Walter Mondale feels as convinced today that he was right as he did 50 years ago when he brokered a deal to resolve one of the most explosive issues in the history of the national Democratic Party.
It allowed for the seating of an all-white, pro-segregationist delegation from Mississippi at the party’s 1964 national convention; it barred a nearly all-black, pro-integrationist civil rights group from the same state, except for two seats.
In exchange, Mondale extracted a groundbreaking agreement, that all future national Democratic Party conventions must have integrated delegations.
The plan drew an angry reaction from the civil rights delegates from Mississippi, who walked out of the convention; some still denounce it today.
Looking back now in his Minneapolis law office, the elder statesman of Minnesota’s DFL Party stands by the “compromise.”
But if he had been one of the civil rights delegates from Mississippi, he said, he would have probably walked out, too.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of that landmark convention, where two Minnesotans worked behind the scenes to change the demographics of party politics.
“I call it the civil rights act for the Democratic Party,” says Mondale, 86. “It was a period … of maximum tension over whether America would go forward to eliminate discrimination or whether we could be blocked.”
The August convention in Atlantic City, N.J., followed “Freedom Summer,” when scores of white Northern activists went south, joining black activists to register black voters over the objections of segregationists. Three civil rights workers were murdered, and churches where members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) met were firebombed.
“The deep, hard Southern opposition to the elimination of discrimination had boiled down to really a kind of a street war,” said Mondale.
The delegate fight was forced by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), led by Robert Parris Moses, himself a target of firebombs and bullets. After Mississippi’s Democratic Party refused to let blacks vote, the MFDP elected their own delegates and headed to the convention in Atlantic City, hoping to be seated by the party.
President Lyndon Johnson had succeeded in getting the historic Civil Rights Act passed earlier in 1964, but he feared a floor fight over Mississippi delegates, said Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who described the conflict in “Pillars of Fire.”
Johnson worried that Southern delegates would walk out, costing him the fall election. But he won in a landslide.
“I never met a good politician who didn’t think they were one vote behind,” Mondale said. “I think he was very anxious and he … overplayed his hand at the convention in many different ways.” One way Johnson went too far, he said, was to employ the FBI to spy on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. He was “spying on King, spying on everybody,” Mondale said.
Minnesotans make deal
Mondale, Minnesota’s attorney general, got involved because of another Minnesota DFL heavyweight, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who’d be named Johnson’s running mate.
But first, the delegate controversy had to be settled, said Frank Wright, a former Star Tribune managing editor who was a reporter covering the convention.
Said Wright, “Lyndon said to Humphrey, ‘If you want to be the Democratic vice presidential nominee you better settle this Mississippi issue.’ Humphrey in turn said to Mondale, ‘Fritz, if you want to be the appointee to the Senate to replace me to become vice president, you had better settle this Mississippi delegation issue.’ They just kept passing the buck from Lyndon to Humphrey to Fritz.”
Asked to confirm that sequence, Mondale replied by e-mail, “I can’t say those conversations didn’t occur but I did not hear them. Crack reporter Frank Wright may have heard those words.”
Mondale was appointed to chair a five-member subcommittee of the credentials committee to hash out the deal.
In the meantime, convention sentiment was building to seat the MFDP. Fannie Lou Hamer, a black sharecropper from Mississippi, gave a moving speech to the credentials committee, aired on the evening news, that described how she was arrested and beaten for trying to register voters.
Mondale emerged after several days of negotiations with a 3-2 agreement that seated the white Mississippi delegation with the two Southern committee members opposed to it. The MFDP group was given only two at-large delegates, selected by Mondale’s committee rather than the group.
The outraged Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party voted to reject the deal. Fifty years later, party leader Bob Parris Moses, 79, said he is more opposed to it now than he was at the time.
“What was at stake was an opportunity to recast the Democratic Party and to say the … party actually welcomed the sharecroppers, that the Democratic Party was not an elite, but a party of the working class. These were black working class, very different from the white working class.”
Even though the Mississippi segregationists were seated, Moses said, they soon abandoned the Democratic Party for the Republican Party.
Wright, however, believes the bargain Mondale struck in 1964 was the right one.
“My sense is the long history has essentially proved that Mondale and Humphrey were correct,” he says. “You don’t have those same fights at conventions anymore, because the rules have been changed.”
In an interview, Branch said, “It was an unprecedented moment in history which had both political parties sharply reversing course. The Republicans switched from the party of Lincoln to the party of Goldwater and state rights, while the Democrats went from the party of solid South segregation to the party of integrated coalitions. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Branch said a lot of civil rights advocates were disillusioned by the politicking.
Mondale sees the outcome differently. All future delegations to the Democratic Party were integrated, he pointed out, and Hamer was a delegate at the party’s 1968 convention.
“It changed our political party,” he said. “It stopped discrimination in the South.”
It also got Johnson and Humphrey elected, “probably the two best civil rights national leaders in American history. It led to the full acceptance of Mississippi desegregated delegation [in 1968]. It was good enough for Martin Luther King and these other civil rights leaders. I don’t think it’s fair to call it a cop-out.
“I would say if you look at it from a broad perspective of what happened, this is one of the great success stories for civil rights in America,” he said.
Historian Branch said, “It’s an amazing thing to look back on this. For 50 years there has been persistent attention over whether it was fair.”