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Three Women Who Dared the House To Eject Five Colleagues on Principle : Civil rights: In 1965, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged the state's delegation. It lost, but the lessons are still valuable.

October 14, 1990|Kay Mills | Kay Mills, an Opinion editor , has just completed a year as a Rockefeller Foundation civil - rights fellow at the University of Virginia's Carter G. Woodson Institute

Twenty-five years ago this fall, every member of the U.S. House of Representatives faced a critical test on race and politics. Did enough of them believe in civil rights to throw out five colleagues from Mississippi? Or was their fear of such a precedent so great that they would turn their backs on the blatantly unconstitutional denial of voting rights that had allowed the five to be elected?

In 1965, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged the seating of the five members on the ground that black people had been unable to participate freely in their election. Today, this challenge carried by three women--Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Annie Devine of Canton and Victoria Gray of Hattiesburg--has become an almost-forgotten footnote of history.

But their act should not be forgotten, both for the individual heroism it represented and for the step toward fuller black representation that it became. Furthermore, racism still plays a role in American politics and undermines America's professions of equality. It is thus important to look back at the earlier effort to eradicate this blight.

Mississippi for decades denied black people the right to register and then vote. Even into the 1960s, its registrars closed their offices when black applicants showed up or made them interpret arcane sections of the state constitution that an Ivy League lawyer could not understand. Nightriders shot into homes and killed those who dared object; law officers beat civil-rights workers, including Hamer.

Even the national Democratic Party copped out by refusing to reject outright the all-white Mississippi delegation at its 1964 convention. Instead, the party said discrimination was wrong and no one could do it the next time around.

The Freedom Democratic Party, organized to confront discrimination, decided that it would take on the Mississippi congressional delegation. Its lawyers--Arthur Kinoy, William Kunstler, Ben Smith and Morton Stavis--found that not only could the House determine its members' qualifications, it also had to grant subpoena power to the challengers to gather evidence. Volunteer attorneys swarmed into Mississippi and heard public testimony from prospective black voters denied their rights and from the state officials responsible.

Back in Washington, the House first took up the challenge on the opening day of its 1965 congressional session. As members walked through the underground tunnel toward chambers, they passed black Mississippians standing quietly, with dignity, every 10 feet along the way. Sharecroppers. Farmers. Maids. Cooks. A few teachers, but mainly working people. "They had no signs. That wasn't allowed," recalled organizer Mike Thelwell. "They just stood there. It was very impressive. . . . You could see it having an account."

The House seated the five Mississippians, including the powerful Jamie L. Whitten, who still chairs the House Appropriations Committee. But the vote, 276-149, showed far more support for the challenge than anticipated. The MFDP pursued its case through the spring and summer with the House committee to which it had been referred for resolution.

Hamer, Devine and Gray spent much of their time lobbying House members in Washington or traveling the country to drum up support. At one point, the House clerk stubbornly refused to publish the documentation the lawyers had turned up in Mississippi, so Gray led a delegation to try to see him. She and her group were jailed when they refused to leave the Capitol at closing time.

The pressure was on Congress to enact stronger protections for black voters. Police violence against demonstrators in Selma, Ala., that year intensified the drive for the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed on Aug. 6. In that landmark legislation, Congress found its out with respect to the challenge. More than one House member would acknowledge Mississippi's horrid conditions, predict that the Voting Rights Act would change them and therefore vote against the challenge.

Timidity marked the liberal community's response. The Freedom Democrats were proving to be a party no outsider could control. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the main lobbying force in Washington, was reluctant to step out in front until the closing days of the challenge; the Americans for Democratic Action opposed it early on. The lawyer who had represented the black Mississippians at the 1964 Democratic convention, Joseph Rauh, opposed them in this effort.

The women hadn't been on the November, 1964, ballot as candidates--so Rauh found himself agreeing with the Mississippi congressmen that they couldn't legally be challengers. But Mississippi had played its own version of Catch-22. The women hadn't gotten on the ballot because state officials refused to put them there, even though they petitioned to run and had the legally required number of signatures.

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