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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Charles Sherrod and Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, August 1964

The 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City was supposed to be a simple and straightforward coronation of Lyndon Johnson as the presidential candidate. However, it opened on August 22 with nationally televised hearings before the Credentials Committee of delegates from the rogue Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) demanding to be seated. The MFDP was challenging the legitimacy of the state’s official delegation, because the Mississippi Democratic Party excluded blacks from membership and because its platform called for a rejection of civil rights and a repudiation of the national Democratic platform. The dramatic testimony by MFDP delegates like Fannie Lou Hamer (Hulu video below, prefaced by an ad), a sharecropper who described being beaten and shot at simply for trying to register to vote, so galvanized the country and upset the administration that President Johnson interrupted televised coverage of the hearings by calling a presidential press conference.

As field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the organizations behind the creation of MFDP, Charles Sherrod was an eyewitness to the tense negotiations at the convention between MFDP and such national Democratic leaders as Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey. The MFDP’s proposed compromise of “proportional representation” was rejected and countered with a compromise offering non-voting seats to two members of the MFDP delegation. A heated debate ensued with many influential leaders, including Martin Luther King, recommending the compromise. Sherrod explains the MFDP’s final decision in “Mississippi at Atlantic City,” an excerpt from Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1963-1973:
Our society is famous for its buck-passing, white-washing tactics. That is one reason the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party could not accept the administration’s compromise. It was made to look like something and it was nothing. It was made to pacify the blacks in this country. It did not work. We refused to adopt a “victory.” We could have accepted the compromise, called it a victory and gone back to Mississippi, carried on the shoulders of millions of Negroes across the country as their champions. But we love the ideas of our country; they mean more than a moment of victory. We are what we are—hungry, beaten, unvictorious, jobless, homeless, but thankful to have the strength to fight. This is honesty, and we refuse to compromise here. It would have been a lie to accept that particular compromise. It would have said to blacks across the nation and the world that we share the power, and that is a lie!
Forty-six years later, in his January 2010 keynote address at “Fifty Years after the Sit-ins,” a conference at the University of Virginia School of Law, Charles Sherrod—husband of former U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod—recollects Emmett Till, working on a chain gang, fear, and passing the torch. Joan Walsh recently posted an appreciation of Charles Sherrod’s civil rights career on Salon.

Related LOA works: Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1963; Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1963–1973 (includes Sherrod's "Mississippi at Atlantic City" and two profiles of Fannie Lou Hamer)

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