As thousands of delegates arrived in Atlantic City for the 1964 Democratic National Convention, 50 years ago this week, one group of black Mississippians came not knowing whether they would make it to the convention floor.
They didn’t get to vote, but they created a legacy that lasts to this day.
“The more I look at the 1964 convention, the more I realize that not only was it a watershed in Atlantic City history, it was a watershed in American political history,” said Nelson Johnson, author of “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City.” “Never in the national experience had a feisty little black woman spoken back to white men, rejecting an offer of compromise.”
That woman was Fannie Lou Hamer — a 46-year-old educator, wife of a sharecropper and 20th child of a poor farmer — who came to Atlantic City as the head of the Freedom Democratic Party.
Hamer’s party, made up of 64 African-Americans and four whites chosen via caucuses and a statewide convention, set out to challenge the all-white Democratic delegation from Mississippi, which had been selected in a segregated process.
The state was in the middle of the Freedom Summer, a massive drive to register African-Americans long disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws — and several volunteers, including three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, paid for it with their lives.
Jo Freeman, author of “At Berkeley in the Sixties,” recalled how the Freedom Democratic Party arrived in Atlantic City with a burnt car on a flatbed truck labeled “The Mississippi Klan’s response to the Negro vote drive.”
Each day in the Atlantic City Press during the convention, the white Citizens’ Council of Jackson, Miss., ran a full-page ad that included a checkbox: “I would like to receive literature on the basic reasons for social separations of whites and negroes.”
“I’m a native of Mississippi,” said Ralph Hunter, founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey. “My parents are from a little town called Yazoo, Miss. Our exhibit at the museum at the Arts Garage tells the story of the things that took place in Mississippi, like the lynching trees.”
At that time, blacks weren’t welcome at many Boardwalk hotels, so Hamer and her delegates stayed at hotels on the Northside and with members of the Union Temple Baptist Church.
“Atlantic City had a Mason-Dixon line,” Hunter said. “The area from Atlantic Avenue to Venice Park and Connecticut Avenue up to Arkansas was where thousands of African-Americans lived. The delegation was welcomed with open arms by church clergy and church members.”
Edith Savage-Jennings, of Ewing Township, Mercer County, stayed with Hamer at a black motel — a personal request of the state Democratic committee.
“I call her one of the great people in our movement,” she said of Hamer, whom she befriended while volunteering in Mississippi in 1963. “Mississippi was a horrible state to be in if you were black. Horrible.”
The party credentials committee refused to seat Hamer’s delegation or to even take a vote on it. They offered Hamer a “compromise” — the Freedom Democratic Party would be “welcomed as honored guests of the convention,” two of them would be given status as “delegates-at-large,” and a special committee would be set up to discuss how to make things better for black delegates by 1968.
Charles Sherrod, a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, wrote of a dramatic meeting at the Union Temple Baptist Church 50 years ago this morning.
“You could cut through the tension,” he wrote. “People were touchy and on edge. ... Now, one of the most important decisions of the convention had to be made.”
Speeches were made by civil rights activists the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, James Farmer Jr., Ella Baker and Bob Moses — some for the compromise, some against and some staying neutral.
As Freeman described Hamer’s ultimate response: “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats.”
“Fannie Lou had the opportunity to go up to the Boardwalk and sit down with the (committee),” Hunter said. “Of course, she was put in the position where she had to leave. They wouldn’t permit her to be seated. She got up to leave, and there was a major demonstration on the Boardwalk by the NAACP and a lot of black organizations from the East Coast. She gave a famous quote, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’
“It’s just amazing how many people came in support of the party and Fannie Lou’s organization. There was an amazing camaraderie up and down the Boardwalk, with an African-American woman standing up in support of her beliefs,” Hunter added.
Today, Hamer is an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, with quotations from the dramatic convention week carved in stone at the Civil Rights Garden on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America,” Hamer said. “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 are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”
Things began to change, slowly. At the 1968 Democratic Convention, members of the Democratic Freedom Party were finally seated as delegates — and Hamer herself was elected as a national party delegate in 1972. She died in 1977.
“The white power structure of the South saw up close and personal what the future was like — and it didn’t like it,” Johnson said. “Race became a defining issue, and the solid Democratic South became a solid Republican South. And it started right here, in Atlantic City.”
Savage-Jennings was inspired to work for change in New Jersey, advocating for more African-American candidates for the state Legislature.
“What she did sparked things to happen in other places,” Savage-Jennings said. “I don’t think we’re there yet. But we’ve made strides.”
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