Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Freedom Summer, the MFDP and the historic transformation of American politics; an error of Peniel Joseph

Peniel Joseph is a biographer of and, to some extent, devotee of Stokeley Carmichael; one can learn much from Stokely: a Life (see here). His "When Civil-Rights Unity Fractured" in the New York Times Sunday Review on June 28, however, presents black power as but a simple response to white students' in Freedom Summer (and others') idealism, inexperience and supposed allegiance to the Democratic Party (this thesis also ignores Stokely's dissatisfaction at Martin Luther King's organizing for the Democratic Party in Mississippi though listening carefully to Carmichael and Cleveland Sellers on the march to Jackson following the shooting of James Meredith which Joseph strikingly presents in his book, pp. 71-73, 76-77, 110).

On Joseph's account, it was a split of black against white, stemming from the different experience and view of black people.


That the experiences are powerfully different and made a huge impact is true. That this thesis is a true or even reasonable causal account of this split is false (Joseph was beguiled into it because it fits overly neatly Stokely's famous slogan "black power," a biographer too impassioned with his subject).


Stokely was a brilliant speaker and organizer. Martin Luther King would come and speak in different places, firing up a large group of people, but then go elsewhere (not so many came back for the actual day to day organizing...). Yet King also often stayed - Montgomery and Birmingham - and was arrested, always under threat (many assassination attempts before Memphis...), and a paradigm of courage. Stokely, a friend of Vincent Harding's (he lived with Vincent and Rosemary 5 doors down from King in Atlanta) and of King's, was active in Freedom Summer, though the leader was Bob Moses, and vital in forming the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County, Alabama, getting activists to canvass people to register to vote. These contributions were an advance on what the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was doing.


Here is a short depiction - vivid and to the point - by Stokely, organizing for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, of the powerful, clownish Senator James O. Eastland,

"'Eastland made a statement yesterday about everyone in the movement being a communist. All we want is the right to vote. If that's being a communist, then we're communists.' Over a loud chorus of 'Amens!,' he continued, "Eastland also says that Negroes are happy. Negroes love to pick cotton. Negroes love to eat watermelon. Negroes love making three dollars a day, being illiterate and not voting. Eastland is a liar, and that's all there is to it." (Joseph p. 71)


Stokely brought some of Malcolm X's fire - Malcolm had been assassinated in 1963 - back into the movement.


James Chaney's undying question - "why do we have to live like this?" - brought black activists and many whites in solidarity out in the South. See here for the words of his sister Julia Chaney-Moss and his daughter born just after he was killed, Angela Lewis.


There were tensions between white student volunteers and black activists in Mississippi. The volunteers were going into a situation which they had no serious idea of - they were told, they practiced but they had no experience with lynching and lifelong forced subservience - and blacks who knew the score which included, with James Chaney, being murdered; in some way, the horror of Mississippi was and is beyond any of us to take in....


The recent PBS film on Freedom Summer - see here - provides a sharper insight into Joseph Rauh, a shepherd of the Freedom Democratic Party's attempt at the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City to represent the people of Mississippi as opposed to the official White Citizens' Council/Ku Klux Klan Democratic Party. The Democratic Party in Mississippi was an evil for the vast majority of residents. The national Democratic Party which was coming under pressure from a movement from below, composed of many decent people including in the South, to change, nonetheless, was rooted in and often choked by segregationist organization in the South.

Contra Joseph, its leadership did not represent nor was, often, seen from below as representing anti-racist whites.


But as the film does not show (the earlier Eyes on the Prize segment is better on this), Freedom Summer in Mississippi revolutionized politics in the United States. As a result of the heroism and accompanying (this is Staughton Lynd's term) of Freedom Summer, the MFDP got two representatives and a promise of integration in 1968 from the Democratic Party while the KKK got full representation.

There is a cringeworthy moment when Walter Mondale presents the creepy finding of the Democratic Committee on seating (Humphrey and Mondale, both seeking to be Vice-President to Johnson, each distinguished himself as a pampered vassal).


Fortunately, the handwriting was on the wall for the Mississippi racists and they went home.


Commendably, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sang spirituals - see here and here - and rejected the compromise. In the Eyes on the Prize film, a white guard is shown by the empty Mississsippi Delegation preventing a woman, a black sharecropper, from taking a seat (poor man to be so immortalized...).

The Delegation was led by Fannie Lou Hamer, the most powerful voice of sharecroppers in Mississippi, fired and beaten for registering to vote, giving testimony about the grim facts at the Convention. To limit the impact of a segregationist walk-out on his election, President Lyndon B. Johnson desperately, scandalously organized an inappropriate press conference (to celebrate Governor Connelly of Texas yet, murdered 8 months before with President Kennedy...). For otherwise, national television would convey her words into every home in America...


But Fannie Lou Hamer has a spirit which dwarfs for power and integrity the conventional politics at this time (one does not remember the Humphreys or Mondales or even Johnsons of that time...) or, comparatively, even the powerful Stokely. All that hope in Mississippi, all that hope of the volunteers in Freedom Summer, black and white, came through uniquely in her voice.

She was a leader in the decision to go home.


Here was a class basis - these were poor working people, agricultural workers, from Mississippi - for the division with the corrupt Democrats that Joseph does not see. They had not come "all this way," - through all the lynchings (some 5,000 even on newspaper records) in Mississippi, the murders of the three civil rights workers (James Chaney, Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner), the beatings and firings - they had not moved up from stepping off the sidewalk in Mississippi towns when a white man passed; they had not welcomed at great risk white volunteers, who shook hands with them, lived with and learned from them, admired them - to accept a "compromise" of two people at the back of the "Missisissippi delegation" bus...


In his last sentence, however, Joseph is right to emphasize the power of local community, local democracy revealed here.


But in contrast to Joseph, the elite in the Democratic party and even Joseph Rauh, the Americans for Democratic Action lawyer who had worked to support the delegation, but was always looking up, did not represent most people, including most rank and file Democrats. Rauh is often shown at the Convention saying "this is what you do. You fight for principle but then when a compromise comes down, you take it."


The film on Freedom Summer here captures strikingly - in contrast to Joseph's account - the strings that were being pulled. Walter Reuther, one time radical and later sellout leader of the United Auto Workers, a then still powerful union because of the courage of its members in strike (sometimes wildcat strike) after strike, was a Lyndon Johnson supporter (Note Johnson, as Robert Caro celebrates, passed important pro-working class, anti-racist legislation; if he had not committed genocide in Vietnam, it might be quite easy, despite his unparallelled manipulativeness - not remotely a person of integrity or even an attractive human being - nonetheless to value some of his domestic accomplishments). Rauh was the lawyer for the UAW.


Reuther said to him: we have long been "friends" and you are our counsel, but if you don't get the Freedom Democratic Party to back down, I will fire you.


Contra Joseph's interpretation, Joe Rauh was not an ordinary white person. His knees shook. He sold them out.


Yet despite his own misinterpretation, Joseph also emphasizes the switch of Bayard Rustin to trying to chill the MFDP out. Rustin had been the teacher of several SNCC leaders - vital in the march on Washington, see here - and Stokely now named him a "false prophet" (p. 77).

Facts, when one acknowledges them as Joseph does in the book, often undermine a silly thesis.... The Times's limited space to talk about his book featured the misguided thesis and not the valuable and often conflicting story he tells; even his mention of Mario Savio and the revolutionary student movement of the late 1960s in the op-ed, is an example of intelligence cutting against the thesis.


The MFDP was right to walk away from Joe Rauh and Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King - see the description of the meeting on the Wednesday at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in Joseph, pp. 76-77.


These are moral and class differences, not ones usefully depicted as black versus white.


In 1972, the Democratic Convention was fully integrated for the first time. In that year, the Republicans had become the inheritors of evil (the Republican party is a racist, disenfranchising party working over time to this day - it has a handful of blacks and latinos speak but is nearly all white; it praises Martin Luther King to destroy what he stood for - to disenfranchise black voters, students, the elderly (they even strip some Republicans of the vote by boomerang - and others). In this respect, they are now the lone inheritors of the one party Democratic South and the viciousness of the old two party system (though a stronger Republican party would have been an improvement, once upon a time, in the South).

The Democrats, though a capitalist or oligarchic party, are different fundamentally today, could nominate Obama for President, because of the courage of SNCC - the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee - and students at Freedom Summer and of poor people, enacted in the MFDP.


Freedom Summer is thus uniquely transformative in American politics. The protest and principle of the MFDP - a real upsurge from below of those "on whom the Democratic Party had not put its hand," made the Democratic Party, to the extent that it is, a multiracial and decent organization.


There is no parallel in American political history to this (Reconstruction politics in the South and the influence of the radical union movement on FDR and the Democrats in the thirties is very important, but is not, as a grass roots effort a bursting forth of Fannie Lou Hamer and other black sharecroppers onto the national scene. Reconstruction ended with large scale violence against ordinary people; there were large numbers of murders of union organizers, 80 in Birmingham in the 1930s alone and the CIO fought racism then along with the Communist Party. But there was no direct impact on the floor of a major party convention (again, there were white Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens; perhaps a few union leaders).


It is worth taking in - filmmakers, editorial writers, political science and social studies teachers and historians, high school and college, just how central Freedom Summer and the MFDP were.


In the brief compass of a letter to the Times (July 4), Julian Bond and Marshall Ganz (both important organizers for their whole lives) rightly criticize the narrow frame which Joseph imposes on SNCC.

"Specifically, [Joseph] argues that achieving voter registration goals of white volunteers revealed breaches with a black empowerment agenda pursued by blacks. In fact, voter registration remained all but impossible until after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And although factions existed, to be sure, they were not specifically racial ones and not along the lines he describes.

First, there was no 'white' agenda before or after the Summer Project. Many volunteers, like one of us, Marshall Ganz, thought the project was meant to support empowerment of local communities by putting a stop to the terror that made any kind of organizing so difficult, and that this was a key step in a broader assault on institutionalized racism in America."

Note that fighting for the right to vote confronted terror as Joseph misses. And that volunteers, white as well as black, talked with those who registered, i.e. Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, to go to the Convention.


Further, many white people, particularly activists, turned, on principle and with distaste, from the Democratic Party and many blacks, in hopes of making some gains, continued to support it. Once again, even Martin Luther King tried unsuccessfully to chill out Fannie Lou Hamer and the MFDP because of his alliance with Lyndon Johnson on civil rights.


Recall King's April 4, 1967 speech on the Vietnam War, with the same shining principle as Fannie Lou Hamer's, was also his death warrant for the elite. All the corporate newspapers, led by the New York Times, attacked him; Johnson removed his limited FBI "protection," and of course, the King family does not believe that James Earl Ray did the shooting...


Dr. King called Stokely, asking him if he was busy on that day. Stokely said he had things to do around the office. But when King made it clear that he would speak out on Vietnam, Stokely, his friend who knew his views, said "I'll be there."

Stokely sat in the first row...


But they also miss a central point: the MFDP changed, in certain respects, revolutionized American politics. Every person associated with this effort deserves our gratitude and reverence.


"SundayReview | OPINION

When Civil-Rights Unity Fractured

For the photo, see here.
Members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party jammed an entrance to Atlantic City’s Convention Hall on Aug. 25, 1964, in an effort to attend the second session of the Democratic National Convention. Credit Associated Press

FIFTY years ago this month, more than a thousand predominantly young, predominantly white volunteers arrived in Mississippi to help local blacks register to vote. “Freedom Summer” is remembered as both a high point of interracial democratic activism and a low point in racial violence, most notably in the brutal murder of three civil rights workers, two of whom were white.

Yet Freedom Summer was also a historical hinge point — a pivotal moment that helped fracture the civil rights movement’s tenuous unity and spur black political radicalism. In many ways the divisions that manifested themselves in 1964 are still with us today, and any attempt to build new interracial coalitions will have to first wrestle with their legacy.the mass movement to elect Obama twice, supporting the Democratic Party, is one striking counterexample, which this phrasing misses...]

White veterans of Freedom Summer recall the time as a life-changing event in their personal involvement in the movement, the apotheosis of their vision for biracial, harmonious activism. And the experience did inspire many students to stay in the state afterward and work for groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (also known as the S.N.C.C.). Others, most notably the free-speech activist and Berkeley student Mario Savio, took lessons learned that summer back to their own campuses, seeding the fledgling student movements that would grow to a revolutionary fervor by the end of the decade [!].

But many black activists saw things quite differently. Not that they didn’t appreciate the voter-registration work being done. But whereas whites tended to see that as an end in itself, a strike against the white power structure in Mississippi, blacks tended to see activism in Mississippi as a means toward a larger goal of confronting racism on a national scale — a path that would take them from the Delta to the Democratic National Convention, held that summer in Atlantic City.

The vehicle for reaching that goal was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an independently organized project led by the sharecropper turned activist Fannie Lou Hamer. With the newly registered black voters as its base, the party planned to challenge the “regular,” all-white Democratic state delegation at the convention, and dare the national party — and President Lyndon B. Johnson — to deny them.

One of the key figures behind the party was Stokely Carmichael (who later changed his name to Kwame Ture). As part of Freedom Summer, he led interracial groups of student volunteers from Greenwood, Miss., which served as a base for the S.N.C.C.’s sprawling efforts throughout the Delta, one of America’s poorest and most racially segregated regions. But he also spent parts of the summer organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a tedious process made even more difficult by harassment, cross burnings and the constant threat of violent reprisals.

That summer shaped Carmichael, long before he became a household name and a synonym for black radicalism. In 1964, at just 23 years old, he had set himself up as an ambassador of sorts, hosting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., coordinating with veteran local activists and recruiting the most promising white volunteers to continue on after the summer.

But Freedom Summer ultimately broke Carmichael’s heart. Yes, voters were registered by the thousands. But as many white volunteers headed home, their spirits lifted by the experience, Carmichael, Hamer and the rest headed to New Jersey, to see if all that work would pay off.

It didn’t. Thanks to the personal intervention of President Johnson — through the Minnesota senator Hubert H. Humphrey, a close ally of the civil rights movement — the convention leadership thwarted the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party’s demands. The discussion between black activists and their liberal allies devolved into a screaming match over a proposed compromise to give the activists two at-large convention seats — which they rejected.

The behavior of the S.N.C.C.’s white liberal allies at the convention helped to sour the black activists’ support for interracial political alliances. White liberals interpreted the rejected offer as the sort of necessary, if unpleasant, compromise that formed the bedrock of democratic politics. Blacks, most potently Carmichael, viewed the proceedings as an enormous betrayal of the very ideal — one person, one vote — that they had gambled their lives on in Mississippi.

The black radical politics of the 1960s and subsequent decades had roots long before 1964. But it was amplified by the events of that summer, precisely at the moment when a new generation of young activists and intellectuals like Carmichael were coming into their own, and those events sent them in a direction far beyond the nonviolent political vision outlined by King a year earlier during the March on Washington.

Instead of biracial politics as an end in itself [it never was, by itself or in itself except as part of the goal of making a multiracial democracy], power, through local political organizing outside of either major political party, would be Carmichael’s mantra over the next two years. It was in Mississippi in 1966 that he unleashed his controversial call for “black power.”

The emergence of black radicalism in the late 1960s, and the rift in the biracial coalition, is often interpreted as a product of the movement’s shift from the Jim Crow South to the urban North. But the experience in Mississippi and Atlantic City demonstrates how much more complicated the story really is.

It also captures one of the difficulties in forming and maintaining biracial coalitions, as true today as it was 50 years ago: White and black activists will often see the same situation very differently.

But above all, that experience shows why the white [sic] version of Freedom Summer — local and minority politics mediated through major political parties — was inadequate. Instead, the grass roots had to accumulate its own power, which 50 years later remains Freedom Summer’s most enduring legacy.

Correction: June 28, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the political entity organized by Fannie Lou Hamer. It was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, not the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party.

Peniel E. Joseph is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University and the author of “Stokely: A Life.”


"The Opinion Pages | LETTER

Freedom Summer: Looking Beyond Racial Lines
JULY 3, 2014

Re “When Civil-Rights Unity Fractured,” by Peniel E. Joseph (Sunday Review, June 29), about the aftermath of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project:

As it happens, we both just attended a four-day commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the project. Mr. Joseph argues that it was the different experiences of blacks and whites in the Summer Project that laid the groundwork for black nationalism.

Specifically, he argues that achieving voter registration goals of white volunteers revealed breaches with a black empowerment agenda pursued by blacks. In fact, voter registration remained all but impossible until after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And although factions existed, to be sure, they were not specifically racial ones and not along the lines he describes.

First, there was no “white” agenda before or after the Summer Project. Many volunteers, like one of us, Marshall Ganz, thought the project was meant to support empowerment of local communities by putting a stop to the terror that made any kind of organizing so difficult, and that this was a key step in a broader assault on institutionalized racism in America.

Second, the Summer Project also focused on organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a key step in breaking through barriers to voter registration and full black participation in politics and public life.

Third, the leadership of the white liberal establishment that supported President Lyndon B. Johnson by urging compromise on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention were joined by black colleagues — and received as much criticism from white volunteers as from black organizers.

The Summer Project was a complex event, with many strengths and weaknesses, and its consequences were anything but unmixed. This merits serious analysis and discussion. But applying an overly simplistic racial lens is disrespectful of the event and the people who took part.

Cambridge, Mass., July 1, 2014

Mr. Ganz is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. Mr. Bond, the civil rights leader, is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia."

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