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Freedom Party Gave Blacks a Political Voice

In a challenge to the rigidly segregated South, the Mississippi group tried to send delegates to the 1964 Democratic convention.

July 25, 2004|Shelia Hardwell Byrd | Associated Press Writer

DURANT, Miss. — With hands hardened by labor as a carpenter, Walter Bruce sifted through postcards bearing photographs of local civil rights pioneers -- people such as Hartman Turnbow and Alma Mitchell, who in the 1960s stared down the barrel of a sheriff's gun to claim their right to register to vote.

One postcard image shows Bruce himself, in dark suit and tie, speaking at a meeting of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a group that briefly caught the nation's attention by dramatically challenging the political establishment in the rigidly segregated South.

For many Americans, the Democratic National Convention in 1964 provided a glimpse of the passionate activists of the Freedom Democratic Party. Then they faded from the national consciousness.

Today, Bruce, 75, is president of what is believed to be the only chapter of the party that remains active.

In the 1960s, many blacks joined the movement after seeing friends and family members lynched or firebombed.

Many suffered economic retaliation; Bruce worried that white people would get someone else for their carpentry work.

Still, he says now, "I thought, what good is a job without freedom?"

The Freedom Party had about 80,000 black members when it tried to send delegates to the Democratic convention in Atlantic City in 1964 and challenge the seating of an all-white Mississippi delegation.

It was the same year that nearly 1,000 volunteers flocked to Mississippi to help blacks register and defy the state's system of intimidation through literacy tests, poll taxes and violence.

The highlight of the convention was to be Lyndon Johnson's presidential nomination, but it was overshadowed by the Freedom Party.

With more than 60 "delegates," the Freedom Party demanded to be recognized as Mississippi's true delegation.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a black Holmes County sharecropper who co-founded the Freedom Party, testified before the convention's Credentials Committee.

Hamer told the committee about being beaten with a "flat blackjack" for attending a civil rights meeting in her state. And she asked, "Is this America?"

Emma Sanders, a Freedom Party alternate at the 1964 convention, recalled that Hamer walked with a limp because of injuries from her beating.

"Women in the room were crying. They were moved by her testimony," Sanders said.

Journalist Bill Minor, who covered both Mississippi's regular and Freedom Democrats, said the convention gave blacks in Mississippi a rare opportunity to tell their story to the nation. The conflict reached the Democratic Party's highest levels.

"President Johnson became so paranoid that the convention would turn into an uproar when he was to appear that he had Secret Service and FBI agents surround the Mississippi delegate seats on the floor," Minor recalled. "The word was that Freedom Party leader Bob Moses would lead a surge onto the floor and take over the Mississippi seats, and Johnson wanted to make sure that didn't happen."

Johnson also called a news conference to preempt the live TV broadcasts of Hamer's testimony.

The national Democratic Party eventually offered the Freedom Party a compromise: to seat two Freedom Party delegates -- one black and one white -- alongside the Mississippi Democrats who were opposed to civil rights for blacks.

The Freedom Party rejected the compromise and tried to force a convention floor roll-call vote. Sanders was among Freedom Party delegates who used borrowed convention passes and marched onto the floor.

"It was so congested. Other delegations wanted to see the commotion. The press was pressing in. It was horrible. They were trying to put us out. We locked arms and stayed," Sanders said.

Guards pried apart the praying party members and hauled them away -- again, before network TV cameras. This happened on two successive nights.

"We were in a dream world. We had people with a knowledge of the Constitution. They felt we would be seated or given a portion of the seats. We didn't expect what we encountered," said Sanders, who is a Mississippi delegate to this week's Democratic convention in Boston.

Although the Freedom Party rejected the Democrats' compromise, its challenge galvanized Mississippi's black population in its quest for equality.

The barriers that blacks faced at the ballot box and in their efforts to gain political and economic power began to fall with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

"Negroes dominate in county voting," said a headline in the June 9, 1966, edition of the Holmes County Herald. The article detailed the large number of black residents who cast ballots -- news at the time.

Over the years, Mississippi's changing political landscape lessened the need for the statewide Freedom Party, said Ed King, who was the white Freedom Party delegate offered a seat at the 1964 convention and who is now a sociology professor at the University of Mississippi. The black delegate was Aaron Henry, a pharmacist who was a major force in the civil rights struggle in Mississippi.

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