From Fannie Lou Hamer to Barack Obama

From Fannie Lou Hamer to Barack Obama

Democrats have come a long way from the first Denver convention a century ago.


The Nation, Rocky Mountain PBS and the Denver Public Library hosts “From Fannie Lou Hamer to Barack Obama, How the Civil Rights Movement Changed American Politics,” a conversation and celebration featuring John Conyers in discussion with John Nichols, on Sunday, August 24, at the Denver Convention Center.

When Democrats delegates convened in Denver one hundred years ago, African-Americans urged presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan to challenge the Republican “party of Lincoln” claim on their votes with a platform that would, at the very least, condemn lynching. When Bryan, who feared losing southern votes, declined, the Colorado Statesman newspaper observed that it was “useless” to expect that the Democratic party “to profess a sincere and wholesome regard for the welfare of the Negro citizen.”

Forty more years would pass before a party convention, encouraged by the young Hubert Humphrey, would endorse a platform written to move Democrats “out of the shadow of states’ rights” and “into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Even then, Fannie Lou Hamer‘s Mississippi Freedom Democrats struggled for delegate seats at the party’s 1964 convention.

The Voting Rights Act and the rise of black militancy brought 337 African-American delegates and alternates to the 1968 convention with a young leader who determined finally to make their voice heard. Michigan Congressman John Conyers co-chaired the party’s first “black caucus” and took the convention podium on behalf of the first African-American Democrat placed in nomination for the presidency, Channing Phillips. “We’re trying to act in a constructive sense to build a party that will last, a party that will be relevant to a nation made up of many minorities,” Conyers said on August 28, 1968.

Rejecting repeated requests to mount a presidential bid of his own–he chose to accumulate the seniority that earned him the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee–the Congressman kept fighting to integrate civil rights and social and economic justice movements into the mainstream of the Democratic party: working to guarantee serious treatment of Shirley Chisholm‘s 1972 run for the presidency and for the 1984 and 1988 campaigns of the Rev. Jesse Jackson that Conyers urged on as necessary moves to broaden and revitalize a Democratic Party that he saw becoming “stale and lifeless.”

Similarly energized by Barack Obama’s candidacy, Conyers organized the campaign for “uncommitted” votes in the Michigan primary–giving the Senator critical leverage in rules fights to secure a portion of the state’s delegates and the nomination. “The excitement Obama has generated is tapping into a strong desire for change in America. And that change is happening in the Democratic Party,” argues Conyers, who arrives in Denver not just to cast a delegate vote for the Democrat’s first African-American nominee but to continue forging a party that is relevant to a nation made up of many minorities.

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