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1964’s Forgotten Victory

June 2024
1min read

Joshua Zeitz makes a persuasive case (“Democratic Debacle,” June/July 2004) that LBJ’s refusal to accede to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party’s demand for voting seats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention caused many previously “nonviolent” activists to align themselves with the more militant elements of the civil rights and antiwar movements. However, Zeitz neglects to mention a second important consequence of LBJ’s failure to placate the MFDP in 1964.

Most of the provisions of the “compromise” proposal crafted by Walter Reuther with LBJ’s encouragement were, as Zeitz suggests, designed to gull the MFDP delegates into accepting an ersatz victory that would do nothing to advance their campaign to ensure the voting rights of Southern blacks. But the proposal’s pledge “that subsequent national conventions would apply a strict nondiscrimination standard in accrediting delegate slates” was significant. The Democratic party had, prior to 1964, allowed each state party to establish its own rules for selecting its delegates to presidential nominating conventions. Reuther’s indication that the national party was prepared to limit the state parties’ discretion in delegate selection was the first crack in the exclusionary dam the state parties had erected to check the flow of blacks, women, young people, and members of various ethnic groups into the party.

The dam broke at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, when the protests and disorder engineered by many of the veterans of the 1964 MFDP struggle damaged so severely the party’s presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, that the party regulars convened a special Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection to respond to the insurgents’ demands. The “McGovern-Fraser Commission,” as it was more commonly known, instituted a series of changes to the delegate selection process that continue to form the foundation of today’s “plebiscitary” presidential nominating system.

The Democratic party might have eventually moved to a more open and inclusive nominating process even if LBJ and Reuther had not made their tendentious compromise proposal to the MFDP. But it is unlikely that the changes would have been as rapid, as profound, and as welcome to those who in 1964 brought the fight for voting rights to the Democratic party.

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