Fannie Lou Hamer Challenged Corporate Dems in 1964
Historian Gerald Horne says the possible defeat of Bernie Sanders supporters at this summer’s Democratic National Convention could led to a serious exodus from the party and give rise to an independent movement. He sat down with TRNN senior editor Paul Jay to discuss the Mississippi Freedom Democratic insurgency of 1964 and understand its significance for understanding the Sanders campaign. “What was happening at the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1964,” says Gerald Horne, “is that a multiracial, racially integrated delegation from Mississippi was challenging the credentials of the old-line Democratic Party in Mississippi, which, of course, was an apartheid delegation, a Jim Crow delegation, a racially segregated delegation. President Johnson was under enormous pressure to surrender to the Hamer-led delegation because the United States at that particular moment was under enormous pressure to move rapidly away from its system of racial segregation, Jim Crow, and U.S.-style apartheid.” When Hamer began to testify about her personal experiences of the brutally of U.S. apartheid, Lyndon B. Johnson called a press conference that would block her testimony from receiving TV network coverage. Johnson was concerned that pro-segregation forces would leave the party and led to his defeat in the 1964 presidential election. “This really set the stage for the emergence of the so-called black power movement,” says Horne. “That is to say that when the MFDP forces felt that they were being rejected by the mainstream Democratic Party, it gave rise and gave impetus to this idea that they should separate. It gave rise to the idea that black nationalism should be the order of the day. Oftentimes what’s lost sight of in terms of the resurgence of black nationalism: that it comes straight out of this controversy involving the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.” “I dare say that if the Sanders forces are squashed in Philadelphia (which is a real possibility) at this summer’s Democratic Party convention, it may give rise to a kind of bolting from the Democratic Party,” says Horne.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, and welcome to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay.
As we’ve been discussing on The Real News, the Democratic Party and the Republicans–in this session we’re going to talk about the Democrats–are essentially a kind of united front of various classes and stratems, sections of society. You have different sections of the elite, to sections of the hedge fund guys and the section of Silicon Valley people and so on and others who back the Democratic Party, generally socially liberal, fiscally sort of neoliberal, and generally speaking, in terms of foreign policy, not that far from what President Obama pursues. More or less he represents that kind of sections of capital with an alliance with union leaders and sections of, especially, the urban working class and others in the society. And generally speaking, the corporate Democrats control the party, and there’s fights over policy and so on.
But once in a while there’s kind of moments of insurgency, moments of sort of breaking through. One of the more famous of those moments took place at the National Democratic Party Convention in 1964. We have another moment now. The Sanders campaign and the movement behind him is creating another kind of insurgency challenging the hierarchy of the Democratic Party.
But we’ve been doing a few pieces putting this into some historical context. And as I mentioned, one of the more important moments was 1964 with Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Democratic Party making a challenge to who was going to represent Mississippi at the convention, and in that way a challenge to Lyndon Johnson–President Lyndon Johnson himself.
So first we’re going to talk about that moment in 1964, and then talk a bit about what similarities it might have to today.
So now joining us, then, from Texas is Dr. Gerald Horne. He holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History in African American Studies at the University of Houston. He’s the author of more than 30 books and 100 scholarly articles and reviews, including his latest, Paul Robeson: Artist as Revolutionary.
Thanks for joining us.
DR. GERALD HORNE, UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON: Thank you for inviting me.
JAY: So we’re going to run a clip of Fannie Lou Hamer testifying at the platform committee at the Democratic Party convention. In itself that was a fight, that she even got to do that. But before we run the clip and tell a little more of that story, Gerald, set the context, set up the moment.
HORNE: Well, what was happening at the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1964 is that a multiracial, racially integrated delegation from Mississippi was challenging the credentials of the old-line Democratic Party in Mississippi, which, of course, was an apartheid delegation, a Jim Crow delegation, a racially segregated delegation. President Johnson was under enormous pressure to surrender to the Hamer-led delegation because the United States at that particular moment was under enormous pressure to move rapidly away from its system of racial segregation, Jim Crow, and U.S.-style apartheid.
But Johnson also recognized that historically the apartheid forces in the Democratic Party were more than willing to bolt and to weaken the Democratic Party. Recall that in 1948 the South Carolina politician James Strom Thurmond had broken away from his Democratic Party because he was objecting to President Harry Truman’s move to desegregate the Armed Forces and to introduce other measures concerning desegregation in the United States federal government. He ran a third-party challenge to President Truman and almost defeated President Truman by taking Southern states that otherwise would have been in the Democratic column. So President Johnson in 1964–a scant 16 years later–had to take very seriously the possibility that the apartheid forces in Mississippi would bolt, and he did not necessarily have to take into account the possibility that the Hamer-led forces would bolt, because where would they go?
JAY: Right. So Hamer goes with the Mississippi Freedom delegation. I’m sorry. This was the Mississippi Freedom Party?
HORNE: Freedom Democratic Party.
JAY: Freedom Democratic Party. They go to the convention demanding they be seated. Essentially it’s a challenge to the party hierarchy, to President Johnson: choose what kind of party this is going to be. If you want to be a party with the Dixiecrats, essentially a party that includes a great section of the Southern racist hierarchy, then choose that party, or you’re going to choose a party that includes African Americans. And she makes that challenge.
And here’s a bit of her testimony. You’ll see what happens is in the midst of this testimony she gets broken off by the television networks that are covering this. Lyndon Johnson didn’t want people to see this testimony, so he calls a press conference urgently right in the middle of her testimony in order to announce that it’s been nine months since John Connally was shot at the time President Kennedy was assassinated–a completely fabricated anniversary, in a sense. I guess it was nine months, but it was a meaningless anniversary. He just didn’t want the TV networks to carry her statement, and obviously showing what choice he was making in terms of what kind of Democratic Party he wanted.
So here’s a bit of what she said.
EDWIN NEWMAN, REPORTER, CBS NEWS: The first delegation to be heard is the Mississippi Freedom Party delegation, that is, the largely negro group which insists that it should be seated because the regular Mississippi Democrats are not in fact Democrats at all and would not support the ticket in November. Joseph Rauh, who is a Washington, D.C., attorney, is presenting the case for the Freedom Democratic Party, and he is calling a succession of witnesses, among whom are Aaron Henry, a druggist in Clarksdale, Mississippi, chairman of the Freedom Party, and also president of the NAACP in Mississippi. And he is speaking now. He has is to be followed by perhaps four or five other witnesses, among them perhaps Martin Luther King.
FANNIE LOU HAMER, VICE-CHAIR, MISSISSIPPI FREEDOM DEMOCRATIC PARTY: Want me to stand?
Mr. Chairman, and to the Credentials Committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland and Senator Stennis.
It was 31 August 1962 that eighteen of us traveled 26 miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens. We was met in Indianola by policemen, highway patrolmen. And they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the city police and the state highway patrolmen and carried back to Indianola, where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color.
After we paid the fine among us, we continued on to Ruleville, and Reverend Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for 18 years. I was met there by my children that told me the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down, tried to register.
After they told me, my husband came and said the plantation owner was raising Cain because I had tried to register. And before he quit talking, the plantation owner came and said, “Fannie Lou, do you know–did Pap tell you what I said?”
And I said, “Yes, sir.”
He said, “Well, I mean that”. Said, “If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave.” Said, “Then if you go down and withdraw,” said, “you still might have to go because we’re not ready for that in Mississippi.”
And I addressed him and told him, said, “I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.”
I had to leave that same night.
On 10 September 1962, 16 bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night, two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also, Mr. Joe McDonald’s house was shot in. qq
And June 9, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop, was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailways bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the restaurant. Two of the people wanted to use the washroom. The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on [crosstalk]
NEWMAN: You have been hearing testimony by Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, who was a candidate for congresswoman from the second district of Mississippi in the Democratic primary. She lost. She’s here to testify for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Also on their list of witnesses later today: a Mrs. Rita Schwerner, widow of one of the three civil rights workers killed in Philadelphia last June. We’ll be resuming our coverage of the Credentials Committee hearing and also going to the White House in just a moment, after a station break.
JAY: What television audiences didn’t get to see because of President Johnson’s press conference was Fannie Lou Hamer continuing her statement describing how she was brutally beaten in jail in Mississippi, and telling the stories, several stories of how people had been assassinated and so on. And then she ends by saying–and this is her call to be seated at the convention:
“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings in America?
So, Gerald, she makes this claim to be seated. And what happens next?
HORNE: Well, what happens is that in a sense all hell breaks loose. There is an enormous amount of pressure on Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to withdraw their challenge.
You have to understand further context, which is that you made reference to this unusual class structure of the major political parties in the United States. Now, historically the Democratic Party had been an alliance between the Dixiecrat forces in Dixie and Northern workers in places like New York City, whereas the Republican Party had been an alliance between big business in the North and those few blacks who could vote in the South. With the rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930s, you began to see a shift of black voters to the Democratic Party. And that continues, of course, during the 1950s and the early 1960s, leading up to this Democratic Party convention, because there was this impetus from the international community forcing the United States to move towards desegregation. And the Democratic Party, as a leading, ruling elite party, had to surrender to that force. But at the same time, this was driving out the Dixiecrat forces, this was driving out the forces of apartheid, who ultimately defected in mass to the Republican Party, where they continue to reside.
JAY: So what happened to Fannie Lou Hamer? They don’t get seated at that time. They’re offered a compromise deal, which in fact I think the compromise was backed by King. What was that, and what happened?
HORNE: Well, the compromise was that they basically surrender, fundamentally, to the Dixiecrat forces. And it’s interesting to note that this was deemed to be unacceptable by a good deal of the forces in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
JAY: Now, Hamer rejected the deal, right?
HORNE: Yes. But of course there were forces like Bayard Rustin, who was an adviser to King and was the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, a longtime social democrat of sorts who was twisting arms trying to get the MFDP to surrender, because he was afraid that President Johnson would be embarrassed if there was any sort of rift in this party in the run-up to this epochal election against the Arizona senator Barry Goldwater in November 1964.
But you also need to understand that because of the dissatisfaction with what transpired at this Democratic Party convention, that this really set the stage for the emergence of the so-called black power movement. That is to say that when the MFDP forces felt that they were being rejected by the mainstream Democratic Party, it gave rise and gave impetus to this idea that they should separate. It gave rise to the idea that black nationalism should be the order of the day. Oftentimes what’s lost sight of in terms of the resurgence of black nationalism: that it comes straight out of this controversy involving the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
JAY: So if you look at the Sanders campaign today–now, of course, on the whole a very different phenomenon: Sanders doesn’t represent anything like trying to establish political power and a voice for disenfranchised former slaves. At the same time, it does represent a challenge to the orthodoxy and corporate control of the Democratic Party. So what similarities, what differences are there between the Sanders moment and the Fannie Lou Hamer moment?
HORNE: Well, both are insurgencies, to be sure. Both are receiving pressure from elite forces to curb their insurgency and to curtail their insurgency.
You are correct to suggest that there’s much more of an impetus pushing the MFDP forward than the Bernie Sanders forces.
But to return to the point that I made a moment ago, recall that the squashing of the MFDP helped to give rise to a certain kind of black nationalism. I dare say that if the Sanders forces are squashed in Philadelphia (which is a real possibility) at this summer’s Democratic Party convention, it may give rise to a kind of bolting from the Democratic Party. And in that sense you can draw a further parallel with 1964. That is to say, forces on the left feel that they’re being driven out of the Democratic Party, feeling that they need to find a new home for themselves. In 1964, the new home was black nationalism. In 2016, the new home might be some sort of third political party on the left.
JAY: Yeah. And there’s an interesting thing happening where these things kind of converge in a way, because early on, Sanders was very much a phenomenon of white youth and white workers and other sections of society, but as the campaign developed, more and more black youth became much more involved in the movement. And as I say, it’s not just about Sanders himself, or even his politics. It’s a moment where a movement has emerged. And a lot of very political black youth have gotten involved in a way that perhaps previously they were more into more straightforward black organizing, black organizations. So it’s an interesting moment of somewhat of convergence that might take place in this bolting.
HORNE: Well, it’s striking to note that now polls suggest that black millennials, that is to say, black folk who are under the age of 35, are now supporting Sanders at a higher rate than they’re supporting Secretary Clinton. There’s still this age rift where older black voters are still sticking with the Clintons.
It’s also suggested that in the state of California, polls suggest that Mexican-American and Latino youth are also flocking to the banner of Senator Sanders. So this is putting enormous gust of wind in the sails of Senator Sanders, and it bodes well for this Philadelphia convention.
It seems to me that in any case, whatever happens in Philadelphia, Senator Sanders has won. What I mean by that is that because of the Sanders campaign, the question of economic inequality is front-and-center, and it’s going to be difficult to dislodge that issue from the minds of millions, not least because the economy of this country continues to deteriorate.
And then, secondly, Senator Sanders, who styles himself as a socialist, has helped to demystify and detoxify the concept of socialism, which is very important not only for the United States, but I would also say important for the international political economy as well.
JAY: And I’d add one thing to the significance of the Sanders campaign–in my mind maybe it’s even the most significant. Up until this campaign, it was kind of very common to hear you can’t do anything until you change campaign finance rules. You can’t fight the billionaires until you can control how much these dark money, super PACs, and so on can do. In fact, he’s actually defied that without changing those rules, even though he rails against this kind of campaign financing. The way he’s been able to raise money has changed the whole equation about what’s possible.
HORNE: Well, yes. These small donors, these donors who are contributing $27 or less (as he constantly reminds audiences), have helped to ensure that he is quite competitive on the spending level with Senator Clinton and all of her hedge fund billionaire supporters. He’s quite competitive in terms of television advertising, in terms of robo calls on people’s home telephone lines, in terms of hiring an army of workers to go out and knock on doors. And I do agree that that has been very significant and does bode well for the future.
JAY: And in terms of this kind of idea of people bolting from the Democratic Party, what I’m hearing is perhaps, rather than bolting, a much more concerted campaign to primary in 2018, and even see if this wouldn’t be a one-term presidency in 2020, a real serious challenge to–assuming it’s a President Clinton in 2020–that this kind of insurgency in the Democratic Party might lead to a much bigger civil war in the party.
HORNE: That is a distinct possibility. Recall that as we speak, the Sanders campaign is supporting a primary challenger to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida who is also the chairperson of the Democratic National Committee. Those sorts of primary challenges are taking place from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Not only that, but according to the Wall Street Journal, if you look at the down-ballot races in the state of California, you’ll find that there are many left-wing challengers to traditional Democrats in legislative districts, and in congressional districts as well. And apparently that’s also taking place in Seattle and in the state of Washington generally.
So, once again, even though we salute Senator Sanders personally, it’s fair to say that the Sanders campaign is larger than one Senator from Vermont.
JAY: Right. Thanks very much for joining us, Gerald.
HORNE: Thank you for inviting me.
JAY: And thank you for inviting joining us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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