There was a Republican primary vote in Mississippi this week, and it appears that establishment conservative Thad Cochran survived a tough runoff against his Tea Party opponent by reaching out to African-American voters.
It’s an ironic outcome, given the GOP’s near-total dependence on white Southerners for its base vote. But maybe the vote will inspire Senator Cochran to honor the history of the voting rights struggle by joining with Representative Keith Ellison and Representative Mark Pocan to sponsor their constitutional amendment to explicitly give Americans the right to vote.
Because there’s a deeper history of voting rights in Mississippi that we should not forget—and Cochran should know it, because he was in law school at Ole Miss when the killers struck. Fifty years ago this week, three young civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, disappeared into the history books, murdered for daring to try to register African-Americans to vote.
I drove their road once, just five years ago—in the daytime. I tried to imagine the fear in their car that June night. I cannot imagine the courage it took for the three of them to voluntarily choose that Mississippi “freedom road” back in 1964.
The killings of James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman galvanized the civil rights movement that summer, and helped cement the final passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, 1964. Freedom Summer also focused the nation’s attention on the lack of African-American voting rights in Mississippi and across the South. Along with the Selma march, Freedom Summer helped ignite support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law almost exactly a year after the bodies of the three murdered Freedom Summer organizers were found.
A half century ago, Freedom Summer also inspired the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to form an integrated slate to challenge the seating of the all-white state delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in late August of 1964, on the grounds that African-Americans were not allowed to participate in the primary. Despite widespread support among convention delegates, the MFDP delegation was not seated, because of President Lyndon Johnson’s fear that much of the Deep South would flip from Democratic to Republican in that fall’s election against Barry Goldwater (five states in the former Confederacy did exactly that, even with LBJ’s maneuverings!).
Instead, Johnson delegated Hubert Humphrey to try to work out a compromise, which amounted to an offer to the MFDP to seat two of its delegates. The civil rights workers rejected the offer. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer: “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired.”
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party viewed the attempted compromise, and the failure to seat the full, integrated delegation, as a setback for justice. As Congressman John Lewis, then a leader of SNCC, wrote: “We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep and found the door slammed in our face.”