In early 1964, as part of Freedom Summer, Mississippi civil rights activists affiliated with the Council of Federated Organizations in Mississippi launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Claiming status as “the only democratically constituted body of Mississippi citizens,” they appealed to the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) of 1964 to recognize their party’s delegation in place of the all-white Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi (Victoria Gray, July 1964). In his statement before the credentials committee, Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed support for the MFDP delegates, calling them “the true heirs of the tradition of Jefferson and Hamilton” (King, 22 August 1964).
Because Mississippi blacks were barred from participating in the meetings of the state’s Democratic Party, they decided to form their own party. Mirroring the Democratic Party’s official procedure, MFDP held parallel precinct and district caucuses open to all races. With the support of Freedom Summer students and volunteers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), activists gathered signatures of potential black voters for a “freedom registration.” Delegates to the DNC in Atlantic City, New Jersey, were elected at MFDP’s state convention in Jackson on 6 August 1964.
At the DNC later that month, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Congress of Racial Equality, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and SNCC conducted public and private diplomacy on the MFDP’s behalf. In a nationally televised speech before the DNC credentials committee, MFDP delegate Fannie Lou Hamer spoke passionately about the violence and intimidation suffered by Mississippi blacks seeking to register to vote, concluding, “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America” (Carson, 125). King echoed Hamer’s sentiment, telling the committee, “Any party in the world should be proud to have a delegation such as this seated in their midst. For it is in these saints in ordinary walks of life that the true spirit of democracy finds its most profound and abiding expression” (King, 22 August 1964).
President Lyndon Johnson, however, was fearful of losing white southern votes if the MFDP delegates were seated and advocated a compromise. The credentials committee of the DNC offered to award the MFDP two at-large seats, to seat members of the all-white delegation who would formally promise to support the DNC’s candidates in the upcoming elections (rather than campaign for Republican Barry Goldwater), and to bar segregated delegations from the 1968 convention.
Although King had told Johnson that he would “do everything in my power to urge [the MFDP] being seated as the only democratically constituted delegation from Mississippi,” he supported the compromise (King, 19 August 1964). MFDP delegates and many civil rights activists, however, were disheartened by the Credentials Committee’s refusal to seat MFDP delegates. Hamer’s response was, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats” (Carson, 126).
When all but three of the regular Mississippi delegation withdrew rather than promise to support the full slate of Democratic candidates, MFDP delegates borrowed passes from sympathetic delegates from other states, symbolically occupied the vacated seats and, when the chairs were removed, stood and sang freedom songs.
Although the MFDP did not gain the recognition it sought at the 1964 convention, it continued to pressure the Democratic Party to create a policy that would prevent the seating of a segregationist delegation and later campaigned for Johnson, recognizing that a Goldwater victory would have devastating implications for the civil rights movement.
For the next three years, MFDP continued to agitate on behalf of disenfranchised black Mississippians. In 1965, the MFDP led a challenge to unseat Mississippi’s congressmen on the grounds that they had been elected unconstitutionally. In remarks that were later read in the House, King declared, “I, therefore, again pledge myself and the SCLC to the fullest support of the Challenges of the MFDP and call upon all Americans to join with me in this commitment” (King, 17 May 1965).
In 1968, a group of former MFDP delegates, calling themselves the Loyal Democrats of Mississippi, succeeded in being seated as the sole Mississippi delegation to the DNC.
Carson, In Struggle, 1981.
Victoria Gray, Press release, Freedom registration in Mississippi and the Democratic National Convention challenge, July 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.
Henry with Curry, Aaron Henry, 2000.
King, Statement before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention, 22 August 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, Statement Supporting the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s Challenge, 17 May 1965, CRP-NNU-LA.
King to Johnson, 19 August 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.
Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 1995.