Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Mississippi Freedom Summer Project -- Story of Hope and Victory


This map is the bus tour sponsored by the Living Legacy Project and The UU College of Social Justice that have been on. 

The big history of the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project.

The story of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Freedom Project can get lost in terror and tragedy. The brave decision of four Mississippi Civil Rights organizations to bring a thousand college age volunteers from around the country to push their voter registration drive forward was audacious. The state's white power structure mobilized as though the state was being invaded, including the deployment of the Klan, as an armed terrorist organization to intimidate the civil rights worker. No sooner had the volunteer training session in Oxford, Ohio come to an end, were three Civil Rights workers killed: James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The Summer Project started with death.

The violence continued all summer long. The Klan was active all summer, shooting into houses and offices, following people, driving by houses. The Klan was closely linked to the White Citizens Council, the respectable segregationist organization of bankers and lawyers and merchants and the Mississippi State sovereinity Commission, an official state agency which operated a surveillance network reporting to Movement activity throughout the state.

The volunteers were actually not very successful registering people to vote. The legal obstacles were great and the intimidation powerful.   But they were successful in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

The MFDP held caucuses and a convention which elected a slate of delegates to send to the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, in August.  They presented themselves to the Convention as the loyal Democrats of Mississippi chosen in an open and democratic process. They demanded to be seated instead of the regular Democrats, who had been chosen only by white people and refused to sign a pledge to support Johnson in the fall election.

Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer gave graphic and compelling testimony about what she had endured trying to register to vote in Mississippi to the Convention Credentials Committee. Lyndon Johnson pre-empted her testimony with a quickly called press conference of his own, but the networks repeated her testimony throughout prime time. I remember vividly her testimony; Johnson's press conference, not so much.

But it shows that the Mississippi Movement had captured the full attention of Lyndon Johnson, the President of the United States. Johnson was afraid that if the MFDP was seated, the delegates of Mississippi and other Southern states would walk out of the convention and into the Goldwater campaign.

Johnson sent Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther to negotiate with the MFDP. They put the full force of argument on the leaders of the MFDP, which rejected the offer of two non-voting, at-large delegates, who would be seated along side the regular Democrats. The negotiations were tough. Mrs. Hamer asked Adam Clayton Powell how many bales of cotton he had ever picked. She told Hubert Humphrey that she prayed for him as he violated what he knew was right to earn a job as Vice-President. In the end, the voting rights activists went home.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic lost in Atlantic City. The regular Democrats were seated, but the South voted for Barry Goldwater anyway. Johnson won the election handily. In the spring of 1965, John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. started the Selma campaign for voting rights in Alabama. Unitarian Universalists know that story well. Lyndon Johnson threw his support behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the history of the United States was changed.

I believe that the battle for voting rights was won, however, in Atlantic City the previous summer. It was won by the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project. It was won when the choice was made clear, would the South be represented by a multi-racial democratic coalition, or by a whites-only elite? It was won by incredible courage and clarity of Fannie Lou Hamer, who was repeatedly beaten for trying to register to vote and who frightened the President of United States with her eloquent truth-telling.

We often think of grass-roots community organizing as slow, patient work done in obscurity. On the other hand, we often think of high politics of political parties and national conventions as another  far-away  world. But in 1964, some very brave and skillful people brought those two worlds together in one space, and a great victory was the result.





1 comment:

ogre said...

I think that it's how we remember -- misremember -- the past, because it's what we see and notice. The low level stuff is absolutely critical. Without it, the stuff we start to remember doesn't happen. Without it the sea change that drives the "decision makers" to make those changes officially *never* happens.

We don't much notice the drops of water filling the buckets of the water wheel. But we notice when the wheel begins to move.

All the small actions, and even the transient defeats, matter. Consciousness shifts. We will not be ignored. We will not be silenced. We will not sit by in apathy and do nothing.

What we do will be small, and probably unnoticed, or at least forgotten quickly. Drops of water, filling the bucket of the wheel.