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Fifty years after Fannie Lou Hamer proposed how the Democratic Party could win the South; her wisdom bore fruit in the state next to her home state of Mississippi.

Anyone who has taken a high school history course knows about the attempts to register African Americans to vote throughout the South in the 1960s, but what usually gets left out is that for many African Americans this movement wasn’t just about voting, it was about overthrowing the white power structure that had run the South like a feudal kingdom ever since the first slave was brought in chains to these shores.

At the close of an oral history interview given late in her life Fannie Lou Hamer talked about that vision:

I talked to some young people in Washington, and they said, ‘You know we’re going to find out one day just how many blacks there are in Mississippi because we’re going to travel that state over.”

Change Mississippi to Alabama and you have the recipe that elected a Democrat to the Senate for the first time in a quarter of a century.

The 1960s

In the early 1960s most Democrats recognized the South would never be the same, but they clung to a belief that segregationists such as James Eastland and John Stennis occupied some mythical “middle ground” between The Civil Rights Movement and the hooded myrmidons of the Klan. If they could hold that “middle” they could keep the South solid.

By the time of the 1964 convention any two-bit fortuneteller could have told the Democratic Party something had to give. Quite simply the Party could continue to support regimes whose brutality had been broadcast into America’s living rooms or they could build an alternative. Whether the stars really were aligned for creating a new force in the South in 1964 will continue to inspire what-ifs, but clearly Hamer and others said the time had come.

In Mississippi the vehicle for that change was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Created by African Americans as an alternative to the segregationist all-white state Democratic Party, the MFDP elected a slate of African American delegates to the 1964 Democratic national convention in Atlantic City. An MFDP brief used language no doubt calculated to evoke vice-presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey’s 1948 civil rights speech:

In the final analysis the issue is one of principle: whether the National Democratic Party, one of the greatest instruments of progress in the history of our nation, shall walk backward with the bigoted power structure of Mississippi or stride ahead with those who would build the state and the Nation in the image of the Democratic Party’s great leaders. [Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission Document 2‑165‑1‑49‑1‑1‑1]

Most Americans have forgotten the MFDP delegate challenge and Fannie Lou Hamer’s emotional speech about how Mississippi state troopers nearly beat her to death for having the temerity to help register African Americans to vote. Even less widely known is the attempt by Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray to run for the House of Representatives and Aaron Henry to run for the Senate after the 1964 convention.

The Freedom Ballot

The Mississippi Election Commission declined to place them on the ballot, saying their petition lacked the required number of signatures from registered voters, perhaps because the same people who had refused to register black voters also refused to certify petitions, in some cases saying the voters had not paid their poll tax. Shortly thereafter, in what is surely one of the more perverse rulings in American history, a Mississippi judge added to the insult by ruling that the MFDP could not use the word “democratic” in its name.

The primary loss set in motion the Freedom Ballot, a tactic used the previous year when Aaron Henry ran for governor, polling 90,000 votes among the state’s disenfranchised African Americans. The Freedom Ballot’s intent was to demonstrate that a significant number of Mississippi’s African Americans were not invisible or slaves to the power structure. To minimize the violent segregationists that would be attracted like moths to a flame, organizers mailed the Freedom Ballot over a four-day period. The courage behind the effort remains difficult to imagine, for everyone involved in printing, distributing, filling out and counting the ballots literally put their lives on the line.

When the counting ended, over 50,000 African Americans had sent in ballots, a collective shout for freedom that reverberated across Mississippi to the very halls of Congress. Following the election, Hamer, Devine and Gray would take their cases to the House, asking them to overturn the results that had elected white segregationists . A little more than a year after the convention fiasco, Hamer sat on the floor of the House of Representatives as it debated which Mississippi congressional delegation would represent the state.

In one of the most important debates in the history of the House, the attempt to seat the three women failed 228-143 with 10 voting present and 51 not voting. In votes that pointed to the future of the Republican Party, future presidential candidates Gerald Ford and Robert Dole voted “no.” Among those who spoke in favor of seating the three was California Representative James Roosevelt, FDR’s son, who stated,

Once the technical and legal points have been argued and assessed there remains a great overriding issue. It is a moral issue. Can we support continued service in this body today of persons elected by what must be frankly recognized as a perversion and misuse of our elected processes? [Congressional Record 23391 ]

Although it failed to seat the three women, that 1965 debate would represent the high water mark of the MFDP and its attempts to organize a new Democratic Party in the South built around African Americans. Three years after the challenge of the three women, Richard Nixon would enter the White House using the infamous Southern Strategy that legitimized the wholesale defection of former Dixiecrats and others to the Republican Party along with a promise to slow down the Civil Rights Movement.

The Democratic & Republican Response

The challenge of Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine and Victoria Gray also dramatized that the Democratic Party had no stomach for taking on the South. In that 1965 debate, the Democrats could have moved to overturn the entire voting structure in Mississippi and the rest of the South by using the MFDP challenge to open a full-scale investigation into voting irregularities.

By losing sight of the level playing field, the Democratic Party paved the path for Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and the Thurmondization of America. In doing so it began a steady loss of power, as many associated the party with hypocrisy and weakness, demonstrating that power without principle resides in a hollow, brittle shell. Historian Todd Gitlin understood the significance of what happened in Atlantic City, but he could have also been writing about the 1965 Congressional debate:

The national Democratic party’s rejection of the MFDP at the 1964 convention was to the civil right’s movement what the Civil War was to American history: afterward things would never be the same. [The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, p. 161.]

Given the long relationship between Southern Democrats and segregation, why would Hamer and those who created the MFDP not seek an alliance with the party of Abraham Lincoln? The answer is Barry Goldwater. The same year as the Atlantic City Convention, the GOP nominated Goldwater, who promised to support the doctrine of state’s rights that had been at the core of the Dixiecrat movement lead by Strom Thurmond. When someone asked Hamer why she would support the very President and Party that tried to suppress the MFDP, Hamer answered in her usual forthright way:

Any Negro who votes for Barry Goldwater is out of his mind. [Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission Document 2‑139‑0‑47‑1‑1‑1]

In the years since Richard Nixon and the Republican Party made their devil’s bargain, the South began to elect African Americans. The Congressional Black Caucus now counts among its members Representative Bennie Thompson from Mississippi’s Second District, a seat formerly held by segregationist Jamie Whitten against whom Fannie Lou Hamer had run in 1964.

The data becomes even more dramatic when you look at the growth in African American elected officials in the South. A 2000 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies showed a six-fold increase in elected officials since 1970, from 1,469 to 9,040. According to the report:

Among the top five states with the largest number of BEOs were Mississippi (897); Alabama (731); Louisiana (701); Illinois (621), and Georgia (582).

Most of the growth of elected officials between 1970 and 2000 occurred in the South, and six states–Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Illinois, Georgia and South Carolina–have each gained more than 500 BEOs during this period.

Black women have accounted for all of the growth in the number of BEOs for two consecutive years and make up 34.5% of the total.

The Center has continued its mission of studying and training African American elected officials. Had the pundits wondering about African American turnout in Alabama looked at the Center’s plans for 2017 they might have been less worried. On March 4 the Center hosted a symposium for 15 African American mayors and other elected officials from Alabama to discuss addressing problems in that state:

Children incapable of completing homework and isolated from a world of ideas because their small town lacks broadband. Pools of raw sewage sitting in front yards due to insufficient sewage infrastructure. The elderly traveling hundreds of miles and waiting for hours in line for dialysis treatment several days each week. Too few jobs. A crippling inability to address these problems due to insufficient state assistance, an inadequate local tax base, and too few local resources to apply for federal grants.

Perhaps more significantly, these elected officials have followed in the tradition of Fannie Lou Hamer, the MFDP, and the African American community’s long history of collective action forming a potent state, regional and national leadership force.

Given that data show a huge drift of African Americans to the Democratic Party, if the Party can build a platform to appeal to these officials and nominate a candidate they can support, they could be the key to putting a Democrat in the White House.

Fannie Lou Hamer had a pretty good prescription for winning those African American votes:

To support whatever is right, and to bring in justice where we’ve had so much injustice. [“The Special Plight and Role of Black Women, see Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal]

A Democrat who talks like that could make the work of Hamer and the MFDP more than prophetic.

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