From Protest to Power

Photograph Source: Warren K. Leffler – Public Domain


August, 1964, fifty-five years ago, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party presented itself to the national Democratic Party Convention seeking to be seated as the official party from that state. The predominantly black delegation wanted to deny seating to the all-white “regulars” who had earlier in the year denied Mississippi African-Americans the right to participate in precinct, county, congressional district and statewide meetings that nominated these delegates.

MFDP presented itself to the Credentials Committee at which a decision would be made to seat one-or-another, or a mixed, body of delegates. MFDP and its allies proposed rejecting the “regulars”. It is likely that a Credentials Committee offer for a 50/50 delegate split would have been accepted by MFDP, in part because its members knew this policy would lead to a walk-out by the regulars. Similar compromises were being discussed. The opportunity to consider such a compromise was never presented. Instead, President Lyndon Johnson and his allies whittled away at MFDP Credentials Committee support, seeking to defeat a “minority report” that would be presented to the Convention as a whole. MFDP thought it had that support, and that once before the entire convention, and with the presence of national media, it would be impossible for the Democrats to seat the racially discriminatory “regulars”. Instead, the national Democrats unilaterally offered two “at large” seats to MFDP, and named who the two would be thus denying MFDP the opportunity even to select its two candidates should they accept the offer.

MFDP challenged business as usual in the nation’s politics. It was painstakingly built from the bottom up by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a statewide coalition of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or “Snick”). Its members, and the delegates they choose, were not the people who usually comprise delegations to political conventions. Instead, they were independent business people whose markets were the black community and small farmers, sharecroppers and day laborers, ministers and some already-fired teachers, domestic workers and young voting age people. Despite entreaties from most of its allies, MFDP’s delegates defeated the two-seat offer by a large margin. As one of them put it, “We didn’t come to Atlantic City for no two seats.”

Prior to the convention, numerous allies asked MFDP’s leadership if they could demonstrate to support the new party’s challenge. Various forms of protest were proposed, ranging from a peaceful, non-disruptive, picket line outside the convention to non-violent direct action that would disrupt the convention—perhaps by an occupation of the Convention floor. MFDP declined such support, and told its allies that the new party was not protesting at the Convention. Rather, it had acted in compliance with Party rules for naming delegates and was seeking the recognition of official status from the Credentials Committee and then the Convention as a whole.

From Protest To Power

“Recognition” is the key word here. It means that your organization is the bona fide representative of some group of people who have power sufficient to make an adversary or other party negotiate with them, and therefore must be dealt with as their voice. To “deal with” means to negotiate. MFDP was prepared for real negotiations. Instead they were offered proposals that maintained the status quo. Prior to their defeat in the Credentials Committee, MFDP’s leaders believed they had the votes to get a Minority Report to the Convention floor. They were, therefore, not interested in protest; they thought they would gain power. Implicit in their rejection of offers from supporters to “demonstrate” was a tactical consideration: protests, especially disruptive ones, would be at best a distraction and at worst provide a rationalization for delegates to ignore MFDP’s appeal. Protest had played an important role in building The Movement, but a new stage had been reached—that of exercising power.

We can best understand the sequence of what happened in Mississippi from 1960 to 1964 as a transition from protest to building power. In 1960, sit-ins took place across the south, though none in Mississippi because it was considered too dangerous to do so there. In 1961, Freedom Rides took place, but the first group—halted in Alabama by firebombs and beatings—decided not to continue to Jackson, MS (the original destination) because it was too dangerous. SNCC took up the Freedom Ride and its riders ended up in Parchman Penitentiary. In 1962, some SNCC workers concluded that “protest” based on a “moral” challenge to the country was not sufficient to win the cause of freedom. Instead, they decided to build power. To do that, they realized, they had to move beyond their campus base. When they sought the views of respected local community people, the common response was “we need the right to vote.” Some two dozen of the students dropped out of school, and across the “black belt” (counties with majority black populations sometimes over 80% but registered voters less than 5% and in some cases zero) they tried to register African-Americans to vote. They were systemically denied that right, as they had been since the defeat of Reconstruction. These new full-time organizers also sought to build or strengthen local organizations that would become ongoing vehicles for action to achieve racial justice. These became the base for the MFDP.

In the context of the early-to-mid 1960s, protest created a climate in which power could be built. People who said “politics is white folks business” now showed an interest in voting. People who were intimidated by the threat of jail, firing, eviction, denial of credit, beating and murder now were willing to risk any and all of those. The solid wall of racist intransigence was showing signs of weakening; cracks were emerging: Justice Department lawyers went to Federal Court to obtain release of jailed voter registration workers; national media that had ignored the “slavery by another name” that characterized much of the Deep South now wrote, broadcast or televised stories; the national Democratic Party administrations of John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson faced international embarrassment in the Cold War when the Soviet Union used racist policies and practices in the ideological battle for support from newly decolonized Third World counties; liberal, labor, religious and other allies were stepping up to the plate to show support for “freedom now”; in the north, Abraham Lincoln Republicans were using the issue of racial injustice in efforts to reclaim African-American voters Lincoln had won for them, but that they’d lost to the Democrats during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; in Congress, a bi-partisan alliance was forged to pass civil rights and voting rights legislation.

Not all was positive. In the north, redlining continued. The federally-funded freeway and urban renewal bulldozer was destroying African-American (and Latino and working class white ethnic) neighborhoods. A white exodus from public schools newly-integrated by court-ordered busing was taking place—as more broadly was an exodus from cities to suburbs. Core city jobs where blacks once worked were moving to the non-union south or overseas. There were plenty of signs that racial justice was a long way from being realized.

Here’s a distinction I want to sharpen, though during that period it was fuzzy. In some places, protest led to people power organizing that led to recognition that led to substantive negotiations that led to real victories. In a handful of cities, freeways or urban renewal plans were defeated by neighborhood-based “mass organizations”. In a similarly small number of cities, black and white parents met and designed integration plans that at least for a while became real rather than the brief interlude during which a school went from overwhelmingly -white to overwhelmingly-black. (Similar changes for Latinx took place in California and the southwest.)

During this period, noted civil rights movement strategist Bayard Rustin wrote a widely discussed paper published in Commentary Magazine titled “From Protest To Politics.” In it Rustin argued that the civil rights movement should now move into the electoral arena and become part of the ongoing labor-liberal-civil rights alliance that was working within the Democratic Party. SNCC people thought something was missing in his formulation—the interim step of building power. Without independent black power, to enter the Democratic Party would be to become absorbed by it. What differentiated MFDP from the Rustin strategy was its independence. MFDP was willing to compromise, but not willing to accept the token proposal of two seats at large. The Democratic Party was unwilling to accept this kind of independence; Lyndon Johnson didn’t want MFDP seated—and he had his way. (The national Democrats subsequently took steps to bypass MFDP so that by its 1968 Convention when a new Democratic Party was seated from Mississippi only one quarter of its delegates were from MFDP.)

The Question

We are now in a time when there is a tremendous sense of movement for a more just nation and world. Large numbers of people are in action, engaged in protest. The question that has to be answered if this protest is not to be either absorbed or marginalized is this: “What are the people power vehicles we are building?”

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Mike Miller directs ORGANIZE Training Center

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