Skip to main content

Democratic Debacle

May 2024
21min read

The Republican party ensured a landslide defeat when it nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, but the Democrats did far more lasting damage to themselves at their convention that year. In fact, they still haven’t recovered.

When several busloads of black Mississippians showed up in Atlantic City, they were there to drop a political bombshell.

Earlier this year Sen. John Kerry caused a stir by saying that the Democratic party “always makes the mistake of looking South.... Al Gore proved he could have been President of the United States without winning one Southern state, including his own.”

Kerry was lamenting the party’s perennial efforts to woo back the Southern states that once reliably stood in the Democratic column. For 70 years Republicans were effectively shut out of the “solid South,” a result of their having been the party of Lincoln, abolition, and Reconstruction. But over time, as the Democratic party emerged as a champion of black civil rights and then embraced the rights revolutions of other groups—women, gays, lesbians—white Southern voters shifted their support to the GOP.

Jimmy Carter gained the Presidency in 1976, but no other Democratic presidential candidate has won more than four Southern states; in 1972, 1984, 1988, and 2000 the Democrats lost the entire South. At the heart of this defection was not just a white backlash against civil rights but a sense that the party had embraced the social excesses of the late 1960s.

Many writers trace this rift to the disaster of 1968, when at its convention in Chicago the Democratic party simply imploded. That famously explosive week saw party regulars and antiwar insurgents trade vicious barbs while Mayor Richard Daley’s riot police—12,000 strong, augmented by 11,000 federal and National Guard troops—fought in the streets with upward of 10,000 protesters. The Democratic party entered the 1968 fall campaign badly divided and dispirited, and when Hubert Humphrey lost the November election to Richard Nixon, it was the start of a long decline. Since 1968 Democrats have lost six out of nine presidential elections.

Yet the woes of the Democratic party didn’t originate in Chicago, or even in 1968. They can be traced back to another convention, in another city, in another year. Forty years ago this summer, the Democratic party met in Atlantic City to nominate the incumbent President, Lyndon Johnson, for another term. Nobody knew it then, but that 1964 Democratic National Convention would be a turning point for the party. It was Atlantic City that sowed the seeds of the internecine wars that tore apart the Democratic coalition four years later in Chicago and that have left it wounded ever since.

By 1964, when thousands of delegates converged on the Jersey shore for the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City was but a dim reminder of the thriving resort town it had recently been. Commercial jet travel and air conditioning had made distant locations like California, Florida, and the Caribbean more attractive to vacationers. With its vast, decaying hotels facing the ocean across the famous but decreasingly populated Boardwalk, it was an odd site for a political coronation.

Still stunned by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the previous November, the Democrats had gathered to nominate his successor for the fall elections. Most people expected the week to be a highly orchestrated affair. To be sure, there was speculation about whom Johnson would tap as his running mate, but few observers anticipated any surprises. Yet some people knew more than others.

On Friday, August 21, just days before the convention’s opening gavel, several busloads of black Mississippians arrived at the shabby, beaten-down Gem Hotel, a mile from Convention Hall. A reporter watching them assemble for a prayer session saw “a hymn-singing group of dedicated men and women, who feel as though they had temporarily escaped from a Mississippi prison and who think they may be jailed when they get back.” They were sharecroppers, small businessmen, maids, and schoolteachers. Among them were a few whites, including the Reverend Ed King, the chaplain of Tougaloo College, a small black institution just north of Jackson. The Mississippians slept four to a room and dined frugally. They were “all dressed up in their Sunday-go-to-meeting best,” recalled the veteran civil rights activist James Foreman.

These men and women were representatives of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party (MFDP), and they were there to drop a political bombshell. On Saturday they would appear before the convention’s Credentials Committee and ask to be seated as the official Mississippi state delegation.

The idea was simple enough. For more than three years several civil rights groups, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), had worked together under the umbrella of the Council of Federated Organizations to coordinate voter-registration drives in Mississippi. Even in the American South, where only 40 percent of eligible black citizens were registered to vote, the Magnolia State was exceptional. Of its several hundred thousand black, voting-age residents, only 6.4 percent had managed to wade through the thicket of literacy and citizenship tests, poll taxes, and violence to register.

As one civil rights worker noted, for the state’s largely poor, uneducated black population, the fear of even trying to register was “a highly rational emotion, the economic fear of losing your job, the physical fear of being shot at. Domestic servants know that they will be fired if they register to vote; so will factory workers, so will Negroes who live on plantations.”

The volunteers had struggled fruitlessly. The Kennedy administration, fearful of antagonizing Southern Democrats and believing a state should administer its own affairs, consistently refused to help. In the face of violence and coercion, the civil rights workers scarcely made a dent in Mississippi’s Jim Crow political system.

In 1963 the Council of Federated Organizations adopted a new tactic and sponsored a “Freedom Vote,” an independent mock election intended to show national politicians that Mississippi’s black residents would vote if given the chance. At the center of the effort stood a 29-year-old math teacher from New York named Bob Moses.

Inspired by the wave of lunch-counter sit-ins that had engulfed the South in early 1960—a spontaneous movement involving 70,000 students—Moses had traveled to Atlanta to serve as a volunteer in SNCC’s start-up office. At the suggestion of Jane Stembridge, a white SNCC volunteer, he had then gone on to Mississippi to establish contacts with black leaders there. He met with Aaron Henry, a Clarksdale pharmacist who was the statewide NAACP leader, and Amzie Moore, a postal worker and businessman from the town of Cleveland. Moses and Moore became fast friends, and Moore convinced him that the pressing work in Mississippi was not desegregation but voter registration. Few blacks in the Mississippi Delta could afford the price of a restaurant meal; before they could be an economic and social force, they’d need to become a political one.

Moses took the advice to heart. In the summer of 1961, working virtually alone, he started a voter registration drive in McComb, a small city near the Louisiana border. The work was dangerous, lonely, and hard. Sleeping in the homes of local activists, he spent his days walking from house to house, trying to convince local sharecroppers and service workers that it was both their right and their obligation to take the voting test. He was beaten by local police and harassed by white citizens; some of the people who took him in lost their jobs and even their lives. Though he didn’t make much progress in the way of voter registration, he was becoming a SNCC legend.

John Lewis, SNCC’s national chairman that year and now a member of the House of Representatives from Georgia, recalled that civil rights workers saw Moses as a “Jesus figure, all-knowing and all-holy. That made him so uncomfortable he felt like climbing out of his own skin.” Slim, soft-spoken, and bespectacled, typically clad in a T-shirt and denim overalls, Moses preached his gospel on the most humble level. He wanted to help local people build local political structures. He avoided the press while insisting that black Mississippians had to take charge of their own liberation movement. As Lewis remembered, Bob Moses “always remained a true intellectual. ... He had a near-religious attitude toward autonomy and self-direction.”

Freedom Summer had been fractious yet glorious.

The Freedom Vote project required lots of fieldworkers, and to recruit them, Moses turned to Allard Lowenstein, a liberal political activist, who helped iron out the logistical details of the approaching mock election. Lowenstein recruited some 70 white volunteers from Yale, where he had graduated from law school, and Stanford, where he had been a dean. They converged on Mississippi two weeks before the November election.

Ultimately, 80,000 black citizens turned in mock ballots electing the state NAACP chief Aaron Henry governor and Rev. Ed King lieutenant governor of Mississippi. The election was of course nonbinding, but the message was clear: If given a fair opportunity, black citizens would participate in the political process.

Building on the success of the Freedom Vote, its organizers laid plans for two bold projects. First, they would brine even more white students to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to register voters. Placing the sons and daughters of affluent middle-class whites from New York, Boston, and elsewhere in the line of fire would surely draw media attention to the violent injustice of Mississippi political culture, as well as provide sorely needed manpower.

Second, they would sponsor another mock election, this time to select delegates for the 1964 Democratic National Convention. To that end the Council of Federated Organizations created a new political entity, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party, and invited every black and white citizen of voting age to participate in local, county, and statewide caucuses to choose delegates who would go to Atlantic City. The MFDP followed Mississippi election law to the letter, acting as though it were, in effect, the state Democratic party. Since most black citizens were artificially disenfranchised, and since the MFDP opened its delegate caucuses to people of all races, the new organization would argue that it, not the regular state party, held rightful claim to Mississippi’s slate of convention delegates.

Freedom Summer, as the experiment came to be called, was at once fractious and glorious. Roughly a thousand white undergraduates, law students, clerics, and medics converged on Mississippi, where they bonded and clashed with movement veterans and confronted a world they’d scarcely known existed. Summer volunteers bunked with black sharecroppers and local activists, who opened their homes to movement workers; they helped staff “freedom schools,” where some 2,500 children learned about black history and African culture; and they suffered beatings, intimidation, and jail.

Above all, the experiment in interracial cooperation drew enormous media attention. On Monday, June 22, just weeks into the project, Americans learned of the disappearance of three voter-registration workers—James Chaney, a 21-year-old black native of Meridian; Michael Schwerner, a young, Jewish New Yorker; and Andrew Goodman, a summer volunteer from Queens College, in New York City. The three had gone on a fact-finding mission to the rubble of the Mount Zion Church, just outside the small town of Philadelphia in central Mississippi. The Mount Zion congregation had agreed to house one of the state’s first freedom schools, and in response local whites had burned the church to the ground.

FBI agents later determined that Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman made it to Mount Zion safely but were arrested by Neshoba County’s deputy sheriff Cecil Price on their return journey, held in jail for several hours, released, stopped outside town, again by Cecil Price, and turned over to members of the Ku Klux Klan. Weeks later, after a massive and well-publicized manhunt, their bodies were found beneath an earthen dam. Both Goodman and Schwerner had been shot once; Chancy had been shot several times and mutilated.

In total that summer, Mississippi Klansmen were responsible for at least 35 shooting incidents and 6 murders, the burnings of 65 homes and churches, and the beatings of at least 80 volunteers. By August, in the wake of this orgy of violence, the mock-election organizers and MFDP delegates were of little mind to walk away with anything short of a total victory in Atlantic City. At James Chaney’s funeral, on August 7, David Dennis, CORE’s state field secretary, delivered an angry, impassioned eulogy that concluded, “If you go back home and take what these white men in Mississippi are doing to us ... if you take it and don’t do something about it... then God damn your souls!”

Johnson had chosen Humphrey, but at a steep price.

For Hubert Humphrey, much about the Atlantic City convention was sadly ironic. At 53 he was just starting to show his age. The full shock of black hair that had once swept back from his high forehead was now receding, but his quick smile and the glow in his eyes revealed the same youthful passion he had possessed in 1948 when, as the Wunderkind mayor of Minneapolis, he had thrown the Democratic National Convention—then meeting in Philadelphia—into turmoil.

A founding member of the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action, Humphrey was locked in a tight race for the U.S. Senate in 1948. Nonetheless, his zeal for the cause of racial justice and his powerful ambition—he wanted to be the leader of the national party’s liberal wing —led him to contest the Truman administration’s lukewarm platform plank on civil rights. His own substitute plank called for a ban on the poll tax, a federal antilynching law, the establishment of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, and the integration of the armed forces.

Southern Democrats were already furious with Truman for his seeming apostasy on race issues, and many Northern delegates feared that Truman’s plank could drive the solid South out of the Democratic party. Still, Humphrey won the support of several Northern leaders, who got behind him not only out of conviction but also with the knowledge that their cities were attracting large numbers of blacks from the South and that the future wasn’t with Jim Crow.

Introducing the plank at the convention, Humphrey called out, “I say this, that the time has arrived in America for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.... this is the issue of the twentieth century.” The convention approved Humphrey’s plank by a vote of 651½ to 582½, and that fall, despite the retaliatory defection of Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats, Harry Truman won an upset victory against his Republican opponent, while Minnesotans sent Hubert Humphrey to the U.S. Senate.

But there was a price to pay for fame, as Humphrey soon learned. The U.S. Senate is a conservative institution by nature, and upon his arrival in Washington, he found himself a virtual pariah. Southern members who held tight control over the machinery of the Senate refused even to acknowledge his presence; many Northern Democrats avoided him for fear of losing their standing with long-entrenched committee chairmen.

Humphrey didn’t help matters much himself. Early in his first term in office he brazenly walked into the Senate Dining Room with a black legislative aide and sat down to lunch. When the black headwaiter quietly informed him that African-Americans were not served in the dining room, Humphrey stood his ground and integrated the United States Senate’s restaurant. One day soon after that, as a group of Southern senators slid their way past him and into the Senate chamber, Richard Russell of Georgia asked audibly, “Can you imagine the people of Minnesota sending that damn fool down here to represent them?” As he drove home along Rock Creek Parkway that evening, Humphrey broke into tears. The Senate could be a lonely place for a man of conscience.

Then he found Lyndon Johnson and with him forged an unlikely political friendship. Johnson was everything that Humphrey wasn’t: a born wheeler-dealer, an artist at compromise, a master at acquiring power. But the Texas senator harbored presidential ambitions and knew that as a Southerner he could never aspire to the Democratic nomination without forging ties to the Northern wing of the party—particularly to its liberal minority, the spiritual heirs of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Humphrey, on the other hand, needed schooling in the ways of political persuasion and access to the byways of power in the Senate. Johnson helped his Minnesota colleague smooth over relationships with Southerners like Russell, and, as Senate majority leader he called on Humphrey to act as his go-between with the party’s growing liberal faction.

With Johnson’s help, by the eve of the 1964 Democratic National Convention Hubert Humphrey had transformed himself from an eloquent but marginal rebel into a highly effective liberal pragmatist. As Democratic whip he worked around the clock and with considerable mastery to shepherd LBJ’s sweeping new civil rights bill through the Senate.

As President, Johnson, the former Texas senator who had brokered compromises on two major civil rights acts in 1957 and 1960, was now pressing hard for legislation that would ban segregation in all places of public accommodation—from parks and swimming pools to hotels and restaurants—and outlaw racial discrimination in private- and public-sector employment. Johnson spent hours on the phone, cajoling House and Senate members, alternatively threatening and sweettalking recalcitrant Democrats, and reminding Republicans that “you’re either the party of Lincoln or you ain’t.” He far surpassed John Kennedy in the intensity of his efforts and the sincerity and strength of his civil rights rhetoric. Finally free from the parochial interests of regional and Senate politics, Johnson became a passionate supporter of the black freedom struggle.

The unschooled, eloquent Hamer told the committee, “If the Freedom party is not seated now, I question America.”

Throughout the spring and early summer of 1964, Johnson and Humphrey spent hours each week on the phone with each other or huddled in meetings at the White House, where they devised strategies to break the Southern filibuster against LBJ’s civil rights bill. Humphrey assembled a clever floor schedule to make the filibuster more physically taxing on the Senate’s aging Southern members; he courted and won the support of the Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen; he devised compromise language that satisfied key Midwestern Republicans without substantially undermining the bill. When on July 2 Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, thereby closing one of the darkest chapters in American history, the victory was as much Humphrey’s as the President’s.

Coming off this long and hard-fought political battle, both men felt confident of their credentials on civil rights. As they headed to the convention, the smart money had it that Johnson would choose Humphrey as his running mate, and Humphrey wanted the job badly.

Shortly after he signed the Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson told his aide Joseph Califano, “I think we’ve delivered the South to the Republican party for your lifetime and mine.” Maybe so, but he was determined to hold onto the region long enough to ensure his own re-election; the opinion polls might show him leading the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, by an enormous margin, but he was desperate not to stoke the fires of sectional conflict. Only one thing stood in the way of party harmony: the Mississippi Freedom Democrats.

If the national convention agreed to seat the MFDP instead of the Mississippi regulars—and this wasn’t entirely unimaginable after the chair of the delegation, Lt. Gov. Paul Johnson, infuriated many Northern Democrats by saying that NAACP stood for “niggers, alligators, apes, coons and possums"—all hell would break loose among the other Southern state delegations.

What precise words Johnson and Humphrey exchanged in late August may never be known, but by the time the MFDP began presenting its case to the Credentials Committee on Saturday, August 22, it was clear that Johnson had dangled the Vice Presidency before his friend from Minnesota. However, the prize carried a steep price. Humphrey would have to cash in on his liberal credentials to stop the convention from seating the MFDP. “I always had the feeling, and it was implicit,” one of Humphrey’s advisers later explained, “that if Humphrey messed this up, Johnson was not going to make him the running mate. It was a kind of test for him. If he couldn’t do it, so much for Humphrey.”

The MFDP didn’t make Humphrey’s task easy. From the moment the Mississippi activists disembarked in Atlantic City, they began buttonholing members of Northern delegations, recounting the violence and coercion they met with when trying to vote. They brought props, including a replica of Mickey Schwerner’s burnt-out station wagon. They put picketers on the Boardwalk outside Convention Hall with enormous banners bearing likenesses of the three slain civil rights workers.

The MFDP’s lawyer, Joe Rauh, was a veteran labor attorney and a close adviser to both Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers (UAW). Rauh had been a bitter enemy of Lyndon Johnson throughout the 1950s but had recently closed ranks with the President and headed up the White House effort to push the Civil Rights Act through the House of Representatives. Now he found himself once again challenging Johnson on a matter of liberal conviction.

His strategy was simple. He expected a majority of the convention’s Credentials Committee to oppose seating the MFDP, but he needed only 10 percent of its members—11 delegates—to force the drafting of a minority report, and then he needed just 8 state delegations to request a formal conventionwide roll-call vote on the minority report. If he could carry the MFDP that far, the convention debate could turn into a free-for-all, much as it had in 1948.

By another twist of fate, the Credentials Committee was chaired by the former Pennsylvania governor David Lawrence, a party boss who had swung his support behind Hubert Humphrey’s strong civil rights plank at the 1948 convention. Now working to smooth the way for Johnson’s re-election, Lawrence tried to schedule the Saturday hearings at a conference room that was too small to accommodate spectators or television reporters. Rauh managed to defeat this maneuver, and in front of a national television audience he had a string of witnesses testify about the brutality of Jim Crow. Rita Schwerner, Mickey Schwerner’s young widow, spoke, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., who told the committee that “if you value your party, if you value your nation, if you value the democratic process, then you must recognize the Freedom party delegation.”

By far the most stirring testimony was that of Fannie Lou Hamer, a 46-year-old ex-sharecropper who was said to be SNCC’s oldest but most dedicated field organizer. The youngest of 20 children, Hamer had spent all but two years of her life in Sunflower County, Mississippi, the home of the segregationist senator James Eastland. In 1962, when Hamer attempted to register to vote, the landowner she worked for had demanded that she withdraw her application. “I didn’t go down there to register for you,” she told him. “I went down there to register for myself. ” He kicked her off his plantation, and she went on to become an outspoken, energetic SNCC organizer, enduring prison time and police beatings alongside her younger co-workers.

In a voice that was unschooled yet full of eloquent resilience, wearing new city clothes over her short, stout frame, and bearing an expression of both sadness and hope, Hamer told the Credentials Committee that “if the Freedom party is not seated now, I question America. 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 be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

Watching the coverage from the Oval Office, Lyndon Johnson realized how potentially dangerous Hamer’s testimony was. He immediately called a press conference, forcing television coverage away from the credentials hearing. But to no avail. That evening the networks rebroadcast her testimony before a primetime audience. The next day newspapers ran photographs of Fannie Lou Hamer arm in arm with the family of Michael Schwerner in vigil on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Telegrams flooded in from across the country, urging that the MFDP be seated. By Sunday, Joe Rauh could count 17 committee members in favor of issuing a pro-MFDP minority report.

Around this time the President’s men began to line up their supporters. Most likely at the behest of the White House, Chairman Lawrence of the Credentials Committee postponed a vote on the Mississippi question—a vote the MFDP might well have won—and delegated the matter to a special subcommittee, chaired by Minnesota’s young state attorney general, Walter F. Mondale. Mondale, a protégé of Humphrey, understood that his fortunes rode on a successful compromise. If Humphrey became Vice President, Mondale would likely be appointed to fill his unexpired Senate term. Mondale stalled for time, adjourning his subcommittee until Monday. And the White House turned up the heat.

Johnson’s close aide Walter Jenkins asked Cartha D. “Deke” DeLoach, assistant to the director of the FBI, to set up covert surveillance of the MFDP and Martin Luther King, Jr. For several days the FBI used wiretaps and bugs to record and relay reports of the MFDP’s strategy sessions to the President’s advisers. At the same time, agents posing as NBC reporters (and working with the network’s explicit approval) tricked MFDP strategists into revealing “off-the-record” information that ultimately proved useful to Johnson’s surrogates.

Leaving nothing to chance, Johnson called Walter Reuther in Detroit, where the UAW leader was locked in tense, highstakes contract negotiations with General Motors. Johnson persuaded him to fly immediately to Atlantic City.

Reuther had already been asked by Johnson to put pressure on Rauh and the MFDP in the weeks before the convention. Reuther had reached his friend Rauh by telephone. It was, Rauh later recalled, “the most hysterical” phone call he received that week. “Walter said, ’I’ve been talking to the President and we have agreed that if you go through with this, we’re going to lose the election.’ I said, ‘Are you serious? Goldwater has been nominated! How can you lose it!’ He said, ‘We both think the backlash is so tremendous that either we’re going to lose the Negro vote if you go through with this and don’t win, or if you do win, the picture of your black delegation going on the floor to replace the white one is going to add to the backlash. We really think that Goldwater’s going to be President.'”

The party is still struggling, all these years later, to wrestle down the demons it unleashed at its convention in 1964.

On Monday afternoon, while Mondale’s subcommittee scrambled for a solution, Hubert Humphrey called together MFDP leaders, the leaders of the Credentials Committee, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bob Moses. At first, Fannie Lou Hamer was thrilled by the invitation. With “all that we had been hearing about... Humphrey and his stand for civil rights,” she later remembered, “I was delighted even to have a chance to talk with the man.” But Humphrey was looking to his own electoral fortunes, and instead of hearing out the civil rights activists, he made a plea for his political survival. In the absence of a compromise, he explained, his vice-presidential candidacy would be finished. Hamer was crushed. “Well, Mr. Humphrey, do you mean to tell me that your position is more important to you than four hundred thousand black people’s lives?” She walked out of the meeting in tears, leaving the Minnesota senator all the more torn between his convictions and his ambitions.

The early-morning hours of Tuesday proved a turning point in the negotiations. Arriving in Atlantic City at 3:00 A.M. , Walter Reuther hurried into a meeting with Humphrey, Lawrence, and Mondale.

As a young student in Detroit, Reuther had taken part in protests against segregated swimming pools and public facilities. He was a long-standing friend of the black freedom struggle, and at his urging the UAW and AFL-CIO had provided substantial funding to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But he was not about to break with Lyndon Johnson. Unbeknownst to the MFDP and its lawyer, he helped forge a deal that heavily favored the Mississippi regulars. According to the terms of this arrangement, the MFDP would be accorded special guest status, along with two at-large, nonvoting delegates (Aaron Henry and Ed King). The Freedom party would also receive a pledge that subsequent national conventions would apply a strict nondiscrimination standard in accrediting delegate slates. Finally, the Mississippi regulars would have to pledge allegiance to the Democratic ticket before taking their seats at the convention.

By the time Rauh learned of the plan the following day, the White House had already applied massive political pressure against the MFDP’s supporters. Johnson’s representatives used patronage appointments and hometown projects as both carrot and stick, promising presidential favors for those who backed the White House and none for those who didn’t. By Tuesday afternoon, when Reuther met with Joe Rauh, the compromise was a fait accompli . “The convention has decided,” Reuther told him. “This is a tremendous victory. I want you to go in there and accept it.”

The MFDP refused the settlement, whereupon Reuther threatened to terminate Rauh’s contract as the UAWs Washington, D.C., counsel. Rauh stood firm but by Tuesday night he no longer had the 11 votes he needed on the Credentials Committee anyway; neither did he have 8 state delegations to lean on in the full convention.

At a series of emotional meetings, the MFDP debated and rejected the Atlantic City compromise. “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats,” Fannie Lou Hamer told the packed Freedom-party caucus. A few hours later Lyndon Johnson said Hubert Humphrey would be his running mate. They swept to victory in November. But on election day the Johnson-Humphrey ticket lost Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi. The Mississippi regulars had backed Barry Goldwater.

For many people,” one SNCC activist said afterward, “Atlantic i— City was the end of innocence.” Bob Moses concurred: “Up until then the idea had been that you were working more or less within the Democratic party. We were working with them on voting, other things like that. With Atlantic City, a lot of movement people became disillusioned.... You turned around and your support was puddle-deep.”

Cleveland Sellers, a member of SNCC, put the matter in even sharper relief: “Never again were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the ‘good’ people of America could eliminate them.... After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation.”

The young men and women who put their bodies on the line in Mississippi were the most courageous, talented, and prescient political organizers of their generation. They left the 1964 Democratic National Convention no longer interested in working with the white liberal establishment. Many of them came to see it as their enemy.

To Stokely Carmichael, the fiery SNCC activist from Howard University, the lesson of the Mississippi Freedom Summer was “not merely that the national conscience was generally unreliable but that, very specifically, black people in Mississippi and throughout this country could not rely on their so-called allies.” The answer, for him, was to look inward—to reject integration as a solution for what was ailing black communities and to demand, not ask for, an equal share of national resources and power.

Within two years of the Atlantic City convention, Carmichael coined the term black power and replaced the more moderate John Lewis as SNCC’s national chairman. White members of SNCC were expelled, and the group steered itself toward an increasingly radical and separatist agenda. Even Bob Moses repudiated interracial cooperation, for a time. The late 1960s found him living in Africa, swearing off any future relationships with white people. By the close of the decade, SNCC had merged with the Black Panther party to represent the extreme of the Black Power movement.

White veterans of SNCC and Freedom Summer also returned to their college campuses and hometowns angry and disaffected. With names like Mario Savio, Tom Hayden, and Casey Hayden, they became the driving force behind the radical group Students for a Democratic Society. Turning their sights on every locus of adult authority—university administrators, Democratic-party officeholders, labor unions, the corporate establishment—they sparked a fury of protest that stretched from Berkeley to Morningside Heights, and from the steps of the Pentagon to Kent State. They occupied campus buildings, staged antiwar protests in cities across the country, and went into the streets of Chicago in the summer of 1968. To be sure, the New Left never represented more than a fraction of the sixties generation, but within its ranks were some of the most articulate and dedicated leaders of their day, and they visited a world of pain on Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic party.

Even if the MFDP delegates has been seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the student coalition might still have fractured and moved sharply to the left. The civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam were bound to create enormous strains. But the liberal leaders of the Democratic party hardly helped matters. They left the Mississippi activists with nowhere else to go. Many of the young men and women who attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention determined to work for the party and within the political process came back four years later to burn down the house that Franklin Roosevelt had built. They didn’t succeed, but they came awfully close.

White Southerners, on the other hand, bolted the Democratic party after the 1964 convention, and they’ve hardly looked back since. And though the Democratic party ultimately wooed back the dissidents of 1968, it did so at a steep price. By embracing such controversial ideas as environmentalism, reproductive rights, gay rights, opposition to the Vietnam War, and gun control, the Democrats opened themselves to criticism that their party was aggressively secular and culturally extreme—a charge that still bedevils them.

Some political commentators believe that as the South continues to attract service-sector and information-technology jobs, and as its metropolitan areas swell with university graduates and whitecollar professionals, Democrats will have a new opening in Dixie. Others argue that it’s not the South that needs to change, but the Democrats, that until the party talks less about rights and more about values, it is doomed to keep losing these states. At the same time that Democrats are eager to take back the Presidency, this debate still divides them.

Right or wrong, John Kerry’s lament says much about a party that is still struggling, all these years later, to wrestle down the demons it unleashed in 1964. That year the party stood at a moral crossroads and declined to make a choice. The nation has come a very long way in the 40 years since then. The results of the election in November may show just how far the Democratic party itself has come in the same time.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.