Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Documenting the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party - Image Gallery Essay

Documenting the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party | Wisconsin Historical Society
A man stands inside the ruins of a church building.

Destroyed Church, 1964

McComb, Mississippi. From a N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund Report, vol. II, no. 1, this photograph bore the following caption: "McComb, Miss.: The Society Hill Missionary Baptist Church, almost demolished September 20th, is one of 36 Negro churches bombed or burned in Mississippi this year." View the original source document: WHI 97712

Because the political climate in Mississippi in the 1960s excluded African-Americans from mainstream political life, civil rights leaders founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964. They conceived it as an alternative to the state's segregated, all-white official Democratic Party and as a way to give black Mississippians experience in political organizing.

The MFDP registered members, held conventions and ran candidates for office. The MFPD also selected delegates to attend the 1964 Democratic National Convention, with the intention of challenging the state's white supremacist delegation. The party's leaders hoped the challenge would expose the evils of segregation to a larger audience during the nationally televised Atlantic City convention in August 1964.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Filmstrip

EnlargeA young man at a nighttime rally in support of the MFDP. Behind him people carry placards with portraits of James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman, two of the three civil rights volunteers murdered during Freedom Summer of 1964.

"Freedom!"— 1964

Atlantic City, New Jersey. A young man at a nighttime rally in support of the MFDP. Behind him people carry placards with portraits of James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman, two of the three civil rights volunteers murdered during Freedom Summer of 1964. View the original source document: WHI 98097

The images in this gallery are from a filmstrip produced by the MFDP in early 1965 while they challenged a Mississippi congressional delegation's rights to represent the state in Washington. A script explaining the MFDP's mission, the activities of the 1964 Freedom Summer project, and the continued struggle to ensure justice for African-Americans accompanied the slides.

The filmstrip includes 79 photographs, mostly taken by photographers who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC's newsletter, The Student Voice, had also used many of the images.

Although originally created to build support for the congressional challenge, today the filmstrip provides a moving visual record of Freedom Summer, the Atlantic City challenge, and the congressional challenge of 1965. The original filmstrip is among the records of the MFDP (Mss 586 in the Society's archives).

'Is This America?'

During the third week of August 1964, the MFDP delegates, lawyers and supporters arrived in Atlantic City for the Democratic National Convention. During their televised testimony before the party's Credentials Committee, America watched as delegates told of beatings, drive-by shootings, fire-bombings and other reprisals for attempting to register to vote. Martin Luther King was among those who testified. Delegate Fannie Lou Hamer, tears streaming down her face, asked rhetorically, "Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave?"

Support poured in from around the nation, and demonstrators filled the Atlantic City boardwalk for days. However, President Lyndon B. Johnson feared that losing the support of Southern Democrats by seating the MFDP might undermine his re-election. Working behind the scenes, party officials pressured members of the Credentials Committee to deny the MFDP challenge. Johnson's nominee for vice president, Hubert Humphrey, offered a "compromise" that the MFDP and the white delegation both rejected. When the segregationists walked out of the convention in protest, the MFDP delegates attempted to occupy the abandoned seats but party officials excluded them.

An Exercise in Parallel Democracy

In November 1964, with participation in the regular Mississippi Democratic Party blocked by segregationists, the MFDP ran a parallel "Freedom Election." More than 60,000 residents braved intimidation and violence to cast ballots and in most counties MFDP votes outnumbered mainstream Democratic Party votes.

In January 1965 the MFDP legally challenged the right of the white candidates to take the state's seats in Congress, citing black Mississippians' systematic denial of the right to vote in November. The MFDP filed legal papers in January 1965, and MFDP candidates again offered evidence of harassment, threats and violence faced by black Mississippians who attempted to vote. Despite this, on September 17, 1965, the House voted 228 to 143 to allow the segregated, white supremacist candidates to take the state's seats.

Wisconsin Senator Robert Kastenmeier was an outspoken supporter of the MFDP in Atlantic City and during the congressional challenge six months later. Still, many MFDP members felt betrayed by the liberal establishment, which had so recently championed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They concluded that black Americans had to seize their rights "by any means necessary," and their disillusionment helped spark the black-power movement of the late 1960s.

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