The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
A New Declaration of Independence
by Jack Minnis
(Jack Minnis is Director of the Research Department of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)

Originally published in Freedomways, Spring, 1965

See Mississippi Challenge to Democratic Convention and MFDP Congressional Challenge for background & more information.
See also Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) for web links.

There has persisted during the past hundred years and more, the impression that the race problems of the U.S. are largely a matter of prejudice, and that the prejudice is vulnerable to a program of education and information. In other words, this position holds that those who are in power, as well as those whose racial abuses are confined to their everyday acquaintances, act as they do because they sincerely believe that Negroes are inferior to whites. It further holds that if these persons were adequately informed, they would stop their anti-Negro behavior, and — presto — America's race problems would be ended.

This position, for all its orthodoxy, has never made much sense. The logical and physical contradictions in beliefs about racial inferiority are so notorious that they need not be dwelt on here. The point is that much, even, of Negroes' thinking about their problems is tainted with this orthodox position, and much of the civil rights movement is thoroughly committed to that position, though they probably wouldn't admit it.

The political program of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party during 1964 and early 1965, and what happened as a result of that program, if sufficiently understood, should lay to rest once and for all this myth about the superficiality of the race question in the U.S.

The term "closed society," referring to Mississippi and that state's race problem, gained much currency during the past two years as a result of the writings of Professor James Silver. Here again there is a tendency, among many, grossly to oversimplify the meaning of the "closed society," and, consciously or not, to ignore the enormous implications of it. Professor Silver himself, I think, is guilty of this. When he supposes that the closed society in Mississippi can be opened by "the country as a whole, backed by the power and authority of the federal government," he ignores the simple fact that Mississippi could not have been what it has been all these years without the consent of "the country as a whole, backed by the power and authority of the federal government."

These two myths fit together perfectly. Mississippi is a "closed society" and what keeps it closed is the prejudice of white Mississippians who are prevented from learning the truth and thus dispelling their misbeliefs about Negroes. The myths are convenient and comfortable. They permit good, sound, solid Americans to put all the blame on a few Bilbos and Barnetts and the ignorant crew of "rednecks" who supposedly keep them in power.

Another myth which grows out of the joining of these two is that the solution to the problem is more federal legislation. In the past hundred years the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the several civil rights acts of the post-Civil War period, the civil rights Acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964 have become a part of the law of the land. The shelves of the law libraries are literally groaning under the weight of the laws which guarantee the rights of Negroes. Still Negroes do not have those rights, as a matter of fact.

The liberals, in and out of Congress, have for years lamented the control exercised in both Houses by conservatives, largely Southerners. The Southerners' longevity in office, it is said, coupled with the custom of according powerful positions based upon longevity, is responsible for the conservative bent of the Congress. Liberals offer as a solution the proposal that power be accorded on some basis other than longevity. They say this will make the U.S. Congress more representative of more people. The fact is, of course, that the longevity of the Southerners (who constitute the core of the power bloc in both houses) is based upon the disfranchisement of Negroes and of a large proportion of whites. So the real problem is not one of longevity, but of disfranchisement. It is hardly to be supposed that the problem of conservative control can be resolved so long as the disfranchisement remains, because the disfranchisement is the basis of the longevity which breeds the power, whatever the mechanics of organization by which the power is implemented. Now let's examine what this conservative power bloc does.

Southerners Represent Industrial Combines

The South is notoriously lagging in industrial development. And such development as has occurred has been in the labor-intensive industries such as minerals extraction, textiles, pulpwood and paper, etc. Yet the Southerners are the darlings of the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Bankers Association, the American Medical Association — in short, the Southerners are clearly representing interests which have little to do with the constituencies from which the Southerners are elected.

On the other hand, the liberals in Congress come from precisely those states in which the interests represented by these organizations are most involved. Thus, industrial development having brought about some degree of effective political mobilization of the people, the conservative interests in those states have sought and obtained disproportionate representation in Congress by trading upon the disfranchisement of Southerners, which guarantees the longevity upon which congressional power is based.

Here, I think, is the answer to that compelling question: Why has no federal administration, Democrat or Republican, enforced existing legislation guaranteeing the right to vote in the South? The enormous cost of winning nomination and election to the Presidency can only be borne by those who control the institutions of corporate wealth in the U.S.

I think, in a very real sense, whether consciously or unconsciously, any President and any Vice-President becomes the creature of corporate wealth as a condition of his access to the prerequisites of nomination and election. Indeed, I should suppose that by the time an individual has pursued politics long enough to have become presidential timber, he is their creature, whether or not he seeks the presidency.

With this outline of the existing structure of American government and politics, let's examine the experiment in practical politics which was the program of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

The MFDP sent to Atlantic City for the Democratic National Convention probably the first delegation in generations to have been selected by the "people," in the politically meaningful sense of that term. The conventions in which the delegates were selected were as free of manipulation as it was possible to make them under the circumstances. True, the delegation was selected outside the framework of the law of Mississippi. But "law," in the accepted sense, did not exist in Mississippi, and had not for generations. The selection of the MFDP delegation did have, however, some justification in American political history. "...whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government ...," reads the Declaration of Independence.

The conventions were open to all, black and white, who chose to attend. The delegation which came out of these conventions was composed of just plain ordinary people — tenant farmers, small landowners, laborers, as well as a sprinkling of ministers and others of a more prestigious status. A clear majority of the delegation were "of the people," and were representative in the sense that they thought and acted like those whom they represented.

The program for mobilizing support among the other convention delegations at Atlantic City was competently planned and effectively executed. MFDP opened an office in Washington, D.C., in May of 1964, and from then until the convention in August, representatives of the Party traveled throughout the country, attending state conventions, speaking in any forum to which they could gain access. Only limited resources prevented their gaining more than the eleven resolutions from state conventions with which they went to Atlantic City.

The nationwide publicity which the Mississippi Summer Project gained made it inconceivable that any politically aware person in the country could not know that a reign of terror existed in Mississippi, and that the regular delegation from Mississippi had been selected by the agents who perpetrated the terror.

At Atlantic City MFDP carried on intensive lobbying with the other delegations. Every delegate from every likely state was provided with a copy of the brief to the credentials committee. Every request for information and justification was filled. MFDP, with the help of SNCC, produced brochures, mimeographed biographies of the MFDP delegates, histories of the MFDP, legal arguments, historical arguments, moral arguments, and distributed them to the delegates. In short, no avenue of political persuasion was left untraveled.

Meanwhile the regular delegation from Mississippi found it unnecessary to mount such an effort. They had on their side, using the ultimate power of his position, Lyndon Johnson, President of the United States, obvious nominee for the next term, and a sure winner in November. Among the others exercising their influence for the regulars was Hubert Humphrey, in whom Johnson found a willing field general for the Mississippi regulars; Walter Reuther, head of the powerful United Auto Workers, whose lawyer, Joseph Rauh, Jr., was counsel for the MFDP; and a host of leaders of the civil rights organizations whose primary loyalty (arising from the prospect of favor) was to Lyndon Johnson. It can probably never be proven, but it was the impression of countless supporters of Humphrey for the vice-presidency, voiced to MFDP personnel over and over again, that Johnson had made the seating of the regular delegation a condition for Humphrey's selection as nominee for the vice-presidency. In short, Humphrey had to win for the regulars in order to win for himself.

Bankrupt Liberals

And it was here that American liberalism displayed its ultimate bankruptcy. This writer talked personally to more than a dozen Humphrey supporters who expressed great sympathy for the MFDP cause, readily admitted the moral justice of MFDP's cause, accepted the explanation that the extra-legality of the MFDP delegation was irrelevant because the rival delegation was itself illegal, but then refused to support MFDP. When pushed to the wall in this manner, these delegates would frankly admit they stood to reap such a significant political and material gain from Humphrey's vice-presidency that they could not take the chance of supporting MFDP, having it win and thus deny to Humphrey the vice-presidential nomination. (As noted above, these Humphrey supporters were convinced that suppression of the MFDP was the price of the vice-presidency for Humphrey.)

The rest of the story of Atlantic City is too familiar to recount in detail here: the delay in the report of the credentials committee from Saturday until Tuesday; the frenzied conferences with MFDP; the arm-twisting — one delegate threatened with loss of a judgeship, another with bankruptcy (these we knew about — others we heard as rumors); the eventual "compromise" which involved seating the regulars and giving two members of the MFDP delegation (and even these not to be selected by the delegation) hurriedly devised seats as "delegates-at-large of the convention."

The "compromise," meaningless as it was, served its purpose. It provided the liberals with an "out." It gave them absolution in deserting a cause which everything they said they stood for required them to support to the bitter end. There was one noble exception — Congresswoman Edith Green from Oregon. She had proposed a compromise which would have administered the loyalty oath (to the convention nominees) to each member of both delegations, and those of each who took the oath would constitute the delegation to be seated, with the votes of Mississippi to be distributed evenly among them. She stuck to that proposal, refusing to support the credentials committee in the "compromise" it reported out. She had some six or seven other members of the credentials committee with her, but 12 were required for a minority report which would bring the issue to the convention floor. The Johnson-Humphrey-Mississippi (regular) forces won.

Then it became important, to preserve the Johnson-Humphrey "image" for the coming campaign, that the MFDP delegation accept the compromise. Walter Reuther hurried from the General Motors negotiations in Detroit. Reuther brought Bayard Rustin down from New York to address the delegation — to bring them his message that it was necessary to understand the art of compromise.

The MFDP delegation met in the church and sat there throughout the entire day listening to the counsel of civil rights leaders and liberal leaders (though the delegation had voted the previous night to reject the "compromise"). Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "I am enough of a dialectician to believe that out of thesis and antithesis comes synthesis" — the philosopher of compromise. Senator Wayne Morse detailed the Goldwater threat, and the necessity for "liberal" forces to remain united in the face of it. The National Council of Churches questioned whether they would be able to continue support of the programs of persons who did not "understand the national responsibility" of that organization. Then James Forman and Bob Moses of SNCC spoke briefly to the delegation. Each pointed out that the delegation had already voted to reject the "compromise." Each said he thought that was the right decision. The delegation voted and the overwhelming majority again rejected the "compromise." So it was all over.

The political leaders of the nation had met that greatest of all dangers to the professional politician — the people. This was the important political fact of the convention challenge. The political elite of the nation had had to face and deal with, not the manipulators and sycophants with whom they are accustomed to dealing, but with a delegation which was representative, in the truest sense, of a large proportion of the people of the United States. The confrontation frightened them. They had called upon all the resources which had heretofore been successful in suppressing such rebellions, but this time they had been to no avail. The people didn't win, but they refused to acquiesce in defeat and tell themselves they had won.

The convention challenge, then, showed that one avenue of political change, or political expression from the grass roots, is closed. The decision of the convention to seat the regular Mississippi delegation was imposed from the top; the one thing Johnson and Humphrey had to prevent was bringing the issue to the floor of the convention, for if it got there, the politicians who comprised most of the delegations would have to vote with one eye on the black votes back home. There was a good chance the MFDP would win on the floor.

And if this had happened, it would have had repercussions far beyond the convention. There would have been the whole question of executive patronage and how it is to be distributed. Naturally, MFDP would have become the legitimate claimant for the distribution of much of that patronage, and patronage is the base upon which are built all political machines. An effective political machine with strong ties to the grass roots in Mississippi would obviously produce radical change in Mississippi politics in a very short time. Gone would be the congressional delegation so subservient to the interests of corporate wealth. Gone would be the state administration which has built a tax and fiscal structure so cordial to the oil, railroad, cotton and textile interests which bleed the state. Too, how could the Democratic party in Congress justify giving the Mississippi delegation their accustomed seniority, when the President and the national party had repudiated the regular Mississippi party, from which the congressmen were elected? One repercussion could have been a fundamental shakeup in the power structure of both houses of Congress.

Almost immediately, in September to be exact, the reaction to the convention challenge manifested itself. The liberals in the North began to question how decisions are made in MFDP, in SNCC, in COFO (Council of Federation Organizations). There began to be whispers of "communist influence," of rule from the top, of irresponsibility to national politics. The liberals began to follow the line that Eastland and Stennis had begun in the summer and it was taken up by some leaders of the NAACP.

Challenge to Illegally Elected Representatives

Meanwhile MFDP was implementing the second stage of the political program — challenging the right of the regular Mississippi delegation to seats in the House of Representatives. This had been an integral part of the program from the beginning. Actually, planning had begun long before the convention. That planning reached fruition in the freedom elections for Congress which were held on October 30 and 31 and November 1 and 2. Having found, as they more or less expected, that access to the national political structure was closed to them at the convention, the MFDP now sought access to the governmental structure, through the congressional elections. Candidates in three of Mississippi's five districts tried to get on the ballot as independents. They assembled the required number of signatures on petitions, but the Mississippi Secretary of State refused to honor the signatures. This, certainly, was no surprise. The machinery for the freedom elections had been put in motion anticipating this refusal.

After the convention experience with Joseph Rauh, the MFDP sought new counsel for the congressional challenge. Attorneys Arthur Kinoy and William Kuntsler agreed to handle the legal end. They discovered the ancient statute which provides for a challenge to congressional elections, gathering evidence outside the structure of the House, using the subpoena powers of federal or local officials. The challenge is presented to the House for decision only after both sides have had an opportunity to assemble their own evidence. The MFDP decided upon this out of the several procedures available, precisely because it would permit them to assemble the evidence themselves, rather than rely upon the southern-dominated House Elections Subcommittee.

The Washington office of the MFDP was reactivated with a staff in December. The notices of challenge were served on the Mississippi Congressmen on December 4th. There followed an intensive period of lobbying by MFDP in Washington during the month of December, with concurrent workshops for Mississippians to explain and discuss the challenge. Participants in these workshops then went to Washington to participate in the lobbying.

Meanwhile in Washington the liberal organizations were again following the Johnson-Humphrey-Mississippi line. The Washington Civil Rights Leadership Conference refused at first to permit the MFDP to present its program to the membership.

Congressman William Fitts Ryan of New York had agreed that he would open the first stage of the congressional challenge by presenting objections on January 4th to the swearing in of the Mississippi delegation, and that he would then seek to introduce a resolution calling for the Mississippi House seats to remain empty during the pendancy of the challenge (it would not be finally resolved until mid July, at the earliest).

The details of what occurred during December, again, need not be rehashed here. Americans for Democratic Action, under Joseph Rauh, sought first to discredit the challenge, and then, after Rev. Martin Luther King and James Farmer endorsed the challenge, the Rauh forces tried to control the challenge by taking it over. They succeeded in getting all mention of the MFDP challenge taken out of the resolution which Congressman Ryan was to introduce, but, still, the challenge was a political fact with which they had to deal, because it has such grass roots support throughout the country. Here again the political effectiveness of MFDP was manifest. There were ad hoc committees in most of the large urban areas of the country which were lobbying their congressmen on the home ground to support the challenge. It was a kind of political mobilization with which the liberal leadership in Washington had not had to deal in a long time.

Then the Johnson administration stepped in and the word spread that Carl Albert, from Oklahoma, the House Majority Leader, would be recognized before Ryan on January 4, and that he would introduce a motion to seat the Mississippians. The MFDP program then became a lobby for votes against the Albert resolution.

Congressman Ryan had gathered a group of 18 Congressmen together in support of what he proposed doing. By the time January 4 came, Ryan had some fifty Congressmen who had agreed to back him in objecting to the swearing-in of the Mississippians. In addition the MFDP had decided it would be tactically sound to try for a roll call vote on the Albert resolution. Ryan and his congressmen agreed. The number of votes required for a roll call vote was 85. That number was assured in a meeting of congressmen which Ryan called for January 3, the day before the opening day of Congress.

An Historic Vote

What happened that day is now history, too. When Speaker McCormack called upon the House to rise for the swearing-in, Ryan rose, objected to the administration of the oath to the Mississippians, and fifty congressmen rose to back him. The Mississippians had to remain seated while the others were sworn in. Immediately after the swearing-in, Ryan sought recognition to introduce the resolution. However, Albert, too, was on his feet, and McCormack recognized the Majority Leader. Albert introduced his resolution to seat the Mississippians, and the Ryan forces called for a roll call vote. McCormack put that question to the House and it had so much support he didn't even bother to count. The vote showed 149 members opposed to seating the Mississippians.

The effect of this large vote was immediate. J. P. Coleman, the Mississippi politician who was lawyer for the challenged Congressmen, was sitting in the house gallery holding the answers to the challenge papers which had been filed on the Mississippians on December 4. They had thirty days in which to answer. January 4 was the last day. Coleman did not serve the answers on the Freedom candidates until after the sizable vote. The supposition is that, if the MFDP had not received substantial support on January 4, the Mississippians would simply have ignored the challenge and that would have been the end of it. However, after the vote, Coleman served the answers on the Freedom challengers, and the Mississippians thus acknowledged the political seriousness of the challenge.

There was an immediate reaction in Mississippi too. Within three weeks the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Mississippi Economic Council (state Chamber of Commerce), the state Sheriff's Association, the Association of Circuit Clerks (voter registrars), and various other organizations and officials had denounced violence and oppression against Negroes, and had called for law and order. Governor Johnson was particularly transparent in his conversion. He specified that the critical period for maintaining a civilized attitude in Mississippi would be the next six months — the period of the pendancy of the challenge!

Of course these public statements didn't lessen the oppression of Negroes and civil rights workers in Mississippi. But they did give the national press an opportunity to begin the absolution of Mississippi. Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution and vice-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wrote articles about the change in Mississippi. So did Reston, of The New York Times and other pundits.

But the SNCC field reports tell a different story. The arrests, the violence, the economic harassment continue unabated. Mississippi seeks a new national "image" because their Congressional seats are threatened but Mississippi has indicated no intention of changing reality of life for blacks in that state.

J.P. Coleman, as counsel for the challenged Congressmen, was the very soul of propriety in the deposition hearings conducted by the MFDP lawyers between January 4 and February 14. He helped to secure local officials to take and issue subpoenas, helped find places where the depositions hearings could be held, counseled the state officials that the challenge was a serious threat to things that are sacred in Mississippi. His purpose remains obscure, but one can suppose he sees the possibility of the challenge resulting in new congressional elections for Mississippi sometime in the late summer or fall, and himself as a possible candidate.

Thus, the issue is as yet unresolved as to whether access to the Congressional structure is as closed as it was found to be in the case of the convention political structure. But the line-up of forces is much the same as it was in the convention challenge. The "compromise," this time, comes in the offer of new voting legislation, designed to ensure Negroes the right to vote in the South. Since the whole basis of the congressional challenge is that the entire structure of Mississippi registration and election laws is designed to prevent Negroes' voting, the Johnson administration can make a persuasive argument to Congressional supporters of the challenge that the better way to resolve the issue is with voting legislation, rather than by unseating the Mississippians and having new elections. The past history of civil rights legislation and its enforcement makes this a poor argument to anyone not looking for a way out, but it was just such a tactic which undermined the convention challenge and eroded the MFDP support there. It could work in the Congressional challenge too.

Justice Department Equivocates

Perhaps the most significant indicator of the Johnson administration's attitude toward the challenge was the argument presented by Solicitor General Archibald Cox in the Supreme Court when the Court was considering U.S. v. Mississippi, which alleges precisely what the challenge alleges — that the entire structure of Mississippi political law is unconstitutional. Cox told the Justices that he did not want them to rule on the merits of the case at that time, but, rather, that he merely wanted the case remanded to district court for trial. A majority of the Justices had indicated they were prepared to rule on the merits of the case at that time, rather than on the narrow issue which was actually before the Court. If the Court had ruled in favor of the U.S. on the merits of the case, this would have been, in effect, a judicial confirmation of the charges upon which the challenge is based. It would then have been difficult for anyone to have argued against the challenge. Such a ruling during the pendancy of the challenge probably would have assured new elections in Mississippi.

To sum up, then, the MFDP experience has shown that access to the national political structure, the Presidency, is closed to grass-roots movements which seek basic and fundamental change in the society. Some might argue that the one experience does not justify such a gloomy conclusion, but, considering what is at stake for those who presently rule, and considering the details of what took place at Atlantic City, I think it is academic to argue that the experience is not conclusive.

The MFDP experience has further shown that precisely the tactics used against the movement at Atlantic City are presently being employed against the Congressional challenge. It has also shown that the line-up of forces is the same — the liberals and most of the civil rights organizations have again fallen into the trap (indeed one suspects that some of them built and baited it on orders from the White House) of supporting the diversionary move of the Administration — new voting rights legislation. They forget, or choose to ignore, that the one tactic which has moved anyone or anything in the ruling structure of the country in this generation has been the challenge program of the MFDP.

Consider what the House could do, on the basis of the challenge. Being constitutionally its own boss with respect to the elections of its members, the House could order new elections in Mississippi and could specify whatever it chooses with respect to who participates in those elections and how this participation is to be ensured. In other words, no constitutional problem about the right of the states to determine voter qualifications is present, as it inevitably must be with any new federal voting law. The House can, under the Constitution, decide who must be allowed to vote for its members, and it can simply refuse to seat persons who are not elected accordingly. Thus, the House can implement new voting requirements, and enforce them in the South, without ever passing legislation, and without incurring the legalistic barriers which are sure to emasculate new voting legislation.

If the House does not do this; if, rather, it follows the siren song of new voting legislation and permits this to erode support for the MFDP challenge, it will, in effect, be closing the last avenue for basic political change within the institutional structure of American politics. It will be telling the American people that Mississippi is not a southern phenomenon, but that it begins at the Canadian border and runs south to the Gulf and east and west to the Atlantic and the Pacific.

It will be revalidating the indictment delivered by Frederick Douglass one hundred thirteen years ago next July when the white folks of Rochester, New York, asked him to speak at a July 4th celebration. What, asked Douglass, is July 4th to the black American? He answered his own question:

"To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour."

Copyright © Jack Minnis, 1965.

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