Compromise defused standoff but irked civil rights activists.
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.”