On 26 April 1964 the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was officially named at a statewide meeting held in Jackson, which was attended by two hundred of Mississippi’s most active civil rights organizers. Its formation was a direct response to the Mississippi Democratic Party’s singular control of the state’s political process and its exclusion of black participation.
In the four years following its founding, the MFDP served as the primary advocate for the inclusion of black Mississippians in the political process. The MFDP’s actions challenged the legitimacy of the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party while offering a way for black Mississippians to practice political participation via voter registration, mock elections, and the selection of black candidates.
Lawrence Guyot, a political science student at Tougaloo College and a field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, became the MFDP’s first chair, signaling the continued influence of the youth movement in Mississippi. Guyot directed the MFDP until the fall of 1968, when Rev. Clifton Whitley, the chaplain at Rust College, assumed leadership.
The MFDP served as the institutional home for the 1964 Summer Project, in which volunteers and full-time organizers erected a parallel political process. Canvassers began by registering voters into the dissident political party, eliminating literacy tests and other discriminatory aspects of the state-mandated registration process. Organizers then mobilized local communities to participate in and help direct parallel precinct, county, and district meetings in which they selected alternative delegations to those selected by the Mississippi Democratic Party. In early August, Freedom Democrats representing the state’s five congressional districts assembled at the Masonic Temple in Jackson and chose sixty-six delegates to challenge the seating of the regular delegation at the Democratic National Convention to be held in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
At the convention, the MFDP and its supporters faced an intransigent national Democratic Party. Freedom Democrats had amassed testimony and evidence detailing the abuses committed and sanctioned by Mississippi’s elected officials to prevent black political participation. Numerous state delegations pledged their support for the MFDP delegates, but Pres. Lyndon Johnson and other national leaders feared that recognizing the Freedom Democrats’ claims would further alienate the southern wing of the Democratic coalition. The MFDP was offered a compromise under which the regular Democratic delegates would be seated but two of the Freedom Democrats—Aaron Henry, the president of the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Edwin King, the chaplain of Tougaloo College—would be named at-large delegates. The MFDP delegates rejected the compromise and left the convention.
The MFDP nevertheless continued to support the national Democratic Party while challenging the party’s legitimacy at the state level. In the fall of 1964 Freedom Democrats campaigned for Johnson’s reelection, and he garnered more votes in an MFDP-sponsored Freedom Vote than in the state-sanctioned general election. The MFDP also ran a Freedom Vote involving candidates for the US House of Representatives and Senate.
In 1965 the MFDP challenged the seating of the state’s five congressmen, contending that the political preferences of black Mississippians remained unrecognized in Mississippi’s elections. The MFDP collected affidavits from black Mississippians who had been denied access to the ballot and subpoenaed elected officials to testify. When the challenge came before the House of Representatives in September 1965, the MFDP’s claims were denied on the grounds that the Voting Rights Act, which had passed one month earlier, would rectify these abuses in the future.
The MFDP continued to prepare black Mississippians for inclusion in a broadly defined civic life by helping them navigate and access national resources. It kept Mississippians informed through the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Newsletter as well as county newsletters. In 1965 and 1966 the MFDP encouraged black farmers to run in the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service elections. Historically, white landowners controlled these local boards, which determined which farmers would receive federal agricultural subsidies. Freedom Democrats also supported black Mississippians’ applications for federal poverty funds, encouraging the creation of the Child Development Group of Mississippi, the state’s first Head Start program, and other programs. Whitley v. Johnson (1967), one of many MFDP-initiated lawsuits, sought federal redress for state-sponsored efforts that continued to limit black Mississippians’ political opportunities. Consolidated for the US Supreme Court under Allen v. State Board of Elections (1969), Whitley ensured the broadest interpretation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, requiring federal preclearance of a number of state-initiated alterations to voting laws and elections. This interpretation remained in force until 2013, when the Court declared that this approach was no longer constitutional in light of current conditions.
The MFDP regularly ran candidates for election either in the Democratic primary or as independents in the general election. In 1967, when black voter registration significantly increased in Mississippi, the MFDP had its greatest electoral success. More than one hundred black candidates, many affiliated with the MFDP, ran for political office, and twenty-two won election. Robert Clark, an educator supported by the Holmes County Freedom Democratic Party, became the first black state legislator since the end of Reconstruction.
As early as 1965 alternatives to the MFDP emerged to represent and direct the increasing black electorate. Charles Evers, state field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, aligned with white moderates to develop an institutional alternative to the MFDP, which remained overwhelmingly black and working class. In 1968 this coalition, referred to as the Loyalists, sought to replace the regulars at the Democratic National Convention. Although the MFDP was one part of this biracial coalition, responsible for half of its black delegates, the Loyalists, not the Freedom Democrats, inherited the state Democratic Party structure. The Loyalist delegation was recognized at the 1968 and 1972 Democratic Conventions. In 1976 the Loyalists gained control of the Mississippi Democratic Party.
- Unita Blackwell with JoAnne Prichard Morris, Barefootin’: Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom (2006)
- Emilye Crosby, A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi (2005)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1995)
- Frank Parker, Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi after 1965 (1990)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Youth of the Rural Organizing and Cultural Center, Minds Stayed on Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Rural South (1991)