All 5,200 delegates descending on the faded resort of Atlantic City at the end of Freedom Summer were Democrats, and all were in a mood to celebrate. With Lyndon Johnson heavily favored to win in November, they looked forward to a political convention without politics. In lieu of debate, there would be parties, dinners, and perhaps a little hijinks. For one rollicking week, democracy would become a showcase. But for sixty-seven Mississippians stepping off buses, blinking in the morning sun, inhaling the salty air, democracy was no showcase; it was a matter of life and death.
The Freedom Democrats included two sons of slaves. Several were veterans—of World Wars I and II—and all were veterans of Mississippi. Many had bullet holes in their front doors, and one had them in his neck and shoulder. All bore the scars of Jim Crow—childhood memories of lynching, adulthoods rife with insults, lives trampled by constant intimidation. Their jobs, like their hometowns, were hardscrabble. Freedom Democrats were farmers and sharecroppers, barbers and undertakers, maids and cooks. Several were illiterate, but all had a seasoned wisdom no classroom could teach. Most were making their first trip out of Mississippi, some their first trips out of the counties where they had been born. Though more comfortable in overalls and housedresses, all had spent two nights on the bus in their Sunday clothes—suits and ties, porkpie hats, ironed skirts and blouses. Their faces were the colors of the mud from which they rose—Delta black and amber clay, brown loam and beige soil. And as proof that theirs was not a “nigger party,” four Freedom Democrats were as white as the Gulf Coast sands—one was a fisherman signed up by the White Folks Project in Biloxi.
Legally, they represented no one. The Freedom Democratic Party was not a legal party in Mississippi. Many expected to be arrested, or worse, when they went home. But morally, the Freedom Democrats represented the very idea of democracy. Their presence in Atlantic City challenged the most sacred American rhetoric. Was America a nation of “liberty and justice for all” ? Was voting a right or a privilege? Did democracy apply just to some, or did it extend from top to bottom, from mansions to shacks, from the halls of power to the broken porches of the powerless?
Their journey north had seemed eternal. Freedom Songs grew tiresome before the buses even reached the state line. Then, shortly after calling to say they were safely out of Mississippi, they were nearly ambushed in Tennessee. Spotting a Klan roadblock ahead—ten white hoods, ten men with rifles—passengers had ducked into the aisles. But a few were ready.
“They start anything, I have a gun,” Hartman Turnbow said. “And my wife—she got one, too. Baby, get out your gun.” Plump, moonfaced “Sweets” Turnbow reached in a paper bag and pulled out a pistol. “We gonna,” her husband drawled, “we gonna kill up a few of ’em.” The driver slowed, but a slim woman crept behind him, flicked a switchblade, and held it to his throat. “You better put your feet on the gas,” she said. At full speed, the buses scattered the Klansmen and rolled on. Being from Mississippi, Freedom Democrats had rammed through obstacles far more relentless than the Klan.
Many had been trying to “reddish” since the murder of Emmett Till. Only a few had succeeded. The rest had taken the parallel path to democracy. Five days before Freedom Summer began, all had been shut out of county conventions choosing Mississippi’s “official” Atlantic City delegation. Party leaders, alerted by the Sovereignty Commission’s Informant Y of “Negroes carefully picked and trained to crash the conventions,” had connived to exclude them. On June 16, blacks across Mississippi had arrived at designated halls to hear: the meeting is canceled; the meeting is over; the door is locked. “We can’t open the door! They called down and told us not to open the door! There are no precinct meetings here! We don’t know anything about precinct meetings!” In the few meetings they managed to “crash,” blacks saw jittery whites huddling, whispering, peeking around corners. The lily-white conventions chose a lily-white delegation of sixty-eight Democrats. Blacks were left to sign affidavits detailing their exclusion, affidavits they took to Atlantic City, where they would try to force democracy’s parallel paths to converge.
And so they had held their own conventions—in churches, community centers, under trees. Initially uncertain about regulations and rules of order, farmers and sharecroppers, maids and cooks had learned democracy by trial and error. Following SNCC’s instructions, they elected Freedom Party chairmen, secretaries, and delegates. These went on to a rousing state convention in Jackson. There, when Freedom Songs finally ended, when the Stars and Stripes and signs with county names stopped bobbing, 2,500 delegates heard from their lawyer that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party stood a good chance of being seated in Atlantic City. A summer of behind-the-scenes lobbying had gathered enough support to bring their challenge to the convention floor, and enough votes there to win. They could only be stopped by Lyndon Johnson, and he would not dare, not with the whole nation watching.
Following this good news, delegates listened to keynote speaker Ella Baker, who had been tirelessly working for Freedom Democrats in Washington, D.C. Her damp face uplifted, her finger pointing at the worn faces before her, SNCC’s founder praised this “assemblage of people who, yes, have come through the wilderness of tears, who, yes, have come through the beatings, the harassment, the brutalization. . . .” Turning to Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, whose bodies had been found two days earlier, Baker added, “Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we must keep on.” The convention concluded by choosing five party leaders, forty delegates, and twenty-two alternates. As the votes were announced, a volunteer from Manhattan watched from the sidelines. “This,” Rita Koplowitz wrote home, “is the stuff democracy is made of.”
In the thirteen days between their state convention and their departure for Atlantic City, Freedom Democrats met further obstacles. Radio stations refused to run their ads. Mississippi’s attorney general denied their charter, denied them the use of the name “Democratic,” and issued an injunction barring them from leaving the state. Freedom Democrats were also firebombed in Hattiesburg, arrested in Greenwood, and beaten by Klansmen near Vicksburg. By the time they stepped off their chartered buses after their long ride north, they doubted the Democratic Party could treat them worse than Mississippi had throughout their weary lives.
Stretching stiff limbs, smiling in the cool breeze, delegates sat beside piles of luggage and waited to check in to the Gem Hotel. The Gem, like its neighborhood, had seen better days. In their last mile on the bus, Freedom Democrats had been stunned into silence. They had heard stories of blacks “caged” in northern ghettoes, but now they saw them. Shirtless men walking crumbling streets. Brick row houses sadder than sharecroppers’ shacks. Breezes blowing litter through Atlantic City’s “Negro Northside,” just a few blocks away, yet so far removed from the tacky glitz of the Boardwalk.
But all of Atlantic City had seen better days. By 1964, it was New Jersey’s poorest town and a generation beyond its heyday, when summer weekends had brought millions to the shore. Carny rides still whirled, and a Ferris wheel and humpback roller coaster still rose above the clutter, but somehow they seemed smaller than before. And the crowds were smaller, much smaller. Only the Boardwalk retained its stature—six miles long and sixty feet wide, stretching from pier to pier along the white sand. Flat-roofed jitneys, like lost golf carts, still careened past sunburned tourists sampling the kitsch that clung to life. At the Steel Pier, horses and their riders still dove headlong into a pool. Nearby, a flagpole sitter sat atop her perch. Pitchmen beckoned the bored into parlors to play skee-ball or pokerino. And on Pacific Avenue, not far from the Gem Hotel, Sally Rand still did her fan dance, though at the age of sixty, she drew smaller audiences.
This year, however, the tourist season usually highlighted by the Miss America Pageant had bigger events in store. On August 30, the convention hall fronting the Boardwalk, a huge, Quonset-shaped building, would host the Beatles. And a week before the concert, the same hall was hosting the Democratic National Convention. The president would arrive that Thursday for what the press was touting as “a coronation.” Posters featuring a kicking donkey welcomed Democrats to sadly neglected hotels—the Deauville, the Shelburne, the Seaside. Checking in, delegates traded Goldwater jokes and spoke of celebrities due to join them—Carol Channing, Milton Berle, and, rumor had it, Jacqueline Kennedy. On the Boardwalk, they strolled past arcades, bought ashtrays, Beatles dolls, and T-shirts proclaiming “All the Way with LBJ.” Above heads bobbing in the surf, small planes towed banners for Coppertone Lotion. Amid the laughter, the squealing children, the couples arm in arm, no one paid much attention to the Freedom Democrats. No one, that is, except the president.
Depending on the poll, LBJ led Goldwater in the popular vote by 59-31, or even 67-28, percent. But with the convention not even begun, already the president’s nightmare was unfolding. And Mississippi was not his only problem. Alabama delegates, asked to pledge their loyalty to the party ticket, were threatening a walkout. Incensed by the Civil Rights Act, Alabama governor George Wallace was ranting about the Democrats’ “alien philosophy,” invoking the ghosts of Reconstruction and predicting a southern uprising, possibly even a third-party run in November. Wallace, Mississippi’s Governor Johnson, and two other southern governors had refused LBJ’s invitation to dine at the White House. And twenty-five Democratic congressmen had just urged their party to seat the Freedom Democrats. The press was predicting a floor fight, and Texas governor John Connally was telling the president where that would lead: “If you seat those black buggers the whole South will walk out!” The president sat in the White House, brooding about the spoiling of his “coronation.”
As Freedom Democrats stood singing in the cramped confines of the Union Temple Baptist Church, they had little idea of the forces mounting against them. Here they were sleeping five to a room, still finishing the baloney sandwiches they had brought for their bus trip, still pinching themselves to make sure they were really here—out of Mississippi, at a national convention. Who could possibly regard them as a threat to the president?
That Friday afternoon, the Boardwalk beckoned, but the lobbying could not wait. Aaron “Doc” Henry, Freedom Democrat chairman, spoke to the press. Everyone knew Mississippi’s official delegation would support Goldwater in November, Henry said. So the Freedom Democrats were Mississippi’s only loyal Democrats. “If our case is fully heard we will be seated,” Henry said. But if they were turned away, blacks across America might just “go fishing on Election Day.”
While their chairman spoke, delegates focused on the Credentials Committee, which would hear their challenge the following afternoon. They reviewed work sheets listing each committee member, his hotel, and his loyalty—“definite supporter,” “possible contact,” “says she will support us to the end.” Then they set out to plead their case. “Doc” Henry met with twenty state delegations. Unita Blackwell, Muriel Tillinghast’s fast-rising pupil, focused on Wisconsin and Minnesota. “Sweets” Turnbow, still carrying her pistol in a paper bag, worked on the Oregon delegation. Whenever possible, volunteers back from Mississippi introduced Freedom Democrats to their state delegations. All that afternoon, Mississippi’s unofficial delegates invaded cocktail parties and coffee klatches. They handed out booklets citing two dozen legal precedents for their challenge, and offering a primer on democracy, Mississippi style. “Who is YOUR sheriff?” the pamphlet asked. “Will he beat you and jail you if you try to exercise the basic rights guaranteed you by the Constitution of the United States?” Recounting crimes from the murder of Herbert Lee to the killing of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, the handbook also included biographies of Freedom Democrats and quoted Mississippi’s governor, calling the Democratic Party “a dedicated enemy of the people of Mississippi.”
Meanwhile, SNCC staffers, having traded their overalls for three-piece suits, circulated among politicians and party bigwigs. From the humblest sharecropper to the equally humble Bob Moses, Freedom Democrats set their sights on two numbers—“eleven and eight.” The Credentials Committee had 108 members. If 10 percent—a mere eleven people—voted to support the challenge, it would move to the convention floor. There, if just eight states requested it, a roll call would unfold on national television, a roll call most Freedom Democrats felt certain they would win. After all, every sizable state had several black delegates, and a few could even be found in delegations from Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. “Eleven and eight.” Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, the numbers were cited in crowded lobbies, noisy meeting rooms, and tipsy delegate dinners. Booklets were handed out, pocketed with polite smiles, sometimes even opened. “And who are we? ” each booklet asked. “We are FREEDOM Democrats!”
On an overcast Saturday, shortly after noon, all sixty-seven Freedom Democrats set out on foot from the Gem Hotel. Heading into the sea breeze, they reached the Boardwalk and swept along its herringbone planks. Tourists in T-shirts turned to watch the coat-and-tie delegation. Crowds stopped to hear the stirring power of Freedom Songs. Past the Steel Pier, past movie theaters, penny arcades, and Nathan’s hot dog stands, the vast blue on their left, the rest of America to their right, Freedom Democrats marched toward their rendezvous with democracy. The group reached the convention hall at 1:00 p.m., an hour early. They stood outside, some admiring the ocean, others pointing to the street sign—N. Mississippi Avenue—all waiting.
At the delegation’s head stood a tall, pale man with graying blond hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a floppy bow tie. Joseph Rauh was a consummate Washington insider. Harvard-educated, but also trained in power politics, Rauh had helped write legislation stretching from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Act. As cofounder of Americans for Democratic Action, Rauh had battled McCarthyism, defending playwrights Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller. By the summer of 1964, he was head lawyer for both the United Auto Workers and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. SNCCs were constantly amazed at the doors his name opened. “I was just talking to Joe Rauh,” Stokely Carmichael might say. “What—you talked to Joe?” And suddenly the Freedom Democrats had another contact. At their state convention in Jackson, Rauh had promised Freedom Democrats to “move heaven and earth” to bring their challenge to the convention floor. But Rauh would have to move more than heaven and earth—he would have to move Lyndon Johnson.
Earlier that Saturday morning, an NBC cameraman shouted to Rauh, “They’ve screwed you, Joe!”
“My God,” Rauh responded. “Already? ”
Party officials had moved the Credentials Committee meeting to a room that fit only one network camera. Rauh protested to a White House aide, who phoned the Oval Office. After a half hour of calls, the president, who was controlling the convention from the contents of its souvenir book to its hourly schedule, agreed to let Freedom Democrats make their challenge in the cavernous convention hall. And at 2:00 p.m., Rauh stood on the floor beside four tall filing cabinets. Inside the cabinets were 63,000 registration forms signed on porches, in cotton fields, in barbershops and beauty parlors. On one side of Rauh sat Mississippi’s all-white delegation, glaring at Mississippi’s mostly black delegation on the other side. Between them was the committee—prim, nattily dressed women and men in dark suits, smoking, nodding off, or scribbling notes. All three networks carried the challenge, but it did not promise to be exciting television.
Americans stuck in front of TV on a Saturday afternoon saw a bespectacled, nasal-voiced lawyer with “only an hour to tell you a story of tragedy and terror in Mississippi.” The story began with Aaron Henry denouncing Mississippi’s “white power structure . . . on them is the blood and responsibility for the reign of terror.” Next, the Reverend Edwin King summed up his ordeals. “I have been imprisoned. I have been beaten. I have been close to death. . . . We have shed our blood. All we ask is your help.” Neither Henry nor King was especially eloquent, and many viewers may have changed the channel. But when Rauh called his third witness, all the suffering, all the oppression, all the earth-born hardships endured by generations of blacks in Mississippi limped to center stage.
Fannie Lou Hamer had not ridden a bus to Atlantic City. She and other SNCCs had flown to New York a day early to address a town hall meeting. There she had told of her beating in Winona, Mississippi, the previous summer. But her story had not gone beyond the meeting hall. On Saturday afternoon, Hamer knew she would speak to the nation. Before marching to the convention hall, she had talked with Unita Blackwell at the Gem Hotel.
“Girl, you reckon I ought to tell it? ”
When Blackwell echoed encouragement, Hamer continued. “I’m going to tell it today. I’m sure going to tell it.” Later she would say she felt as if she were telling it on the mountain, but as she moved to the front of the hall and placed her white handbag on the witness table, she did not seem inspired. Waiting as a microphone was fastened around her neck, Hamer looked exhausted, terrified, troubled. She began almost before she sat down.
“Mister Chairman, and to the Credentials Committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. . . .” A worried look came over her, as if tears might come, but she steeled herself. Her accent was unmistakably Deep Southern. “An’ ah live at six-two-six East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippih.” Her face was broad, glistening, and grim. SNCCs who had seen her lift mass meetings, volunteers who had watched her hold forth in Ohio, in church, in her kitchen, had waited all summer for this moment.
“It was the 31st of August in 1962 that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens. . . .”
The night before, while Freedom Democrats lobbied, Mississippi had provided additional evidence for their challenge. A church burned in Itta Bena. Several pickups surrounded a black café in Belzoni, trapping volunteers trying to register voters. A firebomb hit the project office in Tupelo. But on Saturday afternoon, Mississippi was “calm.” By the time Fannie Lou Hamer began, TVs in black quarters across the state were tuned to one network or another. In Batesville, blacks hoped to glimpse delegate Robert Miles, or maybe that nice white boy, Chris Williams. In Hamer’s hometown, her face on TV drew shouts.
“There’s Fannie Lou!”
“Look at that!”
“Come on, kids!”
And in Philadelphia’s Independence Quarters, blacks and whites in the new COFO office kept one eye on the TV and the other on the street. In the ten days since COFO had defiantly moved into Philadelphia, its office in the Evers Hotel had been a target of white rage. Rumors said a bomb would hit any day now. “We’re gonna get the job done tonight,” one man told a carload of whites. Calls came in every five minutes, like clockwork: “Your time is short!” “Your time is up!” More than a hundred locals met at the courthouse to discuss driving COFO out by firing “every nigger in town.” Sheriff Rainey and Deputy Price often burst into the office without warning or warrants, storming through the clutter, photographing papers and people. Deputy Price took delight in racing past the Evers Hotel, his siren blaring. One morning, a car stopped across from the hotel’s striped awning. The driver stepped out and leveled a double-barreled shotgun. His finger on the trigger, the man aimed, riveted, for five minutes, then drove away.
Each night, staffers stood guard on the hotel roof. The darkness pulsed with insects but was otherwise quiet. One morning the group saw a car pass on the street below. A small package hit the office door. Cautiously, they tip-toed downstairs. The Neshoba Democrat lay on the steps. Volunteers could joke about the “comedy of terrors,” but Philadelphia’s black community was panicky. “If you people leave us, they are going to kill us all,” one woman said. “They gonna pile our bodies on top of one another.” On August 20, Price and Rainey served an eviction notice, but COFO lawyers filed for a hearing, set for the following Thursday. A call went out for more volunteers, and several soon joined the all-night vigil atop the hotel. These were among the many who had decided that a single summer in Mississippi was not enough.
By August 22, with hundreds of volunteers about to leave, COFO’s WATS line resembled a college “ride board.” Was anyone headed for Boston? Denver? California? Across Mississippi, volunteers were saying sad good-byes, but eighty would not be leaving. Throughout August, they had wrestled with the thought of staying, convincing first themselves, then their distraught parents. One woman only changed her mind the night before she was to leave. After notifying advisers at Johns Hopkins, she wrote home: “I can simply no longer justify the pursuit of a Ph.D. When the folks in Flora have to struggle to comprehend the most elementary materials of history and society and man’s larger life, I feel ashamed to be greedily going after ‘higher learning.’ . . . It would be living a kind of lie to leave here now.”
Fred Winn had come up with a stock reply to explain why he had decided to remain. “I wasn’t going to stay in Mississippi,” he wrote his father, “until I stepped outside one day without my shoes on. Of all goddamned things I got some mud in between my toes. I haven’t been able to get it out since.” After moving from town to town, Fred felt right at home in Indianola. Living in stalwart Irene Magruder’s house, working all hours at the project office, he was getting to know people. People like “Smith,” a seven-year-old boy who came to the office, would only answer to “Smith,” and just stared at him. People like the middle-aged woman who, having had childhood polio, picked cotton on her knees. In just eight weeks, the naive, slightly nerdy carpenter had become a Freedom Fighter. Fred was no longer “a young twenty.” His speech was saltier, his righteousness tempered. He felt more at ease among blacks, among whites, and among women.
One of several high school seniors teaching adults at the Freedom School had caught Fred’s eye. He admired the black girl’s spirit as much as everything else about her. She belted out Freedom Songs, threw herself into her work, and often shared beer and fried baloney sandwiches with volunteers at Irene Magruder’s White Rose Café. Each evening when someone drove the girl home, Fred rode with her in the backseat. It was not long before the more experienced high school senior made a move. Nor long before she was necking with Fred on her way home. Then one hot August night, she led him down the dark path to the empty Freedom School. Terrified on several fronts, Fred managed to lose his virginity that night. The San Francisco carpenter and the Delta high school senior made awkward love—their bodies drenched in sweat, their heads turning to glance out the window, certain the Klan would appear at any moment, equally certain they could not stop. The two coupled a few more times before friends convinced the girl to end the risky affair.
Having introduced Fred to sex, Freedom Summer had also taught him to handle Mississippi cops. When an Indianola volunteer was arrested, Fred made three quick calls and had the man bailed out within the hour. “Standard Operating Procedure,” he wrote his father. And for the first time all summer, Fred could laugh at Mississippi. One day toward the end of August, he played a little joke on Indianola. A COFO lawyer, hoping to challenge the state ban on leafleting, needed evidence of a permit unjustly denied by the city. Leaflets for mass meetings were usually approved. What event was certain to be turned down? Handwritten fliers were quickly mimeographed:
COME ONE, COME ALL
Indianola’s First Integrated Dance
Big Mixer at the Freedom School
Let’s see all you Southern Guys and Gals . . .
With leaflets in hand, Fred went before the city council. Angry councilmen glared down COFO’s spokesman, who could not say a word. Finally a councilman barked, “What’s this all about?” Fred stood and, without cracking a smile, explained that an integrated dance “would be good for the community, would get everybody together.” Faces reddened. Men muttered—“asking for trouble, just asking for trouble.” A calmer official called an executive session, where the permit was refused. Indianola never held its integrated Freedom Hop, but the law on leafleting was eventually overturned.
On the afternoon Fannie Lou Hamer spoke in Atlantic City, Fred and several others crowded around Mrs. Magruder’s black-and-white TV. Like many volunteers, Fred had heard Hamer tell her story. “We all knew that if she told it on national TV, it would really hit the fan.” She was due to speak . . . due to speak . . . She was speaking—on TV!—telling America about being ordered to withdraw her registration, of telling her boss, “I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.” Hamer’s voice was strengthening now. “I had to leave that same night.” She sat, arms bulging from her flowered dress, hands folded. At committee tables, members leaned forward, all eyes focused on her.
On the tenth of September 1962, six-teen 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. And June the ninth, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop; was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi . . .
Suddenly the networks cut in: “We will return to this scene in Atlantic City but now we switch to the White House.”
Suddenly, on all three networks, the president was preempting the sharecropper. “On this day nine months ago,” LBJ began, “at very nearly this same hour in the afternoon, the duties of this office were thrust upon me by a terrible moment in our nation’s history.” Johnson, knowing he had to talk for ten or more minutes to forestall Fannie Lou Hamer, went on to discuss—nothing. He told reporters he had not chosen a running mate. He explained, in painstaking detail, his criteria. By the time he finished, so had Hamer. Testimony continued. Rita Schwerner told of Governor Paul Johnson slamming the door in her face. CORE’s James Farmer and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins backed the challenge. Martin Luther King said any political party should be proud to seat the Freedom Democrats, “for it is in these saints in ordinary walks of life that the true spirit of democracy finds its most proud and abiding expression.” Mississippi then had its hour. A state senator denied any discrimination and denounced Freedom Democrats as “power-hungry soreheads,” their “rump group” rife with Communists and as secretive as the Klan. Rauh’s rebuttal offered the Credentials Committee a choice—to “vote for the power structure of Mississippi that is responsible for the death of those three boys, or . . . vote for the people for whom those three boys gave their lives.” Committee members stood and applauded. The meeting was over. But had it “moved heaven and earth” ? Or even America?
As Lyndon Johnson had planned, his impromptu press conference had taken Fannie Lou Hamer off the air. But not even the president could silence her. That evening, all three networks, before audiences much larger than the afternoon’s, replayed her speech in full. Now Americans saw the stout woman, her head shaking, her voice rippling with emotion.
. . . I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell I began to hear sounds of licks and screams. I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, “Can you say, ‘Yes, sir,’ nigger? ”
Now the same booming voice that had filled so many cramped churches in Mississippi filled living rooms across America.
. . . And he said, “We’re going to make you wish you was dead.” I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The state highway patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack. The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the state highway patrolman, for me to lay down on a bunk bed on my face. And I laid on my face, the first Negro began to beat me . . .
Some parents, shocked, must have switched channels, but others saw Hamer reach deep within herself.
. . . And I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old. After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the state highway patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack. The second Negro began to beat . . .
The tears came, welling up but not softening her speech. Now she rose to righteous indignation and leveled her accusation at the entire nation:
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 of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily. Because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?
If she had not been brimming with rage, Fannie Lou Hamer might have repeated her signature phrase. “Is this America?” “Is this America where . . .?” “Is this America?” But with her voice wavering, she said a simple “Thank you,” stood, took her handbag, and walked off the mountaintop.
Within minutes, telegrams flooded the White House. More than four hundred were received that evening, all but one demanding the Freedom Democrats be seated. NOW. Suddenly it seemed the Freedom Democrats were everywhere in Atlantic City—their challenge dominating all discussion, their supporters keyholing delegates, phoning from motel rooms, lobbying into the night. By Sunday morning, Joseph Rauh could count higher than “eleven and eight.” Seventeen Credentials Committee members supported the challenge, and ten state delegations were ready to call for a floor vote. Even Bob Moses was optimistic. Standing in shirt and tie before a crowd on the Boardwalk, he announced, “I don’t think that if this issue gets to the floor of this convention that they can possibly turn them down.” Reporters interviewed sharecroppers and maids. Two thousand supporters massed on the Boardwalk that afternoon. When Oregon congressman Wayne Morse told the crowd that his delegation had voted 20-0 to take the challenge to the floor, cheers erupted. Above the sounds of seagulls, of barkers selling frying pans and radios blaring Beatles hits, Fannie Lou Hamer belted out “This Little Light of Mine.”
The Credentials Committee met again that Sunday afternoon, promising a decision by 6:00 p.m. They had three options. All Freedom Democrats might be seated in lieu of the white delegation. None might be seated—they were not a legal party, after all. Or both delegations, if willing to sign loyalty oaths to support LBJ, could be seated, each delegate given half a vote. As a Freedom Democrat handout noted, this 50/50 solution had settled several previous convention disputes, including one in 1944 when Congressman Lyndon Johnson had led a pro-FDR challenge to a conservative Texas delegation.
But warned that the entire South would walk out, President Lyndon Johnson wanted no such solution. His plan was to seat Freedom Democrats as “honored guests,” with no voting privileges. Freedom Democrats were dead set against such a “back of the bus” treatment. After voting down the 50/50 split, the Credentials Committee was deadlocked. Then an Oregon congressman offered a fourth plan. Two Freedom Democrats could be seated “at large.” Joseph Rauh’s heart sank “because he was on our side, and here our side was reducing its demand to two before the fight had started.” No vote was taken on the two-seat compromise. A subcommittee, chaired by Minnesota attorney general Walter Mondale, continued the discussion into the evening. At 8:45 p.m., a bomb threat was phoned to the SNCC/CORE office. Sometime that evening, a call to the White House told the president that the Freedom Democrats definitely had enough support for a floor vote. “Tell Rauh if he plans to play with us in this administration,” the president said, “he better not let that get out on the floor.”
Born and raised in Mississippi, the Freedom Democrats had few illusions about democracy. They knew how far power would go to protect its pecking order. Though still testing democracy’s breadth, they knew all too well its depths. Moderation, ethics, principles—these were for stable times, when blacks in Mississippi “knew their place.” But they were not in Mississippi anymore. They had bused a thousand miles to put its horrors behind them. Here at a higher level of power, nearly every Freedom Democrat thought that this time, democracy might live up to its name. The lessons would come quickly.
That weekend, FBI agents broke into the SNCC/CORE office on Atlantic Avenue, a block from the convention hall. The agents had just come from tapping Martin Luther King’s hotel phone. It took them just a few minutes to wiretap phones used by Freedom Democrats. The surveillance had been ordered by the president himself. J. Edgar Hoover considered wiretapping one’s own party convention “way out of line” but still sent twenty-seven agents and his special assistant. Information from the wiretaps, fed hourly to the Oval Office, paid off immediately. By Sunday night, Lyndon Johnson knew which delegates Freedom Democrats were lobbying and which governors Martin Luther King was pushing to lead a floor fight. And thanks to a list Bob Moses had reluctantly given a black congressman, LBJ knew which Credentials Committee members backed the challenge. Now the pressure tightened. Calls went out across America. Judgeships and appointments, loans and promotions still in the making would suddenly vanish if the men and women on that list did not turn their backs on Freedom Democrats. Joseph Rauh kept counting, but to his dismay, he found he had just eleven supporters. Then ten. Then eight.
On Monday, the day the convention was to begin, FBI agents went undercover as NBC reporters. Black informers infiltrated the SNCC/CORE office, and more wiretaps bugged the motel rooms of farmers and sharecroppers, barbers and undertakers, maids and cooks. SNCC was unaware of the surveillance. Other power plays would be more transparent.
Chris Williams was neither a delegate nor an official Freedom Democrat, but he had come to Atlantic City to help in any way he could. He had spent the weekend chauffeuring Freedom Democrats, and singing in boisterous meetings at the Union Temple Baptist Church. Though relieved to be out of the blast furnace, he did not even have time to jump in the ocean. There was always another delegate to drive, another meeting to attend. Chris felt frustrated by his limited role, but on Monday morning his restless energy found a focal point.
When dawn broke on August 24, 150 people, some in overalls, some in suits, sat on the Boardwalk outside the convention hall. Most were silent. Many held signs:
SUPPORT THE FREEDOM DEMOCRATS
1964, NOT 1864
STOP HYPOCRISY, START DEMOCRACY
Above the seated crowd, three picket signs bore sketches of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. Holding the sign with the picture of his beloved brother stood little Ben Chaney. And alongside the crowd, as if in a museum, Mississippi democracy was on display. A 1950s sedan, gutted and blackened, sat on the trailer that had trucked it from Mississippi to represent the burned Ford wagon. Photos showed sharecroppers’ destitution. The charred bell from the Mt. Zion Church lay in the bed of a pickup labeled “Mississippi Terror Truck.” The Boardwalk sit-in continued all that Monday, growing to include hundreds of people. Vacationers strolled past, turning their heads. A few stopped to talk. “Don’t you understand? ” one couple was told. “You must try. People have died behind the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the least we can do is support them here.” Most walked on, but a few brought food to the vigil—apples, hot dogs, or saltwater taffy.
While the protest continued, LBJ’s fears mounted. “Alabama’s done gone,” he told a friend, “and they tell me that Louisiana and Arkansas are going with them. And I’m afraid it’s going to spread to eight or ten.” With the Credentials Committee promising a decision before Monday evening’s opening gavel, attention shifted to the Pageant Hotel. Located opposite the convention hall, with a towering Miss America crown atop its white facade, the Pageant had become “Atlantic City’s White House.” White House aides and the president’s teenage daughter were spotted in its lobby. Calls from the Oval Office poured into the switchboard. And the likely vice presidential candidate, Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, rushed in and out of the elevator. The balding, ebullient Humphrey had a job more weighty than any he might assume as vice president. LBJ had ordered him to handle the Freedom Democrats. The prize dangled before him was the vice presidency. “You better talk to Hubert Humphrey,” Johnson told a friend, “because I’m telling you he’s got no future in this party at all if this big war comes off here and the South all walks out and we all get in a helluva mess.”
At 1:40 p.m. on Monday, Humphrey convened a meeting in his suite at the Pageant. To back his plea that Freedom Democrats accept the two-seat compromise, Humphrey had invited several members of the Credentials Committee and a handful of moderate black leaders—Martin Luther King and his assistant, Andrew Young, plus CORE’s James Farmer, and Aaron Henry. But Henry brought two friends, uninvited—Bob Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer. The scene was a study in black and white—black and white faces, black ties and white shirts, black resentment and white rationalization. Arguing from one corner of the suite to the other, the leaders kept at it for three hours. When the compromise came up, Moses softly stated that it was time “for Negroes to speak for Negroes, for Negroes to represent Negroes.” Freedom Democrats, he said, “can accept no less than equal votes at the convention.” Hubert Humphrey fought back. If whites could not also represent Negroes, he said, “Then democracy is not real.” He then reminded everyone in the room of his stellar record on civil rights. (In 1948, Humphrey had spearheaded the most liberal civil rights platform in American history, proclaiming, “The time has arrived in America for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Humphrey later single-handedly integrated the dining room of the U.S. Senate by inviting a black aide to lunch and refusing to leave.) Humphrey concluded by noting that his vice presidential nomination hinged on the compromise.
In one corner of the suite, Fannie Lou Hamer listened in silence. Before coming to Atlantic City, Hamer had heard about Humphrey’s civil rights record and had looked forward to meeting him. Now she struggled to see the heart of a good Samaritan behind the smile of a politician. “Senator Humphrey,” she said, “I’ve been praying about you and you’re a good man, and you know what’s right. The trouble is you’re afraid to do what you know is right. You just want this job. . . . But Mr. Humphrey, if you take this job, you won’t be worth anything. Mr. Humphrey, I’m going to pray for you again.” Hamer had tears in her eyes. Some said Humphrey also cried. The meeting broke up after another hour. That afternoon, the Credentials Committee postponed its decision until Tuesday. Joseph Rauh, talking to reporters, hid his sinking sense of betrayal. “We can win on the floor and we’ll take it all the way,” he said. The convention began that night with rows of empty seats wrapped in ribbons labeled “Mississippi.” Walter Mondale’s subcommittee argued until dawn.
By Tuesday morning, Lyndon Johnson had descended into despair. An aide had called to relay Humphrey’s report from Monday’s meeting. He had walked “into the lion’s den,” Humphrey said. He had “listened patiently . . . argued fervently . . . used all the heartstrings that I had, and I made no headway.” Watching the convention’s opening night, Johnson had heard the most widely watched newsmen in America, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, warn of a floor fight or even a full southern walkout. Telegrams to the White House were now complaining “that the Negroes have taken over the country.” Feeling caught in a racial crossfire, losing control of his convention, Johnson began to contemplate his most drastic option—quitting. He had steamrolled the Civil Rights Act into law, only to watch urban ghettos erupt. He had defied southern segregationists, only to see this ragtag band from Mississippi poised to tear his party apart. “The Freedom Party,” Johnson told a friend, “has control of the convention.” Their challenge was just “an excuse to say I turned on the Negro.” Convinced that his old nemesis, Robert Kennedy, had masterminded the whole affair to embarrass him, Johnson denounced the challenge as “Bobby’s trap.” As his mood darkened, Johnson felt he had no choice. He would finish his term and go home to Texas.
Toward noon, the president summoned his press secretary. He had ordered a helicopter to stand by, he said, ready to take him to Atlantic City. There he would read the speech he had just drafted: “The times require leadership about which there is no doubt and a voice that men of all parties, sections, and color can follow. I have learned after trying very hard that I am not that voice or that leader.”
LBJ’s press secretary tried to remain calm. “This would throw the nation in quite an uproar, sir,” George Reedy replied.
For the next few hours, the president wavered between his conscience and his worst fears. He acknowledged the Freedom Democrats’ moral case. “These people went in and begged to go to the conventions,” he said. “They’ve got half the population and they won’t let ’em [vote]. They lock ’em out . . . But we’re going to ignore that. We’re going to say [to Mississippi], ‘Hell yes, you did it. You’re wrong. You violated the ’57 [civil rights] law and you violated the ’60 law, and you violated the ’64 law, but we’re going to seat you—every damn one of you. You lily-white babies, we’re going to salute you.’ ” Georgia senator Richard Russell told his old friend to “take a tranquilizer and get a couple of hours’ sleep.” But John Connally called to again predict “a wholesale walkout from the South” if the Freedom Democrats were seated. And Georgia’s governor was complaining, “It looks like we’re turning the Democratic party over to the nigras . . . it’s gonna cut our throats from ear to ear.” LBJ, though his threat may have been a ploy, continued to insist he would step down. “By God, I’m gonna go up there and quit. Fuck ’em all!” Only his wife could talk him out of it.
After watching her husband brood in a dark room, Lady Bird Johnson wrote him a note. “Beloved,” she began. “You are as brave a man as Harry Truman—or FDR—or Lincoln. . . . To step out now would be wrong for your country, and I see nothing but a lonely wasteland for your future. . . . I love you always, Bird.”
All that Tuesday, the Freedom Democrat vigil continued on the Boardwalk. Beneath a forest of picket signs, hundreds sat in silence outside the convention hall. Backs ached and hours crawled at a Mississippi Delta pace. To rally spirits, Dick Gregory and Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell spoke to the crowd. When protesters got word of the proposed two-seat compromise, they passed it on in whispers. No one could be certain what was afoot, but volunteers manning the phones at the Gem Hotel already suspected the worst.
“Is the Credentials Committee meeting tonight? ”
“They adjourned because we had enough support, and they have to figure out how to screw us.”
Shortly before 2:00 p.m., Joseph Rauh was told to call his boss, UAW president Walter Reuther. At LBJ’s urging, Reuther had taken a red-eye flight to Atlantic City, arriving to convince Humphrey that the two-seat compromise was the only possible solution. On the phone, Reuther now said the same to Rauh. Two seats, at large, given to a party with no legal standing was “a tremendous victory,” Reuther said. Rauh balked. He had been expressly told that Freedom Democrats would never accept the two seats, yet now he said they might. He needed to talk to Aaron Henry. Reuther applied pressure, Detroit style—Rauh would march straight to the Credentials Committee and accept the compromise, or he would no longer work for the United Auto Workers. Feeling decidedly screwed, Rauh headed for the committee room, hoping to filibuster until he could talk to his other bosses. But Freedom Democratic leaders were busy.
By 3:00 p.m., the challenge was unraveling on both sides of North Mississippi Avenue. In an upstairs room at the convention hall, Rauh faced the Credentials Committee, arguing desperately for a recess, struggling to be heard above cries of “Vote! Vote!” Across the street, Hubert Humphrey had called another meeting at the Pageant. This time, there would be no tears, no conciliation, no scenes in black and white. There would be only flaring tempers, pressure politics, and trickery. From the meeting’s first moments, blacks sensed the tightening pincers. When Martin Luther King balked at the compromise, Walter Reuther reminded him that the UAW had bankrolled King’s campaign in Birmingham. “Your funding is on the line,” Reuther said. King came around quickly. When the Reverend Edwin King, recommended with Aaron Henry as a delegate at large, said he would give his seat to Fannie Lou Hamer, Humphrey refused. “The President has said he will not let that illiterate woman speak on the floor of the Democratic convention.” And toward 3:30 p.m., when a TV was wheeled in, announcing that the Mississippi challenge had been resolved, that the Credentials Committee had just approved the compromise, Bob Moses lost the composure that had made him a legend.
Three years ago that week, Moses had been beaten with a knife handle outside the courthouse in Liberty, Mississippi. A friend had taken Moses’ T-shirt and “wrung out the blood.” A week later, Moses took more blacks to the courthouse. As he had labored on in McComb, in Greenwood, in Jackson, the brutality of an entire state had not destroyed Moses’ faith that American democracy could work, even in Mississippi. SNCC had stockpiled reams of affidavits chronicling every assault. SNCC and Moses had sued county registrars and the federal government. Moses, his coworkers, and his summer disciples had visited thousands of shacks, preaching democracy. In its name, blood had been shed all summer. Three men murdered and buried beneath a dam. Torsos washing up in the river. Churches reduced to ashes. Heading to Atlantic City, Moses had not allowed himself to be swept up in the euphoria. But after Hamer’s speech, after all the Boardwalk rallies, he had shed his caution. The Democratic Party would not refuse Freedom Democrats, he said, “if they really understand what’s at stake.” Now America had slapped Bob Moses in the face. Now he saw what he had perhaps suspected all along—that naked coercion, arm twisting, and sneaky backroom deals were also “the stuff democracy is made of.”
Certain that Hubert Humphrey had called Freedom Democrats to his suite to keep them from arguing their case where it mattered, Moses shouted, “You cheated!” Then he stood, strode out of the crowded suite, and slammed the door.
The echo was the sound of SNCC slamming the door on the American political process. Moses soon declared he would never again trust politics. Other SNCCs agreed. James Forman: “Atlantic City was a powerful lesson. . . . No longer was there any hope, among those who still had it, that the federal government would change the situation in the Deep South.” Ella Baker: “The kids tried the established methods, and they tried at the expense of their lives. . . . But they were not willing to wait and they had paid a high price. So they began to look for other answers.” Freedom Democrats described their own dismay.
“Stokely,” Hartman Turnbow asked. “So this is what y’all calls democracy?”
“No, Mr. Turnbow,” Carmichael replied. “It’s politics—as usual.”
“Well now, sure t’ain’t the same thing, now is it? ”
“No, suh, it sure ain’t.”
At 4:00 p.m., when demonstrators seated on the Boardwalk learned that the two-seat compromise had been approved, they stood in silence. A call had just gone back to SNCC headquarters in Greenwood, Freedom Democrats asking for the latest violent incidents so “they can use the info in pleading their case.” But suddenly it became clear that no evidence—not four filing cabinets filled with names, not stacks of affidavits, not the most heart-searing testimony—would do any good. As they stood in the breeze off the ocean, so far removed from cotton fields and Piney Woods, volunteers and SNCC staffers felt the same gut-wrenching fury they had known each day in Mississippi. Tourists passed. Waves crashed on the beach. Seagulls circled overhead. It was August 25. A week remained before college classes absorbed volunteers, but the summer that had begun in innocence on an Ohio campus, burst onto front pages, then trudged on through fear and Freedom Songs, finally bringing all its idealism before a national audience, was over.
That evening on the convention floor, the compromise was explained and adopted in less than a minute. With tears in his eyes, Joseph Rauh, fresh from a meeting where Freedom Democrats formally voted down the compromise, marched to the podium to turn in two badges labeled “at large.” But the compromise included more than two seats. It also promised that future conventions would never again seat all-white delegations. (They never did.) And it required Mississippi’s official delegation to swear allegiance to the Democratic ticket. Mississippi delegates were outraged. Their state had been “cowhided and horsewhipped,” subjected to “cheap, degrading insults.” How dare they be required to prove themselves loyal Democrats! On orders phoned in by Governor Johnson, delegates began packing. Since Reconstruction, the governor declared, Mississippi had owed a great debt to the Democratic Party. Now, “that debt is paid in full.” And he had “no intention of ever working for President Johnson at any time.” The convention continued with four loyal Mississippi delegates seated—alone in rows of empty chairs. They soon had company.
Tuesday night’s program was proceeding with the usual speeches when reporters noted a commotion. NBC’s John Chancellor shouted that the Freedom Democrats were marching into the convention hall. Racing to catch up, Chancellor followed the flow, past New Jersey state troopers and onto the floor. As some Freedom Democrats entered, others left, carrying floor badges borrowed from sympathizers, badges they handed to delegates outside. One volunteer, feeling “like Mata Hari and the French Resistance and the Underground Railroad all rolled into one,” made several trips. Inside, first ten, then twenty or more Freedom Democrats took the seats denied them. All sat proudly, as if their mere presence proved their first-class citizenship. Back in the White House, LBJ ordered the Freedom Democrats removed, but an aide sensed the outcry if cops were seen struggling with blacks on the convention floor. One delegate was taken out, but the rest stayed. “All we want,” Fannie Lou Hamer told a reporter, “is a chance to be a part of America.”
The following morning, Freedom Democrats gathered again to reconsider two seats at large. The previous evening, the Union Temple Baptist Church had overflowed with bitterness. Moderate black leaders had told the delegation that two seats amounted to victory, that more progress would come. But SNCC leaders vehemently disagreed. “We’ve shed too much blood,” John Lewis said. “We’ve come much too far to back down now.” Fannie Lou Hamer “told it” better. “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats,” she said. “All of us is tired.” But on Wednesday morning, with the compromise now formally adopted by the convention, moderates made one last plea for unity. LBJ needed their full support. A Goldwater presidency would be disastrous for civil rights. “You have made your point,” Roy Wilkins told Hamer, “but you don’t know anything and should go home to Mississippi.” Talk spiraled into argument and argument into resentment. Freedom Democrats found themselves split by class. Aaron Henry and the few other white-collar delegates supported the compromise; Fannie Lou Hamer and the rest stood firm. Martin Luther King wavered. “Being a Negro leader, I want you to take this,” he admitted, “but if I were a Mississippi Negro, I would vote against it.” Then Bob Moses rose. For much of the meeting, he had stared at the floor, seeming to be somewhere else, as if beyond politics now. Moving to the podium, reminding one onlooker of “Socrates or Aristotle,” he summed up the exhausting week in a single sentence. “We’re not here to bring politics into our morality,” he said, “but to bring morality into our politics.”
Moses made no recommendation on the compromise. That was for Mississippi’s unofficial delegation to decide. Toward noon, delegates were left alone to vote. At stake was all their name now implied, all Freedom Summer stood for. As Democrats, they should back their party and its compromise. But as Freedom Democrats, they had a certain principle to uphold. When one eighty-year-old sharecropper spoke for the compromise, Hamer and others cried out. “When they got through talking and hoopin’ and hollerin’ and tellin’ me what a shame it was for me to do that,” Henry Sias said, “I changed my mind right there.” Finally, the vote was taken. SNCCs filed back into the room to learn how well they had taught their lessons. The sharecroppers and maids, barbers and cooks, seasoned by their introduction to democracy, had again rejected the compromise.
On Wednesday night, all chairs marked “Mississippi” were removed from the convention floor, but several Freedom Democrats were allowed to stand. And throughout Thursday night’s long tribute to JFK, Bob Moses and others stood in a silent circle, holding hands. No one inside the convention hall seemed to care. The Mississippi challenge now seemed as dated as the huge photos of FDR and Harry Truman looming above the platform. That night, an ebullient Lyndon Johnson came to Atlantic City to accept his party’s nomination. He and Hubert Humphrey linked hands in triumph. Fireworks blazed above the Boardwalk, some even forming a portrait of LBJ. With all the noise, Fannie Lou Hamer needed a microphone to be heard as she stood before exhausted Freedom Democrats and their supporters, belting out one last chorus of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” As always, Hamer’s eyes looked skyward, numbed by fatigue but swept up in song and spirit.
The following morning, sixty-seven Freedom Democrats filed onto buses. Perhaps a few took final glances at the pale blue above the shoreline, at the ghetto surrounding their hotel, at the Ferris wheel spinning slowly in the distance. Then the buses pulled out. Across America, the compromise was being hailed in the press—“a significant moral and political victory” (Los Angeles Times); “a triumph of Moral force” (New York Times); “nothing short of heroic” (Washington Post). But Freedom Democrats did not feel victorious. They were headed back to Mississippi, where sharecroppers would soon return to the fields and volunteers would be gone, taking with them the nation’s attention. “You don’t know how they goin’ to do us!” a black man in Greenwood said. “It’s goin’ to be hell when you leave!” The Freedom Democrats continued their long, sad return, west across Pennsylvania and Ohio, then south through Kentucky and Tennessee, heading home.
The last departing volunteers also went home that weekend. The summer of solidarity, of songs sung with hands clasped, heads swaying, ended with young men and women, battered and exhausted, slipping one by one out of the state. Most left unnoticed, but one was spotted on a bus out of Clarksdale. A woman seated beside her noticed her midwestern accent and asked if she had been part of the summer project. When the volunteer nodded, the Mississippi native turned somber. “I just want you to know,” the woman said, “that some of us have really done our best, and we’ve educated the people who have worked for us and have lived with us, and we care about them.” Then the bus crossed the Mississippi line.
Sometime during that final week of Freedom Summer, a Sovereignty Commission investigator went to Batesville to check out voter registration in Panola County. Parking behind the courthouse, the man spotted several black women beside a young white man. All were discussing how to register.
Stepping inside the courthouse, the investigator found his way to the registrar’s office and asked how the voting drive was progressing.
“Fine,” the registrar answered.
And how many Negroes had been registered that summer?
“Something over seven hundred.”
The investigator was shocked. “My country man!” he said. “What has happened that could justify that many Negroes qualifying in the last sixty days to vote in this county? ”
“Well, you know, I’m under an injunction.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that but I still can’t see how that many could qualify in so short a period of time.”
The registrar wearily explained. It seemed some clerks had taken the federal injunction very seriously. They were actually helping Negroes fill out forms. Pointing out mistakes. Allowing them to be corrected. The investigator tried to contain his anger. This was not what the injunction intended, he said. But the registrar insisted—he did not want to be subpoenaed again. Another trip to federal court might bring an even harsher ruling.
Shaking his head, the investigator walked down the hall. In the district attorney’s office, he heard worse news. The COFO drive had “snowballed,” the DA said. It had gone “completely out of control.” Negroes were coming in from all over the county. Nothing seemed to stop them. They just kept filling out forms, dozens each week, all passing without a test, all approved as voters. This was bound to spread to the whole Delta. Tallahatchie was already under an injunction, and more would surely come. What could be done? The investigator said he would take up the matter with the state attorney general. He would be back on Friday. On his way out, he saw more blacks coming, walking up the steps, out of the heat, into the coolness of the courthouse.
However beautiful the golden leaves may be, they will have to decay and become manure for the future of civilization. But it is only the seed persons that really count. And it is those you should look for.
—Victoria Gray Adams