In August of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson came to Atlantic City, hoping for a coronation. He was going to be the Democratic nominee for President. That had been decided. The business of the convention was to ratify his nomination, creating a unified party for the fall election. But an integrated group from Mississippi, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party showed up, claiming that they should be seated as the official delegrates from their state, on the grounds that the official delegation had been chosen through a process from which black voters had been excluded. Which, of course, was entirely true.
For the cameras, for TV, convention plans were running smoothly. Backstage, chaos and pandemonium reigned. Party liberals insisted that, at the very least, the Mississippi delegation should include both groups of delegates. Southern Democrats from other states insisted that if any integrated delegation was seated, they would leave. One fall-out from this moment–Lyndon Johnson of Texas, a Democrat, would not appear on the ballots of the five states of the deepest South. Another fall-out–the South is today a Republican strong-hold. Two previously important political entities–liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats–would cease to exist.
Anyway compromise was reached, in which the official Mississippi delegates would be seated, and two of the MFDP delegates would allowed in, as ‘at large’ delegates. Even this paltry accommodation infuriated delegations from other Southern states, who began to walk out. Civil rights advocates were equally angry, feeling that they had done everything according to the law, and were nonetheless being denied full citizenship. Ultimately, the MFDP turned down the deal, and went home.
One of the delegates was Fanny Lou Hamer. A poor sharecropper’s wife, as impoverished as it was possible for Mississippi blacks to be, she had sacrificed her home, her family’s livelihood, all for the chance to vote. Before the Credentials committee, she offered her testimony.
We wish that the vision of America, the vision so superbly articulated in the Declaration of Independence, a vision of ‘self-evident truths,’ including absolute equality before God and in the eyes of the law, we wish that vision and the triumph of that vision animated more of our history. We wish the man who wrote it down hadn’t been a slave-owner. He wished so too–Jefferson knew chattel slavery to be an abomination, and yet, as brilliant as he was, he also had a life he loved, a life of books and science and architecture, and that life-style required money, which he thought he could only earn one way, a wrong way, a detestable way. Jefferson knew it was evil, Madison knew it, Washington knew it, all the slave-owning founders knew it. George Washington–he had no children, but one man he revered as much as he would a son; Lafayette, the French aristocrat who became his aide-de-camp and his dearest correspondent. Lafayette urged him to free his slaves, to pioneer farming without slaves. Lafayette spent his fortune buying a plantation in French Guyana, freeing the slaves, showing how a profit could still be possible. The French revolution ended that experiment.
And so it continued, this abomination, this cancer on the body politic. It took a war–the worst of our history– to end it; it took another five generations to bring about something resembling equality in our nation.
I wish that wasn’t true. I wish our country had managed to find its way to its best self without violence and without hatred. But ‘there must needs be opposition in all things,’ says the scripture. And through great opposition came the first few faltering steps towards the possibility of national greatness. Those steps include the sacrifice of Fanny Lou Hamer: a woman, in her own words, sick and tired of being sick and tired. And the sacrifices of many many others.
Hear that voice. Hear all the voices, ringing in freedom. This July Fourth, yes, let’s barbecue, and watch fireworks, and go to a baseball game, pursue happiness. But also think, reflect, on words written by a flawed and brilliant man, words about all men, and all women, created by God, equal. The fight is well-joined, but it is far from over. Let’s vow, as a nation, to continue the struggle, until we are, all of us: Free at last!