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.”
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