The main business of Freedom Summer was registering voters. African Americans had not taken part in the political processes of Mississippi since the breakdown of reconstruction in 1877. Although African-Americans were 42% of Mississippi’s population in 1964, and the majority population in the southeastern part of the state, they received few benefits frm the state. They got an average of 6 years of education in inferior schools compared with 11 years for whites in better schools. They had a 50% chance of being unemployed, and they were restricted to the most menial jobs … short term, seasonal, marginal and unreliable. The average income of an adult African American was $600 a year compared to $2,000 a year for whites. In rural areas, 75% of African-American homes had no running water and 90% had no flush toilets.
Without access to the political process, these injustices could never be addressed. I asked Claude Sutton, a farmer, why whites didn’t want African-Americans to vote. “Well I would say it kind of like this. He know that if he had the same chance to vote as you has, he know you could vote for someone who would give you more justice than the other man give you now.” I asked if it would it hurt the white man. “Of course, ’cause he couldn’t treat us like he does.”
Freedom Summer’s voter registration drive was headed by Donna Moses, working with 400 staff and volunteers. Out of 425,00 possible African-American voters, Mississippi state officials said about 20,000 were registered. Moses said they never found any of them. SNCC had been trying to register Mississippi voters since 1960. Out of 70,000 attempts, only 4,700 had been registered.
There were hundreds of stories. Five women who had attempted to register in Indianapolis, told me they were asked to fill out forms and then to wait at home. During the next two weeks, they all lost their jobs in white homes and businesses, had their homes shot into and were harassed on the streets. Hartman Turnbow’s home was attacked with Molotov cocktails and men shooting with hunting rifles. Fanny Lou Hamer from Rulesville lost a job of 18 years and was severely beaten in a jail cell.
Unable to take part in regular Democratic Party activities, Freedom Summer leaders decided to form their own Freedom Democratic Party. Voter registration success varied. Where SNCC and COFO had been working for several years, people signed up immediately. Elsewhere they were reluctant to register. But local young people supported the volunteers and applied heavy pressure on their parents. One of the local kids told me, “I think the older people, they don’t take leadership in this, but they’re for us.” In the end, about 80,000 Mississippi African-American signed up for the FDP.
It was a remarkable accomplishment for 400 young people, culminating in a statewide convention where the overwhelming sense of hope was intoxicating. FDP delegates believed they had a real chance to replace the regular Mississippi delegation at the upcoming Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. President Johnson, seeking election to a presidency that Kennedy’s death had handed to him, had other plans. He wanted a convention without challenge or controversy.
In Atlantic City on August 22nd, The Democratic Party’s Credential Committee listened to Fanny Lou Hamer describe her beating for trying to register to vote. Her comments went out live to the entire country. Johnson, listening at the White House, called a press conference and the networks cut away from Fanny Lou Hamer’s troubling testimony.
Key parts of her speech were broadcast on the evening’s news shows, and pressure to seat the FDP grew. Johnson offered a compromise. Two delegates of his choosing could be allowed to vote at the convention. He enlisted the support of his liberal allies Hubert Humphry, Walter Reuther, Roy Wilkins and even the FDP’s own lawyer, Joe Rauh who advised the FDP to accept the compromise.
It was a decisive moment in the liberal/radical coalition. Liberals had urged the civil rights movement to give up demonstrations in favor of voter registration. The federal government and liberal wing of the Democratic Party would help them. SNNC and COFO had played by the party rules. They should be seated as the Mississippi delegation. They felt abandoned. Mississippi’s white delegation was not going to vote for Johnson or the party anyway. John Lewis later called it “the turning point of the civil rights movement.” Lewis explained, “For the first time, we had made our way to the very center of the system. We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep and found the door slammed in our face.”