The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964

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At this spring 1964 press conference, Robert Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) explains the agenda for the upcoming Freedom Summer initiative. Freedom Summer organizers invited college students—many of them white—to Mississippi to lead Freedom Schools and help register voters during the summer of 1964. Their objective, also reflected by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, was to secure black voting power going into the 1964 presidential election and to get the country to “actually take a look at Mississippi.” Courtesy of WSB-TV, Walter J. Brown Media Archives via Digital Library of Georgia.

Founded in April of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenged the authority of the all-white Democratic Party that dominated Mississippi politics and disenfranchised black voters.  Bolstered by Freedom Summer voter registration efforts in black communities throughout the state and alternative “Freedom Ballots” organized in parallel with official elections, MFDP hosted its own state convention and elected its own delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

MFDP organizer and Mississippi native Fannie Lou Hamer had endured brutal physical abuse in retribution for her efforts to vote freely. Her televised testimony at the Democratic convention’s credentials hearing convinced many Americans that the MFDP delegates should be recognized. However, when threatened with a walkout by other white southern delegations, President Lyndon Johnson and other party leaders refused to unseat the Mississippi delegation in favor of the MFDP. Instead, they offered a weak compromise to the MFDP: two at-large non-voting seats. The MFDP refused these terms.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s presence at the convention drew national attention to the brutality of black voter disenfranchisement in Mississippi and throughout the South and helped catalyze support for the Voting Rights Act, which was passed the following year. Their dismissal by the Democratic Party reinforced the importance of their work; expanding black voting rights and political power would be critical in order to ensure representation in institutions of political power like party conventions and elected office.