNCC's staff.
Wazir: Yeah, but he was not an active staff member at the time. Jimmy kind of stopped that after he got shot [by the cops]. In '63, he kind of stopped being an active staff member.
Bruce: But he was associated with SNCC.
Wazir: But he was associated with SNCC.
Chude: And he was a smart organizer. What you're saying is there were people in the room who had the experience to
Wazir: And the respect.
Chude: And the respect.
Wazir: I mean, that had more credibility than Aaron and Ed.
Jean: This has always been a fascinating point for me too. Fortunately I have read, in several places, people getting it straight and saying that SNCC people left the room. One, I'm struck by how difficult it must have been for the MFDP after the heavy whites [Laughing] heavy weights told them what they should do. And particularly after King, because he was the heaviest weight of all of them.
Wazir: And they had a lot of respect for him.
Jean: So it took a great deal of courage to make a decision that opposed King and the others, because power is power, and people are intimidated by power. Usually.
But the second thing is that I agree with Fred. I've always been uncomfortable about the fact that SNCC left the room, because, maybe more now than I was earlier, because I think leading people, not determining the decision but leading people toward that decision is very important. I can't imagine leaving a group that I was working with, and most of you know that I've worked with non-profit organizations for a number of years. I can't imagine just leaving them to make that decision. I would have had them go through a process and then I might have left, but I wouldn't have just picked up and said, "It's up to you guys." That strikes me as very, very odd.
But the other interesting thing is what SNCC as a body would have agreed to or not agreed to.
Don: Or how they would have presented it. To the MFDP.
Jean: No, not as much how they would have presented it. I think they would have been consistent with the kind of work that Wazir has said, the presentation. I think that. But given the variety of opinions within SNCC at the time, I just wonder whether, had the time frame not been so condensed, so that a decision had to made [quickly], just whether the organization itself or even whether the whole Mississippi staff itself would have, how things would have followed.
Wazir: All this is in a short space of time. It amazes me to this day how much we got done in so, how many things we were doing. It amazes me. I mean, I'm really serious. I am amazed all the things, and all these dynamics were playing in there. I think a good question is, What do you think-? What would the press-? What would everybody-? Even if we followed the line that we were following all the time and let them make the decision and just been there, like we did as organizers, when they had one clarification on a certain point, if we had just stayed in the room, I think we need to talk about what do you think the impact would have been? If SNCC had just stayed in there?
Fred: Just a few individuals of SNCC.
Wazir: I'm serious. They said, "SNCC was in the room" though.
Fred: Yeah, but just a few individuals. I mean, I can see Bob staying. I could see Jim Forman perhaps staying, only as facilitators. And people who would help the delegates think through all that complexity there.
Bruce: Well, I think the point that Wazir, if I understand your point, is that had SNCC staff, Bob, anybody, who was not a delegate, remained in the room, it would have been used, The result would have been even more used against the ultimate decision.
Jean: It couldn't have been any more -
Bruce: Well, I think it probably could have, but I guess from my point of view from what I, not having been there, having been 3,500 miles away, I thought they made the right decision. And it also seems to me that there was a process that led up to SNCC walking out. It was the whole process of Freedom Summer, of building the party from scratch, of training the people at the precinct, and congressional district, and state level, and then all of the conversations and work going through the lobbying that had gone on before that last moment. I personally think that for SNCC staff, at the absolute last moment, the decision moment, to say, "We now respect you delegates so much, we are going to leave [the final decision to you]." I think that was the right thing, and a heroic thing.
Jean: Oh, no, no. I'm not suggesting they should have stayed. I think that SNCC at some point would have had to walk out. They had to have walked out in order to be faithful to SNCC's own organizational values. But what I'm saying is that it doesn't sound as though before SNCC walked out, whether a couple of people in SNCC, Bob or Forman or whoever, Wazir, took them through, took the delegates, who must have been shattered by the way at this news, because when they started out, they thought they had the votes. So they must have been shattered. It's in this context that I'm surprised that nobody took them through a process of figuring out for themselves the risks involved in either the decisions, the benefits involved or even just the thing that Chude just raised that I hadn't even thought about before. This really isn't a compromise. You know, it really isn't.
Fred: What you have here, just look at what you have. On the one hand, we came and said, "We want all of it." Because we did everything correct, morally right, politically correct, and all of that. And we all know that that doesn't mean a hill of beans in the world of politics. And then they came back and said, "No! And furthermore, your support's gone, and what we'll give you is a ridiculous offer." A ridiculous offer of two at-large seats and blah, blah, blah, right? So that gets back to what Chude was saying, "Well, gee, where is the compromise? Where are the negotiations here?" And what strength and power do the MFDP or the people from Mississippi have at this moment in time at this convention?
Don: I think I'm with Fred on this. I think that this is a very difficult decision to leave people alone. What's really needed is for someone to say, "We understand and agree that we are morally going to reject this, but let us go through and run down all of the pros and cons of what will happen if we just turn this flat down. This will be the up. This will be the down. This is what will happen. If this [happens], we will walk out. If this [happens], we won't get this. We won't get that. Should we come back with a counter offer? Should we not come back with a counter offer? Should we prepare a spokesperson who is going to make a very clear statement as to why we are not?"
This is an enormous burden to place on people. I've seen a lot of groups over the years, both as a lawyer and as an organizer, where the momentum of morality totally loses track of what is in the best interest of the individual. Very often, after you go through the whole thing, the final conclusion is the original moral one. But having gone through all the possibilities, you feel clearer about what you've done, and you don't feel as helpless.
Wazir: I clearly understand what Jean and you and Don and Fred are saying. I understand that in hindsight, 20/20 vision. I understand that, but I'm talking about in the moment. It was a mistake on my part, the way we prepared the people, the way SNCC had prepared the people, that was no But it was their decision, based on all of what everybody had said. That was their decision. And it's not that I wasn't in agreement with it, because to hell I sure was. But I sure kept my mouth closed and didn't try to influence it. That's the restraint that SNCC organizers did. That was the restraint. And I'm not talking about it being politically correct. And I might say another thing there.
Somebody brought up the thing that somebody should have raised questions, to clarify certain points for the delegation. I remember Kwame Ture spoke very respectfully to, as he called it, his mentor, Bayard Rustin and asked him certain questions that brought some clarity to what he was proposing. Now I don't remember all the context of what [Kwame] said and what [Bayard] answered, but I do remember that Bayard is capable, and he made it very clear, very clear, what he was talking about. And so did the other speakers. They made it very clear what they were talking about. Very clear. And we weren't leaving helpless people on their own when we left that room. There were 68 delegates in there that were very, Like I mentioned, Lindsay was in there and some other people were in there who understood what was going on.
Jean: I respect the MFDP's decision too. I think it was the right decision, and that's why I said they were very courageous in the midst of all of that to have made the decision. So I'm not talking about what they finally decided. That's not where I'm going here. Mine is more maybe of a process question. It's more of a process question in terms of what do you do as a field secretary? When do you leave? And you do have to leave. You have to leave, so they would have had to leave the room and let them vote, I think. My question is: "Can you help them out before they take that very important vote?" Which again, I think, was the right vote to take.
Wazir: I just want to make this point. Now, it would have looked funny if Bayard and all them other people had left SNCC people in the room. The thing that you're talking about did happen with all of those other people in the room. That was the only time for it to happen.
Jean: Oh, you mean they went from the speeches of these heavy weights, like Bayard and so forth, directly into the room to determine what they were going to do.
Wazir: Yes, yes.
Jean: And how long did they take to make that decision?
Wazir: I don't know. It could have been five, It could've been six hours. I went back to the Boardwalk where the vigil was taking place. We had a constant vigil going on.
Don: Five or six hours?
Wazir: It started early in the day, but before, I know before the sun, It wasn't like no, [snap] "like that."
Don: From the moment the heavy weights left?
Wazir: It was about three hours.
Don: That much.
Wazir: Yeah, it was about three hours.
Fred: Let me jump in. You know, I'm not questioning the final decision that was made. But the process leading up to that decision and looking at the makeup of that group. People in that group who had different hook-ups and different interests, and I know that for a fact.
Jimmy: Anytime you get 60-some people together you're going to have that.
Fred: Listen to what I'm saying. I mean, when I say different hook-ups, I'm talking about to the various levels of whoever's in the Democratic Party. And the agenda of the Democratic Party had for the state of Mississippi. OK, there was more going on at that time than what we're talking about. And there were people in that delegation who were part of it. And they weren't apt to fight too hard to,
Chude: What you're basically saying is plans were already in place, moving along, for changes in the Democratic Party in Mississippi. That's what you're saying. And some of the delegates were already a part of those discussions.
Bruce: What's the implication of that?
Fred: Well, you have a delegation made up of 68 people. And I don't know what I'm really saying. I mean, [Laughing] there were different interests of people in that group.
Don: Well, there's another thing that you might be saying, Fred, is that the heavy weights left in that group might have all been of one mind. And that would be one of the problems of not having a counter balance.
Wazir: Of the heavy weights that were left in the room, they were delegates, and so there was nothing we could do about that. It's obvious, It's very obvious that Aaron Henry was one of the first ones to buck to the loyalist Democratic Party. He was one of the first, OK? By that time, I'd left Mississippi. I don't know who was the second, third and fourth and fifth. But I know he was one of the first. And if anybody knew about the future changes that were on the drawing board for the Democratic Party, he and Ed King knew. I don't know who else in that room knew. I know Merrill W. Lindsay was in that room. I know Victoria Gray was in that room. I know Jimmy Travis was in that room, and Mrs. Hamer was in there. And I know they weren't a part of whatever it was. I know those two weren't a part of it. But some of those others,
Jean: But see, to me, that emphasizes the point that if you know you have all these competing interests
Wazir: I didn't know that.
Jean: in a room. And this is an extremely important decision for them, as well as for everybody, but for them especially. I just can't conceive of no deliberative counsel on the part of SNCC people before the actual vote. That's all I'm saying.
Bruce: But maybe enough of that occurred before the meeting started. I mean, there had to be a time, before the meeting convened and before Bayard and Dr. King and Jim Farmer spoke, there had to be a time with people consulting in the halls, people talking, SNCC people talking with delegates, "What does this mean? and so on."
Don: But that's shock and anger time. It's going to take a bit of time before it's resolved. I think what Jean is saying is that there was a need for an objective counsel that would really make everybody certain that they were considering all of the options, including asking for a different compromise. LBJ had a lot at stake, in his own mind. He didn't want to see this go bad. There were a lot of angry people who had been pressured to change their mind. If something else came along, maybe, And it still might not be acceptable, but whether every option was considered in something as momentous as that moment I think is worth what we are all talking about.
Bruce: Well for me, SNCC had to leave the room to the delegates alone at some point, otherwise they would not have been true to themselves. They, SNCC, made a decision that at a certain point, this is the time to leave. Since I totally agree with the decision the delegates voted, it looks to me like the SNCC folks judged it right.
Wazir: They [MFDP delegates] had been deceived. The rug had been snatched out from under them. The first time they began to understand, although it was devastating, they understood that the good ol' red white and blue wasn't what they thought it was. It was a type of instant mass education. And everybody, the majority of those people were really angry. They were angry, and they saw it as nothing that was being offered to them for all of the work that they had done.
Some people were, life was put on them. And I remember from southern Mississippi down the way of Laurel and them places, some people got killed. And to ask these people to come back with [just two seats], I mean, there were a lot of dynamics going on, I'm telling you, in the heads and hearts of these people. It was no calm thing, you know? There was nothing offered! Show me! Tell me something you all guys that disagreed! Goddamn it, tell me what was offered, Goddamn it!
Jimmy: That's right.
Wazir: Nothing was offered! And there wasn't nothing going to be given! Even if they had set their asses in them seats, there wasn't nothing offered. Because even just the idea of them sitting in those seats, The regular Mississippi Democratic Party walked out! And they still didn't offer to seat [the MFDP] when those people walked out. There was an opportunity there for the regular Democratic Party, but they did not take advantage of it, because they did not respect all the work that the people had done. They had no respect for it at all. And I do know that's the way American politics go. I know that. But who says it's right? We were about the business of change in this institution. That's where we were coming from as SNCC people, let's not forget. Let's not forget that.
Jimmy: I just want to say that I think the MFDP made the right decision. I don't see how they could have come out with any other decision, and I don't care who they had in the room with them, SNCC or anybody else. The outcome still would have been the same. They wouldn't have had their delegates heeded. The compromise wasn't even the issue because when you have two people sit down and compromise, both sides give up something. The regular Democratic Party wasn't giving up anything. And there just wasn't any way, I believe, that the delegates from the MFDP were going to be seated and the regular Democratic Party were going to be rejected. It just wasn't going to happen. I don't care who was in the room. So I think they made the right decision, and I really respect them for it.
Bruce: Chude, you had talked, about what was going on out on the boardwalk and what was going on about summer volunteers going back to their communities. Could you, ?
Chude: Well, Wazir has mentioned that on the boardwalk was an ongoing vigil. It was a 24-hour vigil that was in support of the MFDP's Challenge. And they had the car, the burned-out car that the three Civil Rights workers had been in that had been pulled out of I guess the water. And they had big posters of their pictures. I was there, as I said, just a very short time. We went down; we were asked to come down and participate in the vigil, and that meant that we had signs, and we marched around. I was on the night shift, which, I truly do not like and believe in 24-hour vigils unless people are doing it for some reason. I mean, in something like Atlantic City there are people awake all night, but it's one of these questions of how you use your human power. It's a very debilitating thing to be on. You're done in, you know? And whether it made any difference is the question I have, but again, morally, we felt very moral doing it, making our stand on the boardwalk. And then I went home. We all went home.
Bruce: How many people were on the boardwalk?
Chude: You know, since I was on the night shift, mine wasn't a big group. At daytime, you would have had a bigger crowd. What I remember most, we're talking 40 years ago now, what I remember most is this sense of it being that people were awake at all hours. So there were always people coming by. But whether it would have mattered if there had been just the signs and somebody to guard the signs and the car
Wazir: They [national Democrats] had very inviting parties all over the place in Atlantic City at the time. Robert Kennedy, I didn't go to his thing, but people were going. But there were all kinds of distractions, but even at that, there were still a lot of people at certain hours that kept the vigil.
Chude: And we slept in a church, so they had organized local churches to put us up and things like that. I remember sleeping in the pews. So there was some attempt to involve people, but the thing I remember, just to go back a little bit to the Challenge, is again, everything is happening very fast. And really a relatively small number of people are doing a whole lot of stuff.
So you are exhausted; you're not at your, I mean, you are really pushing it. But then, I went back to my community [in Pennsylvania], and I began to do speaking about Mississippi. And certainly the Challenge was a part of that, in my outreach. And I considered the MFDP Challenge a failure [of the system]. I mean, I considered that it was the end of, It was like any integrity or credibility that the political system had, for me as a little idealist, really went down the drain with that.
Don: You thought the MFDP Challenge itself was a failure?
Chude: Well, no, it was more that I saw the system as bankrupt. And it's one of the questions about when you look back as a political person, as an organizer, and you look back at an event like that, and I was young, and I was definitely a foot soldier as it were.
Chude: But how do I feel about what they did? I feel like the disdain for the poor was absolute, and so for them [MFDP delegates] to take the high road was absolutely the right thing to do, because there was no way they were ever going to be respected. The Democratic Party higher ups have no respect for poor people, and that was always SNCC's bottom line was that they were in respect of the local and the poor.
Fred: See that? [Fred flexes bicep] Muscle. That's what they got respect for is that. Not morality.
Don: And one thing to anticipate though is that Lyndon Johnson, Of course, it was a little hard to understand why he cared since everyone knew he was heading for a landslide. But if you knew, If we had gotten up to Volume-3 of Carrow's biography, we would have known that he would never let it [the Challenge] happen.
He would never let the MFDP be seated and that there was going to be a big fight over it. One could have guessed in hindsight that it wasn't going to go that way and prepare for it. But you'd have to know a lot of history in advance to figure that out.
Bruce: I think a key point is what Chude said, that the betrayal of the MFDP, the betrayal of the system, where they betrayed all of their rhetoric, that was a watershed moment in, I think, all of our political consiousnesses. A watershed moment for the whole Civil Rights Movement, for political activism in this country.
Don: Because all of the "good guys" are the ones who did it.
Bruce: Well, and also what it revealed was that the system, You cannot reform a corrupt system with appeals to morality. You can only apply political pressure. And Fred is pushing his muscle in with his fist.
Don: It's so small, we can't notice. [Laughing]
Mike: [In late 1963] I came back here [S.F. Bay Area]. I was in the hospital for about three weeks. I came back here in November. And then I resumed as the SNCC rep here. And then when the '64 Challenge happened, I worked with Frank Smith who, Frank was trying to deliver state delegation votes around the country, so he was trying to deliver the California Democratic Party support for the Challenge in Atlantic City. And I think the Party Convention or Central Committee meeting, I don't remember the body, there was a meeting at one of the big hotels here in town, and I'll never forget Assemblyman Mervin Dymally was walking up the front steps, and Frank knew him from somehow, and so Frank went up and said, "We're trying to get this thing to happen and da-da-da." And Dymally said, "Give me the information. I'll get it passed." And he took it and walked in, and there was a unanimous vote in the State Democratic Party meeting to endorse the Challenge, which was happening all over the country.
Betita: That's amazing.
Mike: State parties were easy, because there hadn't been a reaction yet. I mean, the Johnson administration was ignoring this. And in the absence of any counter pressure, it was a thing, I mean, Mississippi was on everybody's mind because of what had happened early in the summer in Neshoba County.
Phil: I want to reinforce something that Mike said, and get down some of the actual work that people were doing outside of the South. I mean, it was this whole thing about trying to get the minority resolution out [of the Credentials Committee], because we knew that if Johnson could bottle it up it would never get on the floor. So you had to have two things. You had to do a tremendous amount of lobbying to get another opinion, to get people to stand up against the standing President and get the minority position out on the floor.
And then too, you had to do what Mike was talking about, with people around the country like Dymally and so on, so that once it got on the floor, [delegates] were going to vote for it so it would pass. And that's why the work was done. And people had a real sense that we could've won if it had gotten out on the floor, because of the work that had been done, pretty much '63 and all of '64, to make sure that there was a majority for it, which had a lot to do with what was happening in the South. People were seeing the South, Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner, what was happening with the Summer Project, people writing letters home to their parents. Who was the Congressman's son who was on the project? Bingham or something? He came back to talk to his dad, and so there was a tremendous amount of support that was going on to get a majority national opinion in favor of [the Challenge].
Hardy: I think the question has to be asked somewhere: "What was at stake?" In Atlantic City and also in Washington in January [during the Congressional Challenge]. I guess what I think is that in some ways, it was: "Who is going to control the pace of change in the South?" The Kennedys were willing to work with certain Black people, the moderates and so on, so they weren't hostile. Johnson was prepared to do that also, and he was the one who, in '65, got up and said, "We shall overcome." So the question was not anti-Civil Rights, it was the question of who was going to control the agenda?
And that was clearly what was at stake in Atlantic City, because there were people, those 68 MFDP delegates, the mass movement, folks who had lobbied all over the country that had gotten mainstream Democrats to support these poor Negroes. And from the standpoint of the keepers of the party, the establishment, they weren't in control, and that is the most threatening thing, beyond what the issue is, to any mainstream politician. So in some ways that was what they were trying to close down in Atlantic City. After they had closed it down and Johnson had gotten re-elected, it didn't mean that he was going to be anti-Civil Rights. I mean, he sponsored the Voting Rights Act and so on.
And then later the War on Poverty. So in some ways he's still seen as, in terms of actual [civil rights] content, the major American President of the 20th century who has done stuff that supposedly helps poor people and Black people. But it was the question of who is going to control it? Was it going to be the Fannie Lou Hamers, or those grassroots folks in the Delta, who were symbolizing something different?
Which is why, in some ways, those folks could never make any, SNCC never made headway with the so-called "more moderate," the bigger cities, because that's where the national Democratic Party actually had its real power. It didn't have its power where we were working, and that's why we were a real threat. But it was not so much opposed to Civil Rights, it was basically: "Who was going to be able to cut the deals?" Who was going to say: "Who gets represented by the Civil Rights?" And I guess why to me that's still important is because that's what they're still doing today.
Fred: The gatekeepers.
Phil: Yeah, the gatekeepers are more in control, and there's no challenge at all. And in some ways, that's the historical continuity. It's really who the gatekeepers see as legitimate spokespeople. I mean, that's what Clinton did too. Clinton was able to say who he wanted. He [didn't] want Sister Souljah and all those other rowdy Negroes, and didn't even let Jessie Jackson too close to him.
And that's a continuing pattern. So what we saw began with the Aaron Henrys, and less so Ed King because he's white, was how to absorb the middle class strata that's willing to negotiate and compromise with the white power structure. Even though they incorporate Black people into the so-called, at least the upper crust Black people, into the capitalist system.
Hardy: Your point is very well taken, because of one reason. It's supported by the data. Those same people are the same people who get elected. Who served in the Alabama Democratic, in the regular party. The regular party in these states was taken over by the moderate whites who brought those Blacks in as part of their coalition. And they controlled the party in Mississippi, and they controlled the party in Alabama. And these were the Blacks that will be elected. Both statewide or regional.
But you don't get inside of the larger [party] unless you're willing to compromise. A lot of people didn't get elected unless they were willing to compromise to the establishment. In Alabama now, the Democratic Party is moderate as compared to the Republican Party. So you've had a complete switch in terms of race relations. The Republican Party's over here with the Evangelicals and all of that, and over here you've got Blacks who are key Blacks and white moderates who are key in the Democratic Party in Alabama.
Don: It seems to me that the follow up of what we were saying is very important. With all of the disappointments that went on in the Movement, whether it be the FBI, whether it be finding out that the federal courts were not there for us, that even later that the federal registrars were southerners. With all of the things that were going on, there was always the belief that at least the liberal community could be counted on in the major areas, and they had been a big support for the Movement. And then Atlantic City. So there really was, It was a dramatic turning point. I don't know, is that the moment when "liberal" became a dirty word? Is that where it began?
Jean: It was for me.
Don: I think so.
Bruce: Well, I think it had already started with the liberals' opposition to, and fear & horror of, direct action. In fact, in NVAC, in Non-Violent Action Committee, we had the song called "The Liberal Song" which we were singing in 1963. Something like, "Walking on the picket line, carrying my freedom sign, up comes a liberal anxiously, these are the words he says to me. You're only hurting your cause this way, that's what all of us liberals say. Nobody likes things the way they are, but you going too fast and you're going too far."
It was a satiric song because the liberals had already freaked out from direct action. Because see, the liberals were saying, "Don't do direct action. Don't do sit-ins and disrupt. The answer is to go work within the political process. We will support you in the political process. Go by the rules" like Wazir said. And then when that time came, and the MFDP had followed the rules and worked within the political process, and not done much direct action, the liberals betrayed them anyway. So Atlantic City ended even that pretense by the liberals.
Chude: I think that's a good point. You know, we've all heard the story over and over again about the woman, wasn't she from California? who got told her husband would not get the judgeship? Everybody goes, "Oh dear, isn't that terrible?" Well, what's terrible is that she didn't say, "Shove the judgeship up yours!" [Laughing]
I mean, I'm serious! We begin to forget that politics at one level is "No!" You don't get to pretend that you couldn't vote for what was absolutely the right thing to do because hubby wouldn't get a judgeship! And you wouldn't have as much money as you would when hubby had the judgeship! We are talking about people who are poor. People who are trying to get the basics of their lives. People who die. People who are beaten and maimed for life, and it's OK to change your vote because then your husband won't get his promotion? No!
Now, I just want to contrast this with meeting North Vietnamese in Cuba. I'm sitting with these two women, Vietnamese women on both sides of me watching a movie that the North Vietnamese have done of the war, and they sit real close to me. And I mean I'm feeling so bad because I'm a North American, but I point out to them this Puerto Rican who's come with us on the Venceramos Brigade. This Puerto Rican fellow activist. I point it out to them and say, "He went in the brig rather than go to Vietnam." I told you this story, right? And we were all in awe. All of us North Americans are in awe of this man because he cared enough. He was already in the Armed Services, and he goes in the brig. And they say to me, "Of course. Of course."
It was one of those moments in my life where I was reminded again, as I had been going into Mississippi, that there are times in your life where you make strong stands. And what happened in Atlantic City was that all those [liberals] capitulated. They could not stand up to their own moral values, to their own integrity and to what they claimed were their politics. They couldn't do it. And that's why "liberal" is a bad word. It isn't just that Hubert Humphrey was bad and Walter Mondale was bad. And the ones from the unions and all those big guys. It was all those other people too.
They capitulated. They didn't have what it takes to stand up for what you believe in. And whatever our errors are, and we've all made errors, you have to say about the people in [the MFDP meeting] Atlantic City, when they voted, they stood up for what they believed in. I mean, people risked their lives. There is some story about getting back. People risking their lives getting back into Mississippi.
Jimmy: Oh, I remember that.
Chude: You know, right? And so it just seems to me that at some level we talk about the politics and the meaning of what they saw as the compromise, and I absolutely agree that needs to be part of the discussion, but we can't forget the fact that at times there were life and death struggles. And when people can't do it for you because they don't want to have their lives impacted, then that's where they are. Right?
Bruce: What they [the liberals] saw as the "compromise" was that any recognition at all of the justness of the cause of the Civil Rights Movement was going to be seen as a terrible, was going to be vehemently rejected by the whole Southern block of the all-white Democratic Party. And so I think they claimed, or they told themselves, that by the national party recognizing anything at all about the Civil Rights Movement, no matter how trivial such as two at- large seats, was risking the loyalty of the white Southern Democrats. And that was seen as a big huge deal in their minds. And in fact, in some ways, as we saw later, the Republicans went and did the "Southern Strategy" and now most of those white Southern Democrats are white Southern Republicans.
Bruce: But their argument that what we were supposedly "winning," with the two seats, is national recognition that the Civil Rights Movement has at least one little tiny point of correctness that we, the liberal national party, will support, and this is the first time we have ever, on a national level, acknowledged that the Civil Rights Movement had something to say that needed to be listened to.
And I think it's total bullshit. I think they convinced themselves that it was something significant. Of course, in reality, the Civil Rights Movement had already done that by its own actions in Albany and Birmingham and Mississippi and in places like that. It [the liberals' excuse] was absurd. I mean, it was just absurd. The Civil Rights Movement did all that itself, and they're saying, "OK. You've already done and accomplished this stuff, so we'll acknowledge that, and that's what you're supposed to take as your victory."
Chude: So I have on question still, I'm trying to understand. I'm trying to be political, because back then I was only moral, right? [Laughing] I'm trying to understand what Don said that when they go back [to Washington] in '65, '66, the Congressmen are saying, "We don't want anything to do with SNCC, because you don't know how to compromise." So I'm just trying to understand it from that point, because my moral side still says, "The hell with all of that." The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was right. They were right morally, and they were right politically. They were absolutely right. And the decision they made seems like, I find it thrilling that people could stand on that.
Don: to what Chude said, the judgeship, that's the corruption angle. The people that were going to get something for it. Another way of looking at what was going on is you have a liberal mentality, and the liberal mentality believes you can't get it all. And that greater good will come in the long run if you play within the system. And you'll get better judges, and you'll get the vote and you'll get this and you'll get that. So these are the reasons they can convince themselves that they're doing a very moral thing to the issue of Civil Rights, and that is liberalism as opposed to radicalism. And so from their perspective, it's very consistent, and, in their world, not corrupt at all.
Email from Ed Dubinsky, August 2004
As I recall, many of us back in the day thought that liberalism was more part of the problem than of the solution. I still feel that way. I came to Mississippi in 1964 just about when folks left for Atlantic City. Much of the work I did was fill-in for those people. I heard many reports from them on their return.
My understanding was that the refusal to seat the MFDP was done in the name of putting that great liberal, Hubert Humphrey on the ticket as the Vice-Presidential candidate. I believe that it was Joe Rauh who tried to be the go-between for Johnson and the MFDP. We all know the history and I, at least, feel that this decison by the Democratic Party, ratified by the vote in the election that followed represents one of the greatest denials of the democratic process in this country. And it was pulled off by Rauh and all of the liberal delegates to the convention who thought that a liberal on the ticket was more important than honoring the work, sacrifices and accomplishments of the Movement in Mississippi and throughout the nation. Our nation lost a wonderful opportunity that day, or rather showed, once again, that it does not believe in the principles it espouses.
Bruce: You know, as Chicago 1968 went down, as the tear-gas made the air into a poisonous hell and police clubs thudded into flesh, I wondered where were the liberals who betrayed the MFDP for the reward of a Vice-Presidency for their hero Hubert the Liberal. Hubert who slavishly backed the Vietnam War in word and deed for four years. Liberal Hubert whose nomination was won by club and gun, whose way to the podium was cleared by Mayor Daly's thugs. Some of those liberals like Mondale still stood at his side along with Daley. But I often wonder how the others, the ones supporting RFK and McGovern? McCarthy?, felt as they were brutalized by goons and cops. Did they think back and remember that they had sold out their sworn promises to the MFDP for the silver of Hubert Humphrey?
Fred: I respect the decision that the [MFDP] delegates made, even though I don't like the process, based on what I understand now. At the same time, I respect that lady [from the judgeship story] making the decision of her own interests. I respect that, OK? I don't like it, but I respect it. Coming back, our reliance on liberals to help us get through things, I think that's absolute garbage. I think it sucks that we can't sit down and determine our own interests and figure out who we're going to work with to achieve our own goals and not rely on any one person or any one group.
Chude: So you would say the error was way back when they started thinking they could organize the liberals to support the Challenge. That's what you're saying was an error?
Fred: I'm saying sole reliance on that. Sole reliance, OK?
Jean: Well, there wasn't anybody else.
Fred: There may not have been anybody else, but there was a certain person in Mississippi who was speaking for us. And it was said to that person, "You go there and sell us out, we will take care of your behind when you get back home." All right? And when we deal with folks [politicians, liberals], that have nothing to lose with us, they have nothing to lose. They schmooze us up a little bit more, and if someone's getting a little something,
Don: Any liberal who goes against what we've [aksed for], we will put all of our energy into campaigning against you next time around, and we'll run candidates against you. We could have put something up so they would have something to lose.
Fred: But we weren't organized enough. "We're trying to be your friend." You know what I mean? And if I lose your friendship, boy oh boy Wazir is not going to like me. OK? He's not going to like me because I'm taking you on. That's what we do. OK? And I'm not anti-white. Wazir will tell you, when I walked into my church, it was mostly white. I see human beings in there. But when I come out in the world like this I have got to deal with dynamics where I can't, I mean, I may not be able to rely on you when my interest is at stake and yours is at stake. In fact, I know I can't. I wouldn't expect your support. I mean, don't take it personally. [Laughing]
What I'm saying is this. I'm talking about Black people. I don't know about anybody else. We often times do not define what our interests are, in very clear terms, and how we are going to achieve them. And we can't expect other groups to give us the kind of support we need to achieve our goals if we're unorganized.
Bruce: I think that's self-evident, as a general principle. But I'm not quite sure how it applies to the situation in 1964 in Atlantic City.
Fred: I mean, heck, if on the one hand, people say, "Yeah, we're with you. We support you. We're behind you." And then they get a phone call saying, "Hey, if you do this, then you'll get this, that, and the other thing. But if you're going to do this, then there can't be any judgeship." And God knows what else was being said. And other things are being said to some other people, "Well, this is the direction of the Democratic Party in Mississippi after all this is over."
Bruce: Yeah, but look, if you think about Chicago and the coalition that Harold Washington put together, he did exactly what you're talking about. He said, "There's an African-American community. There's a Latino community. There's a Jewish community. There's the ethnic white community that's supporting the other candidate. We three communities have self interests. We will form a coalition. We will respect each other's self interests, and we will win an election." And then he carried out that program. He did things for Black people. He respected the interests of the Jewish community, and of the Latino community. He built a coalition based on three groups pooling their power and supporting each other. But in Mississippi the problem was that there was no voting power among the African-American community.
Fred: They were just getting there at that point. But I'm talking about in general, whereby, I mean, All those people on the Credentials Committee and other committees had nothing to lose by selling us out.
Chude: And had a lot to lose by supporting us.
Fred: Yeah. But I can fast forward. Now that changed three years after that. [Laughing]
Bruce: When there was voting power.
Fred: Yeah. And it was the same with President Johnson. And see that? That's what Johnson understood was this [Fred flexes his bicep].
Bruce: Muscle. See, the tape recorder can't see you doing that.
Bruce: All right, so the 68 MFDP delegates voted almost unanimously to reject the offer of the two at-large seats. What happened after that?
Wazir: They left and went back to Mississippi and started,
Don: Just walked out?
Chude: Well, no. They didn't just leave. Then they started taking people's delegate badges. Sympathetic delegates would give them their badges so that they could go onto the floor.
Bruce: And they sat in the seats.
Chude: The empty seats that the Mississippi white delegation had left. So they went in then and tried to essentially do a sit-in.
Bruce: Right. Not tried, succeeded.
Chude: Well, yes. But were they removed? That was the
Wazir: They weren't removed. They were just ignored. The Democratic Party
Jean: Right, because the seats were empty anyway. The regular delegation,
Wazir: had walked out on it.
Wazir: One other point about danger, coming back, I just wanted for the record to make a point. On the bus, we stopped where we would have no trouble. We stopped at the bus station, because we had a charter with Trailways Bus or something. I think it was Knoxville, Tennessee. We stopped there, and one of the white delegates, Robert Williams, he was a white Mississippian who was a former Ku Klux Klan member [who had joined the MFDP], he walked out there, and he came back and said, "Peacock, who do I talk to?" I said, "What's going on?" He said, "Do you see all them cars out there?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "That whole parking lot is full of Klan members, and when we leave here, they're going to take us down."
And so I said, "Well, we need to call the state troopers or the governor or somebody." And sure enough, he was right. They were Klan members out there, and they were waiting for us. And the state troopers escorted us all the way to the state line of Mississippi. That's how we got through there safely. They knew our route. They were there waiting for us.
Don: After the rejection of the "compromise," in late '65 or early '66 I was in DC on a challenge against the US Department of Agriculture who were taking away surplus commodities from each county [where there was ongoing] Civil Rights work. And this was a national issue that could be controlled in Washington, so we brought about 100 sharecroppers there, and we brought doctors who examined them and told them about health consequences and what not. And then I started making the rounds of the Congressmen. And every Congressman, without exception, that I spoke to said, I never again would trust SNCC after what they did at the Democratic Convention, that they are totally unsophisticated, they have no idea that they cut their own throat, and I would never cooperate in anything that they were part of again." And I heard that just across the board.
Bruce: Because they thought SNCC had recommended rejecting the two-seat "compromise."
Wazir: That was the assumption.
Don: Everybody assumed that SNCC had made that decision on not to accept the "compromise."
Wazir: It wasn't true.
Don: But it didn't matter to them. And they were just adamant. They said, It's not simply a question of compromise in how government works, it is that without compromise the government could not function." And so everything has to be a give and a take. And SNCC being so naive doesn't understand it means that they are just not a group that we would ever, ever deal with again."
Mike: I can't remember exactly when it was, but I was in Washington around December of '64. When the Black congressman from Detroit, Conyers, there was a Challenge to the seating of the Mississippi delegation, and William Ryan from New York and John Conyers and a whole bunch of people were working with the MFDP and SNCC to make that happen. And I think there were like 150 or something votes in the House against seating the Mississippi Congressman. Thelwell was a key person in the Washington office.
Miriam: OK. I had a little part in that. I went to talk to one of the Mississippi Congressmen they were challenging, pretending to be a northern college student attending college in his district, and I went to Jaime Whitten.
Wazir: In Mississippi?
Miriam: Yeah, it was a Mississippi Congressman. So I went like for SNCC, pretending not to be part of SNCC, and went and interviewed him. Perfectly innocent. I was a northern student going to college in his district, and I'm sure we picked out an appropriate college, just to see how concerned he was. SNCC wanted to know know how concerned he was about the Challenge, so they figured if I was there I'd be able to see, was he interrupting conversations to take phone calls about it and stuff. So that's the little bit of undercover work I did.
Bruce: And what was your conclusion?
Miriam: [Laughing] I don't remember.
Don: Well, he was a major player [in Congress].
Mike: See, people came back and were very disgusted with what had happened in Atlantic City. And there was a conversation about, we have to do something to regain initiative and momentum. And the idea that was struck as the vehicle to do that was to Challenge the seating of the Mississippi Congressional delegation when the House opens. The House opens in January. And the rules of the House are such that the House, even if a person is elected in a Congressional district by a majority of the voters, the House, by its own internal rules can refuse to seat people, and historically has. It refused to seat a woman who was a peace candidate in the First World War. [Jeanette Rankin]
Miriam: Adam Clayton Powell.
Mike: That's right. Adam Clayton Powell. So not only did the rule exist, but there were precedents of the House of Representatives refusing to seat a particular representative.
Hardy: But it was a little bit more complicated than that, Mike. I worked on that campaign. What we had to prove was that so many thousands of people were denied the right to participation. And I know in Holly Springs one of us walked up to [Sheriff] Flick Ashe and said, "You're subpoenaed." And across every county, people would have to do that. And we subpoenaed all those people, and they actually had to come: the sheriff and the mayor. They all came that winter before Congress opened, and they had to testify.
So we stacked reams and reams of information of people testifying that they had been denied the right to participate in the party, denied the right to vote, etc, etc. Frank Sirocco had part of the responsibility. He came to Sacramento to lobby Congressman John Moss who was the Whip, the Democratic Whip. He wouldn't hardly talk to us. He was a shithead.
What happened was on the first day the stuff got tabled. I don't think they really had a hearing. I think what they did, I think it came up on the agenda, and the motion was tabled, and that was the last I ever heard of it. I might be wrong, but I don't think it actually came up before the Congress to vote on.
Wazir: Adam Clayton Powell was supposed to call for the Challenge.
Fred: It didn't come up for a vote, right? Wazir: No, it didn't come up.
Don: But even if it had come up, Lyndon Johnson had already won his landslide. The Democratic Party [of Mississippi] had all supported the Republican. And Johnson, who in his heart, Well, if I said it, everyone would hate me, but Johnson certainly had feelings about Civil Rights, and now that he had his Presidency, he certainly had different feelings about what was going on. So it didn't count at that point. It was wonderful to do, but it didn't count. When it counted was Mississippi Challenge [in Atlantic City].
Hardy: I don't understand what you mean, by "it didn't count." If you said the Congressional Challenge came up, and if you say that in the process it never came up on the table, that still doesn't prevent the fact that we had hundreds of people across the state who testified and who, for the first time, saw leading county officials having to explain their behavior before a committee.
Don: Thank you. I accept that correction. I was responding to Mike's statement about the amount of support there was [in Congress]. The support from Conyers was always good, but I mean the support from the Congress was coming when the thing that mattered the most to them, which was the [Convention] Challenge [in Atlantic City], was over. The Challenge with the Mississippi party. But the Johnson people no longer had any stake in what was going on. I mean, it was easy for Congress, for liberal Congressmen, who did not back MFDP [in Atlantic City] to back the [Congressional] Challenge, because all the stakes were gone.
Mike: No, I don't agree with that. And I think it's a mistake to lump everybody under a category of "liberal," because you had the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights that was in Washington which was basically run by the ADA, Americans for Democratic Action, Walter Ruther, UAW, you had a certain strand of what you can call "Cold War" liberals or "corporate" liberals or whatever you want to call them, but out in communities across the country, there were many, many, many people who also called themselves "liberals" who stuck with MFDP. They weren't as upset as the Mississippi people were, but they were very upset about the defeat of the Challenge. And those people are the same people who rallied behind the campaign not to seat
Hardy: The [Congressional] delegation.
Mike: The [Representatives in Congress]. And ready to vote in the House against the seating of them was a block of 150, I don't know why I have that number 154. Maybe Conyers had them on a petition or something, but that proportion of people would have been the proportion who would have voted, I think, had the thing come up in Atlantic City.
Chude: I wanted to just emphasize what Hardy had said that even if they didn't win in Washington, it was the first time that the people in Mississippi had seen those sheriffs and those mayors and other people served those subpoenas and had to at least speak to the question of excluding Blacks, Black voters. Because I think so much, everybody focuses on Washington, the Democratic Party rather than the positive things that happened at the grassroots. Speaking for myself, of how it affected me, you know, to this day, I have a very strong, I find myself insisting in groups that my minority position be registered.
Hardy: Right. These are small counties where everybody knows everybody, Black and white, and to have these major political officials having to testify, on the subpoena. Not just volunteering, none of these guys volunteered to go before this committee. They had to do public testimony. And you can imagine a town like the size of Holly Springs what the discussion was. And a lot of Black people went, because you could go sit in the audience. This is probably the first time, well, it might have been one of the first times they could go and sit and listen. And these guys had to get up and say that they did or did not do something. That's pretty heavy for a community. And I know we did the mayor. We did the deputy sheriff, and we did the sheriff and the police chief.
Bruce: I believe that the Atlantic City Challenge directly led to what happened in Selma, as cause and effect. And when I say "Selma," I don't just mean Selma the city, I mean the whole Selma voting-rights campaign, the whole Black Belt strategy that eventually resulted in the Voting Rights Bill, I don't think it's possible to talk about the Atlantic City Challenge without also talking about its effect on what happened only a few months later.
I agree with what Phil said, that an aspect of Johnson's opposition to the MFDP challenge was his desire to control the pace of change. But in the immediate aftermath, he failed because the Voting Rights Bill was forced down his throat by what happened a few months later in the Black Belt of Alabama. And what happened there was a direct response to the betrayal of the MFDP.
And more than that, at least to me, [the betrayal of MFDP] resulted in a fundamental change in the whole way in which the non-violent Civil Rights Movement was carried out in the South. Before Atlantic City, the dominant type of non-violence was: "We will dramatize the abuse and oppression, and once people know, once Washington knows, once Washington sees what is really going on, they will do the right thing." Call that "moral-witness" type non-violence.
And the betrayal in Atlantic City, conclusively proved to me, and I think to many others, that you cannot rely on appealing to the conscience of people like Johnson and Humphrey and Mondale. So to me, Atlantic City is the, what do they call it, "the tipping point?" The crucial watershed between an appeal-to-conscience type movement, and a movement that says: "We are going to apply political power and pressure [to force change] through disruptive non-violence."
Mike: Just a little, maybe, difference. My recollection is people said, "We'll appeal to the conscience of the nation, not the conscience of the politicians."
Jimmy: You mean in the early years?
Mike: Yeah, yeah. And the conscience of the nation would translate itself into pressure on Washington.
Bruce: Agreed. But we were still trying an appeal to conscience. As opposed to '65, '66 when the Movement was saying, "We're going to create such disruption that we will force, through political pressure, a change." And to me that's very fundamentally different.
Don: Yeah, I agree with that.
Bruce: To me, the direct connection between the betrayal in Atlantic City and Selma goes back one year earlier to the Birmingham church bombing in September of 1963. After the bombing, Diane Nash and Jim Bevel came up with, I think they called it the "Montgomery Plan," or the "Alabama Project," or something like that. The idea was to mobilize non-violent, disruptive civil-disobedience in Montgomery, blocking streets, airport runways, bus depots, the Capitol and so on, creating such disruption that so much political pressure would be brought to bear on Alabama that it would force political change.
The way I heard it was that when they first proposed this plan to Dr. King a couple weeks after the Birmingham church bombing he wouldn't go for it. In the Fall of '63 he was not ready to shift from moral-witness/appeal-to-conscience type non-violence to disruption-pressure-force type of non-violence. Also, he knew that bringing that kind of non-violent direct action into the "Heart of Dixie" was going to be incredibly dangerous. He was simply not willing to risk deaths, maimings, mass jailings on that kind of scale.
King was also the CEO of SCLC, he was responsible to a board, he had to meet payroll, etc. SCLC did not have the financial resources for the huge bail costs of Diane's Alabama Project. And the NAACP had been outlawed & driven underground in Alabama for trying to desegregate the univeristy with Autherine Lucy. Diane's plan put SCLC at huge risk of being outlawed for sedition or insurrection or whatever. And just as Mississippi was the heartland of SNCC, Alabama was the heartland of SCLC. All of its major campaigns and victories were achieved in Alabama (Montgomery, Birmingham, and later Selma), many of it's strongest affiliates were in Alabama, and to be banned in Alabama would cripple SCLC. So he wouldn't go for their plan.
But they, continued to press it all through '64. They brought it up several times again. Each time King didn't go for it. Then, in the Fall of '64, after the Atlantic City challenge, a full year after Diane first proposed the Alabama Project, King reversed himself and committed SCLC to it. By then, the emphasis had shifted from desegregation to voting rights.
Why did he do a 180? In my opinion, I think he realized that the betrayal of the MFDP in Atlantic City by the liberals set the outer limit on appeal-to-conscience type non-violence. So he was now ready to consider distruptive-pressure non-violence even though it was alien to his personal philosophy. And he knew from the recent Harlem uprising that the writing was on the wall that non-violence had better provide some victories, or else. So he bet the farm. He committed all of SCLC's resources to Selma, and took the risk that if the campaign failed, SCLC might be destroyed in Alabama.
SCLC staff was sent to Selma and Montgomery in November of '64 for research, planning, and preliminary meetings with local leaders, including John Love of SNCC. (This was at the same time that the Mississippi Congressional challenge was underway.) The direct action and mass voter-registration attempts started in Selma in January of 1965. And the plan was to force a voting rights bill by creating such pressure, not appeal to the conscience, but pressure Johnson to do something on a national scale. And in fact that's exactly what happened.
But by the time action started in January, Diane's original plan had evolved to emulate Mississippi's "Freedom Registration" and "Freedom Vote," that would lead to a seating challenge of the entire Alabama legislature in April '65. Similar to MFDP's Congressional Challenge to the seating of the Mississippi delegation. But instead of appealing to conscience, this challenge was to be backed up by massive non-violent civil-disobedience in the streets of Montgomery.
SCLC took up SNCC's strategy and advanced it another step down the road. As it happened, events took a different course with the March to Montgomery, but you can see in that initial plan the direct progression and connection from Atlantic City, to the Congressional challenge, to Selma. And, the shift from appeal-to-conscionce to non-violent-disruption.
During the time that the Congressional Challenge was going on and they were having those hearings was right at the time that the Selma campaign was beginning, the voter registration drive at the courthouse in Dallas County where people were getting beaten and people were forced to sit in the alley, and Mrs. Boynton was attacked by Jim Clark, and so on, all those things were happening simultaneously.
Jimmy: This is January '65?
Bruce: January & February of '65, leading up to the Pettus Bridge in early March.
Don: Bruce, in that scenario, what do you think would have been the difference if the MFDP had accepted the compromise?
Bruce: I think it would have been terrible.
Wazir: It would have fizzled out.
Bruce: I think it would have said, "OK, this kind of compromise is all we're really after." And like Wazir said, it would have created a fizzle. You know, I was watching all this, I was supposed to be in Freedom Summer, but I was on trial all that summer because of sit-ins. So we were watching what was happening in Atlantic City very closely in Los Angeles. It didn't look like a defeat to us. It just made us really angry, and it propelled the Movement right into Selma. And to me, it's clearly a flow from one to the next. You can't look at Selma without looking at Atlantic City, and you can't look at Atlantic City without seeing what happened right after in Selma.
Don: And that required rejecting the Challenge.
Bruce: Absolutely, absolutely. By rejecting the two-seat "compromise" the Movement threw down the gauntlet on the question of voting rights. It was our version of Tierra o Muerta, full citizenship now or ascend to heaven trying. Selma was the showdown. You could not conceive of a more dangerous proposition in 1965 than massive direct-action, civil-disobediance in Alabama's Black Belt. Directly challenging, in the streets Wallace and the Klan, Jim Clarke and his posse, Al Lingo and his blue-helmet army of thugs. It was all or nothing, and there is no way we could have built or sustained the kind of psychological momentum, courage, and committment that Selma required on a foundation of having previously accepted a tokenist compromise. People simply do not put their lives on the line, do or die, behind some token compromise.
Don: I agree.
Bruce: Mississippi was the heartland of SNCC in a way that Alabama was the heartland of SCLC. And SNCC out-publicized, out-legandized SCLC on that level, hands down. And that's why Mississippi is so much more known today, because SNCC did their homework, and SCLC didn't. SCLC only had Dr. King.
Wazir: When we first started, I said that my interest was that Alabama had really been under-documented and talked about. For whatever reason.
Jean: That never would have occurred to me to equate Alabama and SCLC with SNCC and Mississippi. Was Selma that important to SCLC? It did not seem comparable to me that Alabama was ever as important after the Montgomery boycott to SCLC as Mississippi was to SNCC.
Bruce: I think so. The strongest of the SCLC affiliates were in Alabama, maybe the most number too. Alabama was the site of all of SCLC's major victories: Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma.
Jimmy: Briefly, Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma. SNCC was in about 10 different counties in Alabama.
Bruce: I'm not saying that SNCC wasn't in Alabama. I'm just saying that in terms of, If you say, "SNCC," in most people's mind, the next word that pops up is "Mississippi." If you say "SCLC" it's "Montgomery-Birmingham-Selma."
Don: There was a reason. Alabama was a television Civil Rights event. Nothing that ever happened in Mississippi ever got on the screen to that extent. And the Selma Bridge footage is what turned the tide in everything that occurred after, even though SNCC was the major force in what happened on that bridge. Dr. King and SCLC got the credit for it, but it changed the entire Civil Rights Movement or the entire Civil Rights history because of the footage.
Copyright © 2004
Last Modified: November 14, 2004.