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Freedom Democratic Party tries to attract new members

Monday, July 26, 2004

DURANT, Miss. -- With hands hardened by labor as a carpenter, Walter Bruce sifted through postcards bearing photographs of local civil rights pioneers -- people like Hartman Turnbow and Alma Mitchell, who in the 1960s stared down the barrel of a sheriff's gun to claim their right to register to vote.

One postcard image shows Bruce himself, in dark suit and tie, speaking at a meeting of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a group that briefly caught the nation's attention by dramatically challenging the political establishment in the rigidly segregated South.

For many Americans, the Democratic National Convention in 1964 provided a glimpse of the passionate activists of the Freedom Democratic Party. Then they faded from the national consciousness.

Today, the 75-year-old Bruce is president of what is believed to be the only chapter of the party that remains active.

In the 1960s, many blacks joined the movement after seeing friends and family members lynched or firebombed. Many suffered economic retaliation; Bruce worried that white people would get someone else for their carpentry work.

Still, he says now, "I thought, what good is a job without freedom?"

Convention showdownThe Freedom Party had about 80,000 black members when it tried to send delegates to the Democratic convention in Atlantic City in 1964 and challenge the seating of an all-white Mississippi delegation.

It was the same year that nearly 1,000 volunteers flocked to Mississippi to help blacks register to vote and defy the state's system of intimidation through literacy tests, poll taxes and violence.

The highlight of the convention was to be Lyndon Johnson's presidential nomination, but it was overshadowed by the Freedom Party.

With more than 60 "delegates," the Freedom Party demanded to be recognized as Mississippi's true delegation. Fannie Lou Hamer, a black Holmes County sharecropper who co-founded the Freedom Party, testified before the convention's Credentials Committee.

Hamer told the committee about being beaten with a "flat blackjack" for attending a civil rights meeting in her home state. And she asked the question, "Is this America?"

Emotional testimonyEmma Sanders, a Freedom Party alternate at the 1964 convention, recalled that Hamer walked with a limp because of injuries from her beating.

"Women in the room were crying. They were moved by her testimony," Sanders said.

Journalist Bill Minor, who covered both Mississippi's regulars and Freedom Democrats, said the convention gave blacks in Mississippi a rare opportunity to tell their story to the nation. The conflict reached the Democratic party's highest levels.

"President Johnson became so paranoid that the convention would turn into an uproar when he was to appear that he had Secret Service and FBI agents to surround the Mississippi delegate seats on the floor," Minor recalled. "The word was that Freedom Party leader Bob Moses would lead a surge onto the floor and take over the Mississippi seats, and Johnson wanted to make sure that didn't happen."

Johnson also called a news conference to pre-empt the live television broadcasts of Hamer's testimony.

The national Democratic Party eventually offered the Freedom Party a compromise: to seat two Freedom Party delegates -- one black and one white -- alongside the Mississippi Democrats who were opposed to civil rights to blacks.

The Freedom Party rejected the compromise and tried to force a convention floor roll call vote. Sanders was among Freedom Party delegates who used borrowed convention passes and marched onto to the floor.

"It was so congested. Other delegations wanted to see the commotion. The press was pressing in. It was horrible. They were trying to put us out. We locked arms and stayed," Sanders said.

Guards pried apart the praying party members and hauled them away -- again, before network TV cameras. This happened on two successive nights.

"We were in a dream world. We had people with a knowledge of the Constitution. They felt we would be seated or given a portion of the seats. We didn't expect what we encountered," said Sanders, who is a Mississippi delegate to this week's Democratic convention in Boston.

Although the Freedom Party rejected the Democrats' compromise offer, its challenge galvanized Mississippi's black population in its quest for equality.

The barriers blacks faced at the ballot box began to tumble with the Voting Rights Act of 1964; passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965 helped them eventually gain political and economic power.

Changing landscape"Negroes dominate in county voting," says a headline in the June 9, 1966, edition of The Holmes County Herald. The article details the large number of black residents who cast ballots -- news at the time.

Over the years, Mississippi's changing political landscape lessened the need for the statewide Freedom Party, said Ed King, who was the white Freedom Party delegate offered a seat at the 1964 convention and who is now a sociology professor at the University of Mississippi. The black delegate was Aaron Henry, a pharmacist who was a major force in the civil rights struggle in Mississippi.

"After 1968, the registration had been done. Eventually, [most blacks] in the state would be in the Democratic Party. To have a statewide, separate party didn't make sense," said King.

As for the Holmes County chapter that continues, that does make sense to King. "They were always the model," he said.

The Holmes County Freedom Party meets the third Sunday of each month at a community center in Lexington, about 12 miles from Bruce's home in Durant, a town so small it doesn't have traffic lights. About 30 to 40 people attend a typical meeting, though more than 200 party members pay annual dues of $5.

The party meeting is usually a first stop on a local candidate's campaign trail, said Durant Mayor Eddie Logan.

"That was the only organization that gave support to black candidates," Logan said. "They said, 'We'll campaign for you and we'll try to give you a little money.' There was no other place to go."

In the 1970s, the chapter marched in protest of the Ritz Cafe, a segregated eatery. There was also a boycott of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store because it didn't hire blacks as cashiers. Each January, the party marches to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

There hasn't been a boycott or protest here in the last 20 years, but Bruce insists the party hasn't outlived its usefulness.

There's still, he said, "a whole lot of work out there to be done."

The county has an unemployment rate of 13.6 percent among its 21,651 residents, who are 78.7 percent black. The median household income is $17,235. Nationally, unemployment stands at 5.6 percent, and median income is $42,409.

"It's more than just fighting for equal rights," the Willie Helm, secretary of the Freedom Party's last chapter.

This fall, the party will offer a college scholarship. The county's high school graduation rate is 59.7 percent and only 11.2 percent of its residents have a college degree.

"Hopefully that will lead to future employment and make young people stay in the county," said Helm.

Outside the Amigo Mini Mart in downtown Durant, four black teens sat in a green car with an Outkast song blaring through the speakers. Inside, 29-year-old Tekel Landfair and 39-year-old Sylvester Simpson, were "just hanging out." Simpson doesn't have a steady job and Landfair is unemployed.

Simpson said he's vaguely familiar with the Freedom Party after hearing "the old guys" talk about it. Though Landfair said he'd never heard of the group, he might consider going to a Freedom Party meetings -- and yet, it "seems like voting ain't doing no good."

Landfair's sentiment is prevalent among young blacks, said state Rep. Bryant Clark, the son of former Rep. Robert Clark, who in 1967 became the first black Mississippi elected to the Legislature since Reconstruction.

"Some have become discouraged with the process. Some had become content with the strides that have been made," said Bryant Clark, at 29 one of the youngest members of the Freedom Party.

Sanders said a topic of discussion in Boston will be finding ways to get young people to participate in the process.

"That's one of the disappointments," Sanders said. "If we do not participate in the process, we will be just the way we were in 1964."


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