In 1964, African Americans in the deep South were beginning to get involved in the political process. Some had courageously registered to vote, in the face of angry white resistance. Thousands of others expressed a desire to register, but were prevented from meeting that goal by threats, violence, or the refusal of voting registrars to register them. In Mississippi, white resistance to black registration was especially bitter and dangerous.
Unlike their ancestors in Mississippi who had voted overwhelmingly Republican in the 1870s, African Americans in 1964 wanted to support the national Democratic Party, including as it did many Northern friends of civil rights. President Johnson himself deserved support for his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1963, the first important civil rights law in almost a century. But in Mississippi, the state Democratic Party did not appreciate LBJ, nor the civil rights predilections of Democratic members of Congress from the North. In fact, party leaders in the Magnolia State had made it clear that any good Southern Democrat should vote for Goldwater for president in 1964.
So in the Spring of 1964, black Mississippians attempted to get active in the state's Democratic party, and to steer the party to support Johnson. Predictably, the state party's leaders did not permit black participation in primaries or conventions, and so the black citizens formed their own group, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The MFDP was as overwhelmingly black as the regular party was overwhelmingly white, though there were a very few white members of the MFDP, most notably a minister named Ed King.
As Mississippi's Democratic party continued to refuse black participation, and as its leaders continued to make statements supporting Goldwater, the MFDP organized itself down to the precinct level, and held elections to choose delegates to send to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. They also chose three black women to run for Congress against the Democratic regulars. The candidates they chose were Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray. Because state election authorities didn't recognize the three women, a separate "Freedom Election" was held, in which more than 33,000 black Mississippians participated.
At the Atlantic City convention, national party leaders were horrified when MFDP delegates showed up. President Johnson wanted this convention to be a sort of coronation for himself, and he didn't want bitter debates to detract. Nevertheless, Fannie Lou Hamer was soon in front of a microphone before the Credentials Committee, and she told horrifying stories of her attempts to register to vote in Sunflower County. She told, for example, how the first time she attempted to register she returned home and heard sixteen shots enter her house that night. Turning to the television cameras, Hamer asked, "Is this America?"
When LBJ believed the MFDP was getting too much airtime, he gave the networks about ten minutes notice that he wanted to deliver a special televised speech on an unrelated topic, effectively preempting the most interesting MFDP moments at the convention. Johnson angrily told Hubert Humphrey to work out a deal and get the MFDP off the front pages, or else Humphrey could give up on the idea of being vice-president. Humphrey in turn enlisted the help of labor leader Walter Reuther, Senator Wayne Morse, and several others.
Finally, the Credentials Committee offered a compromise: two of the MFDP representatives would be seated as "At-Large" delegates, while all of the Mississippi regular delegation would be seated. The other MFDP delegates could attend the convention as guests. The deal also included promises that the future would be better, and that the 1968 DNC delegation from Mississippi must be fully integrated.
Joseph Raugh, the MFDP's legal counsel, urged them to accept the compromise. Protest was protest, he said, but this was politics, and in politics you have to compromise.
Against tremendous pressure from Humphrey, Reuther, Raugh, Morse, and dozens of other party leaders, the MFDP delegates finally voted—and defied the party by refusing the compromise. "We didn't come all this way for no two seats," explained Fannie Lou Hamer, "when all of us is tired."
Ironically, the LBJ convention had turned away its friends from Mississippi, while seating the delegates of the white-led state party that hated Johnson. Party leaders did this because they wanted to prevent wholesale defection of white Southerners to the Republican party. Yet despite their winning the dispute, most members of the regular Mississippi delegation left the convention and went back home, angry at all the attention paid to the MFDP.
James Forman, noted leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, believed the MFDP story was a turning point for the civil rights movement. He explained that up until that point those in the movement believed the federal government would protect citizens from bigoted state governments, and that the national Democratic Party would protect citizens from bigoted state parties.
Forman believed the MFDP story showed black Mississippians that white leaders would not exert great effort to help black Southerners, and it didn't matter whether such leaders were national leaders like Humphrey and Reuther or state leaders like governors Faubus, Wallace, or Barnett. After 1964, Forman believed, black Southerners would have to rely on themselves, and turn in new and more revolutionary directions.