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Chapter 23: The Mississippi Challenge

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

The future of the United States of America may well be determined here, in Mississippi, for it is here that Democracy faces its most serious challenge. Can we have government in Mississippi which represents all of the people? This is the question that must be answered in the affirmative if these United States are to continue to give moral leadership to the Free World.

  • June 21, 1964 On the eve of the "Freedom Summer" campaign in Mississippi, three civil rights workers are reported missing after their arrest in Philadelphia, Mississippi
  • July 16 King asserts that nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater by Republicans will aid racists
  • July 20 Arrives in Mississippi to assist civil rights effort
  • August 4 The bodies of missing civil rights workers are discovered
  • August 22 Testifies at Democratic convention on behalf of Mississippi Freedoms Democratic Party

In 1964 the meaning of so-called Negro revolution became clear for all to see and was given legislative recognition in the civil rights law. Yet, immediately following the passage of this law, a series of events shook the nation, compelling the grim realization that the revolution would continue inexorably until total slavery had been replaced by total freedom. 

The new events to which I refer were: the Republican Convention held in San Francisco; the hideous triple lynchings in Mississippi; and the outbreak of riots in several Northern cities. 

The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism. All people of goodwill viewed with alarm and concern the frenzied wedding at the Cow Palace of the KKK with the radical right. The "best man" at this ceremony was a senator whose voting record, philosophy, and program were anathema to all the hard-won achievements of the past decade. 

It was both unfortunate and disastrous that the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater as its candidate for President of the United States. In foreign policy Mr. Goldwater advocated a narrow nationalism, a crippling isolationism, and a trigger-happy attitude that could plunge the whole world into the dark abyss of annihilation. On social and economic issues, Mr. Goldwater represented an unrealistic conservatism that was totally out of touch with the realities of the twentieth century. The issue of poverty compelled the attention of all citizens of our country. Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated. On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy. 

While I had followed a policy of not endorsing political candidates, I felt that the prospect of Senator Goldwater being President of the United States so threatened the health, morality, and survival of our nation, that I could not in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represented. 

The celebration of final enactment of the civil rights bill curdled and soured. Rejoicing was replaced by a deep and frightening concern that the counter-forces to Negro liberation could flagrantly nominate for the highest office in the land one who openly clasped the racist hand of Strom Thurmond. A cold fear touched the hearts of twenty million Negroes. They had only begun to come out of the dark land of Egypt where so many of their brothers were still in bondage-still denied elementary dignity. The forces to bar the freedom road, to drive us back to Egypt, seemed so formidable, so high in authority, and so determined.

Mississippi's New Negroes

A handsome young Negro, dressed in slacks and short-sleeve shirt, wiped his brow and addressed the police chief, "Now look here, chief, there's no need in trying to blow at us. Everybody scared of white folks has moved north, and you just as well realize that you've got to do right by the rest of us." 

This comment by Aaron Henry of Clarksdale, Mississippi, was typical of Mississippi's New Negroes. And in spite of the threat of death, economic reprisals, and continuous intimidation, they were pressing hard toward the high call of freedom. 

The remarkable thing was that the Negro in Mississippi had found for himself an effective way to deal with his problems and had organized efforts across the entire state. As part of SCLC's "people-to-people" program, several members of our staff and I had traveled the fertile and sometimes depressing Mississippi Delta country in 1962. That trip provided me with an opportunity to talk with thousands of people on a personal basis. I talked with them on the farms and in the village stores, on the city streets and in the city churches. I listened to their problems, learned of their fears, felt the yearnings of their hope. 

There were some flesh-and-blood scenes that I can never dispel from my memory. One of our earliest stops was a Catholic school that included the elementary and high school grades. The sister in charge in each classroom asked the question, "Where are you going tonight?" The answer was chorused, "To the Baptist Church!" They were referring to the Baptist Church where I was to speak for the mass meeting. The sister had urged them to attend. How marvelous that the struggle for freedom and human dignity rose above the communions of Catholic and Protestant. This was a bit of the hope that I glimpsed in the Mississippi Delta. Then, of course, there was the pathos. How sobering it was to meet people who work only six months in the year and whose annual income averaged $500 to $600.

Along with the economic exploitation that the whole state of Mississippi inflicts upon the Negro, there was the ever-present problem of physical violence. As we rode along the dusty roads of the Delta country, our companions cited unbelievable cases of police brutality and incidents of Negroes being brutally murdered by white mobs. 

In spite of this, there was a ray of hope. This ray of hope was seen in the new determination of the Negroes themselves to be free. 

Under the leadership of Bob Moses, a team of more than a thousand Northern white students and local Negro citizens had instituted a program of voter registration and political action that was one of the most creative attempts I had seen to radically change the oppressive life of the Negro in that entire state and possibly the entire nation. The Negroes in Mississippi had begun to learn that change would come in that lawless, brutal police state only as Negroes reformed the political structure of the area. They had begun this reform in 1964 through the Freedom Democratic Party. 

The enormity of the task was inescapable. We would have had to put the field staffs of SCLC, NAACP, CORE, SNCC, and a few other agencies to work in the Delta alone. However, no matter how big and difficult a task it was, we began. We encouraged our people in Mississippi to rise up by the hundreds and thousands and demand their freedom-now! 

Nothing had inspired me so much for some time as my tour of Mississippi in July 1964 on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. These were a great people who had survived a concentration camp existence by the sheer power of their souls. They had no money, no guns, very few votes and yet they were then the number-one power in the nation; for they were organized and moving by the thousands to rid the nation of its most violent racist

When I was about to visit Mississippi, I was told that a sort of guerrilla group was plotting to take my life during the visit. I was urged to cancel the trip, but I decided that I had no alternative but to go on into Mississippi, because I had a job to do. If I were constantly worried about death, I could not function. After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point 

We landed in Greenwood, the home of Byron de la Beckwith, indicted murderer of Medgar Evers. The sullen white crowd stood on one side of the gate and a cheering integrated crowd on the other. Two years ago this would not have been possible, for the first white persons to work in civil rights were thrown in jail for eating in a Negro restaurant.

We spent five days touring Jackson, Vicksburg, and Meridian. We walked the streets, preached on front porches, at mass meetings, or in the pool halls, and always God's children flocked by the thousands to learn of freedom. We stopped off in Philadelphia and visited the burned church which Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were investigating when they were so savagely murdered in June. 

I was proud to be with the workers of the Council of Federated Organizations and students of the Summer Project, to work with them through the Freedom Democratic Party to make democracy a reality. Those young people make up a domestic Peace Corps. Our nation had sent our Peace Corps volunteers throughout the underdeveloped nations of the world and none of them had experienced the kind of brutality and savagery that the voter registration workers suffered in Mississippi.

The church burnings, harassment, and murders in this state were direct results of the fact that Negro citizens could not vote and participate in electing responsible public officials who would protect the rights of all people. Many thousands had tried to register - in spite of violence, economic reprisals, and other forms of intimidation - yet in 1963 only 1636 Negro persons were registered in the entire state.

The federal government had a choice of working toward the gradual political reform of Mississippi through the civil process and through representative institutions such as the Freedom Democratic Party, or to send federal troops anytime a constitutional issue arose. The Freedom Democratic Party hoped to unite all persons of goodwill in the state of Mississippi under the platform and program of the National Democratic Party. We intended to send a delegation to Atlantic City and urge that they be seated. Our nation needed at least one party which was free of racism, and the National Democratic Party could make a significant step in this direction by recognizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as the official Mississippi delegation.

Beacon light of hope

Everyone expected the Democratic Convention to be very dull and routine. Lyndon Johnson would name his running mate personally, and there were no issues which loomed as controversial enough to stir the convention. But everyone underestimated the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The group of sixty-eight Negroes from Mississippi descended on the convention with a display of power, which even Lyndon Johnson had difficulty coping with. Their power was the moral power on which this nation was built. They deliberately ignored the man-made rules of the convention and appealed directly to the heart and soul of America and her people. What we experienced in Atlantic City was a classical illustration of the power of nonviolence, in the political arena. Many Americans became aware of the facts for the first time as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party took its case before the nation and the credentials committee of the National Democratic Party. 

The people of Mississippi knew they were in a police state. They realized that politics provided the avenue for educating their children, providing homes and jobs for their families, and literally making over the whole climate of the state of Mississippi. This is a lesson that all Americans needed to learn, especially those of us who had been deprived because of color.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Credentials Committee, if you value.' the future of democratic government, you have no alternative but to recognize, with full voice and vote, the Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party.

This is in no way a threat. It is the most urgent moral appeal that I can make to you. The question cannot be decided by the splitting of legal hairs or by seemingly expedient political compromises. For what seems to be expedient today will certainly prove disastrous tomorrow, unless it is based on a sound moral foundation. 

This is no empty moral admonition. The history of men and of nations has proven that failure to give men the right to vote, to govern themselves and to select their own representatives brings certain chaos to the social, economic, and political institution which allows such an injustice to prevail. 

And finally this is no mean issue. The recognition of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party has assumed symbolic value for oppressed people the world over. Seating this delegation would become symbolic of the intention of this country to bring freedom and democracy to all people. It would be a declaration of political independence to underprivileged citizens long denied a voice in their own destinies. It would be a beacon light of hope for all the disenfranchised millions of this earth whether they be in Mississippi and Alabama, behind the Iron Curtain, floundering in the mire of South African apartheid, or freedom-seeking persons in Cuba. Recognition of the Freedom Democratic Party would say to them that somewhere in this world there is a nation that cares about justice, that lives in a democracy, and that insures the rights of the downtrodden. 

The Freedom Democratic Party found itself immersed in the world of practical politics almost immediately. The strong moral appeal before the credentials committee had to be backed up with political support. The following days involved gaining enough persons on the committee to submit a minority report before the convention body, and then enough states to support us to demand a roll call vote which would make each state take sides openly. In general the sentiment of the convention was for the Freedom Party, but the fact that Lyndon Johnson had to run against Goldwater made everybody cautious, lest the entire South bolt the party with Mississippi. 

Finally, a compromise emerged which required the regular part, to take a loyalty oath, and granted delegate-at-large status to two 0 the Freedom Party. This was a significant step. It was not a great victory, but it was symbolic, and it involved the pledge of high part officials to work with the Freedom Party for the next four years to gain registered voters and political strength in Mississippi. But then was no compromise for these persons who had risked their lives to get this far. Had I been a member of the delegation, I would probably have advised them to accept this as an offer in good faith am attempted to work to strengthen their position. But life in Mississippi had involved too many compromises already, and too man promises had come from Washington for them to take these seriously; so their skepticism must be viewed sympathetically. 

We will never forget Aaron Henry and Fannie Lou Hamer. Their testimony educated a nation and brought the political powers to their knees in repentance, for the convention voted never again to seat a delegation that was racially segregated. But the true test of their message would be whether or not Negroes in Northern cities heard them and would register and vote.

Promising aspects of the elections

In San Francisco, the Republican Party had taken a giant stride away from its Lincoln tradition, and the results of election day graphical) illustrate how tragic this was for the two-party system in America Those who sought to turn back the tide of history suffered a bitter defeat, and in the process degraded themselves and their party in manner seldom witnessed on our national political scene. The force of goodwill and progress dealt a telling blow to the fanaticism of the right, and Americans swallowed their prejudices in the interests of progress, prosperity, and world peace. 

One of the more promising aspects of the election was that the grand alliance of labor, civil rights forces, intellectual and religious, leaders was provided with its second major victory within a year. This was the coalition which had to continue to grow in depth and breadth, if we were to overcome the problems which confronted us. 

President Johnson had the opportunity to complete the job which was started by Roosevelt and interrupted by the war. Our very survival as a nation depended on the success of several rather radical reforms. The key to progress was still to be found in the states which President Johnson lost to Goldwater. Until the Southern power block was broken and the committees of our Congress freed from the domination of racists and reactionaries within the Democratic Party, we could not expect the kind of imagination and creativity which this period in history demanded from our federal government. 

The problems of poverty, urban life, unemployment, education, housing, medical care, and flexible foreign policy were dependent on positive and forthright action from the federal government. But so long as men like Senators Eastland, Russell, Byrd, and Ellender held the positions of power in our Congress, the entire progress of our nation was in as grave a danger as the election of Senator Goldwater might have produced. The battle was far from won. It had only begun. The main burden of reform would still be upon the Negro.

NEXT: Chapter 24: The Nobel Peace Prize