Survival kits no remedy for headaches caused by ’64 Mississippi activists
At first, all I could see inside the box were packets with a black outline of a city’s skyline. So I was obviously curious about what was in them. I pulled one of the packets out of the box and saw that they were folded shut on each end. On one side were these words:
“Survival Kit. Democratic National Convention 1964.” In the midst of the words was a Miller High Life beer logo.
I was sure there was not any beer inside the packets, but what then? Opening one of the them I found small sealed packets of tablets, bandages and other remedies for someone who might have partied a little too much at the convention.
It was a survival kit for the morning after a night of drinking, dancing and whatever else goes on at those conventions. This packet was a novelty fun item that was likely given out for free at the Democrats’ convention in Atlantic City from Aug. 24-27, 1964.
It was the year after the assassination of President Kennedy and the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson to take his place. Johnson was nominated for a full term during the convention, and Hubert H. Humphrey was his running mate.
Robert Kennedy spoke of his brother, whose presence overshadowed the convention, and received a standing ovation with applause after applause while Johnson, his hated archrival, was said to have squirmed in his seat.
The survival kits could have been a pleasant remedy for the headaches caused from conflicts at the convention. Not only had Bobby Kennedy caused pain for the sure-to-be-nominated Johnson, but civil rights activists from Mississippi were stirring and ready to challenge that party’s white delegation.
The convention would pull one plank from the platform that supported Jim Crowism and segregation. It also would propel civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer of Mississippi into the forefront of the civil rights movement.
Black activist-residents of Mississippi, along with Freedom Summer volunteers organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), were organizing African Americans and registering them to vote. They were blocked, harassed, beaten, shot at and persecuted at every turn by segregationists and their racist laws and practices.
African Americans were not allowed to participate in state Democratic Party meetings to choose delegates to the convention, so the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was organized to choose its own slate using the party’s official rules.
At the convention, the MFDP, made up of African Americans and whites, challenged the state Democratic Party’s delegation, hoping that the national party would support them. They only received mild support, even after Hamer gave moving testimony before the Credentials Committee about how blacks, including herself, were harassed when they tried to register to vote.
She could speak personally about life in Mississippi: In 1961, she was sterilized without her knowledge. It was a hysterectomy – a procedure so commonly given to black women that it was known as the “Mississippi appendectomy,” a way for whites to control the birth of poor black children in the state.
Hamer was born and brought up as a sharecropper’s daughter in the Mississippi Delta and had married a sharecropper as an adult. In August 1962 she attended a SNCC voting-rights meeting, and decided that she should register to vote. Her life would not be the same after that.
She joined 17 other people on a bus trip to Indianola, MS, the county seat, to register. She and one other person were allowed to take the test, but both failed. When she got back home, she was kicked off the plantation where she had lived for nearly 20 years.
Then she became an organizer for SNCC, offering training workshops and participating in voter-registration drives. She was jailed and beaten for her activist work, but remained resolute, speaking across the country about the harsh life that blacks were forced to live in her home state.
Hamer ran for Congress in 1964 (and also in 1965) with the support of the MFPD, of which she was vice chairman; it was the same year the group challenged the Mississippi delegation. It was also the year during a speech and interview that she would make the famous pronouncement that would seal her legacy:
“All my life I’ve been sick and tired,” she said. “Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
At the 1964 convention, Hamer and her group were supported by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress for Racial Equality and the NAACP.
In an effort to keep white southern support for the Democratic ticket, Johnson offered a compromise: That two delegates from Hamer’s group be seated with no voting privileges, that the entire white delegation be seated but be required to sign a pledge to support the ticket in the November election against Republican Barry Goldwater, and that segregated delegations be excluded in 1968.
Neither the black nor white delegation liked the compromise, the white delegation walked out, and the black group took its seats. The seats themselves were eventually removed, but the MFDP took over the space and sang freedom songs (which had become Hamer’s trademark). At the 1968 convention, black Mississippi delegates were seated. In 1972, Hamer became the first African American since Reconstruction and the first woman to be a national delegate from Mississippi.
“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens,” she told the Credentials Committee in 1964. “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 the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Hamer died in 1977 of complications from cancer and heart disease.