Lyndon Johnson Learns Fate of Missing Civil Rights Workers

Lyndon Johnson Learns Fate of Missing Civil Rights Workers

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On August 4, 1964, in a recorded phone call, FBI Deputy Director Cartha “Deke” DeLoach informs President Lyndon B. Johnson that the bodies of the three civil rights workers who had been missing in Mississippi since June 21, 1964, have been found.

When the whole world was watching Mississippi

Marlene Martin tells the story of Freedom Summer 50 years ago--another high point of the civil rights movement that helped change the political landscape in the U.S.

THEY CAME--filled with hope, determination and a truckload of idealism--to be a part of ridding the U.S. of the scourge of racism. "Surely, no challenge looms larger than eradicating racial discrimination in this country," one wrote on the application form, "I want to do my part. There is a moral wave building among today's youth, and I intend to catch it!"

In the summer of 1964, 1,000 Northern students--mostly white and from affluent backgrounds--answered the call put out by civil rights organizations for volunteers to take part in a summer-long Freedom Project in Mississippi.

It was a bold strategy that aimed to build on years of organizing by Southern activists and organizations of the civil rights movement.

The Freedom Project would concentrate on three specific areas: registering Blacks to vote setting up Freedom Schools to teach Black students lessons in math, English and science, but also Black history and grassroots organizing and launching the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as a direct challenge to the racist state Democratic Party.

The main groups leading Freedom Summer were the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), working under the umbrella Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference endorsed the project, but didn't participate. The NAACP declined to endorse, stating, "We're sitting this one out."

Why make the call for mostly white students from Ivy League schools to come to Mississippi? The answer was simple: To get the U.S. public to pay attention. According to CORE member Dave Dennis, a leader of COFO:

We knew that if we had brought a thousand Blacks, the country would have watched them slaughtered without doing anything about it. Bring a thousand whites, and the country is going to react to that. We made sure we had the children--sons and daughters--of some of the very powerful people in this country.

There was disagreement within SNCC about the Freedom Project--some veterans feared the white volunteers would take over. Ella Baker, a veteran of the movement and SNCC's adviser from its founding, carried the debate with her argument:

One of the reasons we're going into Mississippi is that the rest of the United States has never felt much responsibility for what happens in the Deep South. If we can simply let the concept that the rest of the nation bears responsibility for what happens in Mississippi sink in, then we will have accomplished something.

THE MAIN impetus for Freedom Summer came from SNCC--the radical, youth-led grassroots organization born out of the lunch-counter sit-in movement that began in Greensboro, N.C. in February 1960 and spread across the South. SNCC went on to participate in the Freedom Rides, where Black and white activists traveled on buses into the South in order to desegregate them.

SNCC was known for its fearless and confrontational approach to activism. As the people's historian Howard Zinn, who was living and teaching in the South as SNCC was formed, wrote:

To be with them, walking a picket line in the rain in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. to see them jabbed by electric prod poles and flung into paddy wagons in Selma, Alabama, or link arms and sing at the close of a church meeting in the Delta--is to feel the presence of greatness.

SNCC was equally committed to working alongside impoverished and disenfranchised Black Southerners, rather than acting on their behalf. This was a hallmark of the group, and it shaped the concept of Freedom Summer and ran through every activity.

1964 was a year of growing racial tension. The civil rights movement had first emerged almost a decade before with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which won desegregation of city buses after a year of struggle. The wave of lunch counter sit-ins was now four years in the past, the March on Washington had brought 200,000 people to the nation's capital the year before, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham had almost set off a Black general strike across the South.

Yet the civil rights movement's goal of winning federal civil rights legislation still seemed distant--the Civil Rights Act was stalled after a Senate filibuster by the Dixiecrats.

The Mississippi Summer Project was intended to use direct action to increase the pressure still more on national politics.

For years, Blacks in Mississippi who tried to register to vote ran up against a wall of white supremacy--they were ignored, lied to, beaten and terrorized. Fannie Lou Hamer, the middle-aged Black woman who came to prominence during Freedom Summer as the voice of the MFDP--had tried to register twice before, and failed. For daring to try, she was beaten and fired from her plantation job where she had worked for 18 years.

"There is no state with a record which approached that of Mississippi in inhumanity, murder, brutality and racial hatred," said Roy Wilkerson of the NAACP. "It is absolutely the bottom of the list."

Mississippi had the lowest number of Blacks registered to vote of any other Southern state. In some counties where African Americans were the majority, not a single Black was registered at all. This was the state with the largest Klan membership--91,000 and growing--and the largest number of lynchings.

SNCC and the other civil rights organizations were determined to focus their efforts here because, as one organizer said, "If we break through here, it breaks the dam on segregation."

THE WORK that went into organizing the Mississippi Summer Project was intense.

Every applicant had to be interviewed. They were asked outright if they would have any problem working under Black leadership, and told they weren't there to overwhelm local leaders. Applicants who made the cut were asked to come up with $500 in case they needed to be bonded out of jail.

Before heading to Mississippi, the students spent a week in training at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. Here, SNCC veterans were brutally honest about what the volunteers should expect. The Klan had done its own organizing in preparation for the volunteers, holding late-night meetings and buying more guns and ammunition.

As the second one-week orientation was beginning, news arrived that three civil rights workers--CORE members James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner--had disappeared on their way back to COFO headquarters in Meridian, Miss., after investigating the bombing of a Black church in Longdale.

Back in Ohio, SNCC leader and COFO co-director Bob Moses spoke to the volunteers:

There may be more deaths. I justify myself because I'm taking risks myself. And I'm not asking people to do things I'm not willing to do. And the other thing is, people were being killed already, the Negroes of Mississippi. Herbert Lee killed, Louis Allen killed, five others killed this year.

In some way, you have to come to grips with that--know what it means. If you are going to do anything about it, other people are going to be killed. No privileged group in history has ever given up anything, without some kind of blood sacrifice."

The fate of the missing civil rights workers would hang over the summer--their bodies were finally discovered in August. Each had been shot and buried in an earthen dam--the one Black among them, James Chaney, had been singled out for a savage beating before he was killed.

Rita Schwerner, Michael's wife, told the press that the only reason this tragedy got any media attention at all was because it involved the death of two white people. She was right--during the search for the missing civil rights workers, authorities discovered the remains of eight Black Mississippians, several of them civil rights activists, whose disappearances weren't known outside of their communities.

But the murders didn't have the effect the Klan had hoped. Overwhelmingly, the volunteers redoubled their commitment to the Mississippi Summer Project. The names of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner became internationally known as victims of racist barbarism in the "world's greatest democracy."

GIVEN THE hostility and violence, one organizing challenge was to find Mississippi homes for the volunteers to stay in. Black families understood that by agreeing to be hosts for the civil rights workers, they were placing a target on their backs.

Yet many did so proudly. "We were glad to see them," one woman said. "[H]ere were young people from big cities and places, and we found out they were just like anyone else." Another said, "They were very kind. They were different from white Southerners. They treated us with respect and dignity."

Any Black who worked with SNCC and the volunteers knew they would be accused of bringing "outside agitators" into their midst. Robert Miles, a civil rights pioneer himself, had an answer to that objection when he spoke at a church meeting in Batesville:

White folks are gonna tell you they're agitators. You know what an agitator is? An agitator is the piece in the center of a washing machine that spins around to get the dirt out. Well, that's what these people are here for. They're here to get the dirt out.

The volunteers were assigned to different areas, alongside experienced activists. Those working on voter registration went to towns and rural areas, going door to door and field to field, talking with people on their porches about how to register and assisting those who were willing to attempt it.

Police and Klan members would follow the civil rights workers around, shotguns held in plain sight. If the volunteers felt the threat of violence, it was much worse for Black residents, who understood that even trying to register could cost them their job, their home and possibly their life.

This made the voter registration work slow and difficult. As Bruce Watson recounted in his history of Freedom Summer, "Canvassing is like conversation, volunteers are learning--something of an art. They know how to converse, but how do you converse with someone too terrified to say, 'No,' too tired to say much else?"

By the end of the summer, some 17,000 Blacks had attempted to register--but only 1,600 were allowed to do so by state officials. These numbers were fewer than organizers had hoped for, but still an accomplishment considering the real terrorism people faced when they made a stand in 1964 Mississippi.

Other volunteers were teachers in the Freedom Schools. The goal had been to attract 1,000 students, but organizers were overwhelmed when more than 3,000 showed up.

These schools were to be different from regular schools in every way. They were voluntary--there were no grades, no testing, no pass or fail. Students were taught core subjects like math and English, but they also learned about Black history and organizing. The teaching format--later taken up in the teach-ins of the antiwar movement--was to encourage participation by asking students questions and allowing them to ask questions back. As the SNCC manual for the volunteers explained:

You will be teaching young people who have lived in Mississippi all their lives. That means that they have been deprived of a decent education from first grade all through high school. It means that they have been denied free expression and free thought. Most of all, it means that they have been denied the right to question. The purpose of the Freedom Schools is to help them begin to question.

The manual went on to explain that while students would carry the "scars of the system," they would also have a "knowledge beyond their years. This knowledge is the knowledge of how to survive in a society that is out to destroy you."

The day for Freedom School teachers typically started at 7 a.m., with a break for lunch and dinner, then classes for adults in the evening. But the volunteers would recall this as one of the most important things they ever did. One student wrote in a letter to her parents:

The atmosphere in class is unbelievable. It is what every teacher dreams about--real, honest enthusiasm and desire to learn anything and everything. They drain me of everything that I have to offer, so that I go home at night completely exhausted, but very happy.

THE MISSISSIPPI Freedom Democratic Party was launched during the Summer Project as a challenge to the racist system. Blacks who weren't allowed to register or vote were encouraged to sign up with the MFDP--some 80,000 people did so.

The party held caucuses, county assemblies and a statewide convention, where 68 people were chosen as delegates to go the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., where they challenged the all-white delegation for the state's seats at the convention.

The drama of the MFDP's appearance at the convention is a story in its own right. President Lyndon Johnson and the northern wing of the Democrats paid lip service to supporting civil rights, but they weren't prepared to abandon the Dixiecrat wing of the party that dominated in the South.

Ultimately, the MFDP was offered a rotten compromise: two seats, but without voting rights, while the all-white delegation remained intact. Stunned, the MFDP turned down the offer and walked out of the convention.

The national Democratic Party's betrayal of the MFDP was a turning point for many veteran activists who were already becoming more and more radicalized. As SNCC organizer Cleveland Sellers recalled:

Never again were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the "good" people of America could eliminate them. We left Atlantic City with the knowledge that our movement had turned into something else. After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation.

Freedom Summer also transformed the volunteers brought by SNCC to Mississippi to get the country to pay attention. The civil rights movement not only inspired other social and political struggles to come--it directly politicized and trained their leaders.

Mario Savio had traveled to Mississippi as a civil rights volunteer in the summer of 1964. A few months later, he put the lessons he learned to use in the Free Speech Movement that erupted in Berkeley, Calif.--a forerunner of the movements for justice and democracy that would grip college campuses later in the 1960s.

Years later, he explained the impact Freedom Summer had on him, referring to one particular encounter with a Black man trying to register to vote:

Until then, I was sort of an observer in a certain way. but here was somebody who, because of something I had done, was maybe risking his family and facing that kind of humiliation. [The registrar] made him eat shit before finally giving him that form. He was afraid, but he stood his ground.

That man's courage changed my life. You know, we used to sing about how we'll never turn back, ain't gonna turn around. [Freedom Summer] was the point at which it became real for me. That is, I'd chosen sides for the rest of my life.

Chapter 23: The Mississippi Challenge

The future of the United States of America may well be determined here, in Mississippi, for it is here that Democracy faces its most serious challenge. Can we have government in Mississippi which represents all of the people? This is the question that must be answered in the affirmative if these United States are to continue to give moral leadership to the Free World.

JUNE 21, 1964 On the eve of the "Freedom Summer" campaign in Mississippi, three civil rights workers are reported missing after their arrest in Philadelphia, Mississippi
JULY 16 King asserts that nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater byRepublicans will aid racists
JULY 20 Arrives in Mississippi to assist civil rights effort
AUGUST 4 The bodies of missing civil rights workers are discovered
AUGUST 22 Testifies at Democratic convention on behalf of MississippiFreedoms Democratic Party

In 1964 the meaning of so-called Negro revolution became clear for all to see and was given legislative recognition in the civil rights law. Yet, immediately following the passage of this law, a series of events shook the nation, compelling the grim realization that the revolution would continue inexorably until total slavery had been replaced by total freedom.

The new events to which I refer were: the Republican Convention held in San Francisco the hideous triple lynchings in Mississippi and the outbreak of riots in several Northern cities.

The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism. All people of goodwill viewed with alarm and concern the frenzied wedding at the Cow Palace of the KKK with the radical right. The "best man" at this ceremony was a senator whose voting record, philosophy, and program were anathema to all the hard-won achievements of the past decade.

It was both unfortunate and disastrous that the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater as its candidate for President of the United States. In foreign policy Mr. Goldwater advocated a narrow nationalism, a crippling isolationism, and a trigger-happy attitude that could plunge the whole world into the dark abyss of annihilation. On social and economic issues, Mr. Goldwater represented an unrealistic conservatism that was totally out of touch with the realities of the twentieth century. The issue of poverty compelled the attention of all citizens of our country. Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated. On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

While I had followed a policy of not endorsing political candidates, I felt that the prospect of Senator Goldwater being President of the United States so threatened the health, morality, and survival of our nation, that I could not in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represented.

The celebration of final enactment of the civil rights bill curdled and soured. Rejoicing was replaced by a deep and frightening concern that the counter-forces to Negro liberation could flagrantly nominate for the highest office in the land one who openly clasped the racist hand of Strom Thurmond. A cold fear touched the hearts of twenty million Negroes. They had only begun to come out of the dark land of Egypt where so many of their brothers were still in bondage-still denied elementary dignity. The forces to bar the freedom road, to drive us back to Egypt, seemed so formidable, so high in authority, and so determined.

"Mississippi's New Negroes"

A handsome young Negro, dressed in slacks and short-sleeve shirt, wiped his brow and addressed the police chief, "Now look here, chief, there's no need in trying to blow at us. Everybody scared of white folks has moved north, and you just as well realize that you've got to do right by the rest of us."

This comment by Aaron Henry of Clarksdale, Mississippi, was typical of Mississippi's New Negroes. And in spite of the threat of death, economic reprisals, and continuous intimidation, they were pressing hard toward the high call of freedom.

The remarkable thing was that the Negro in Mississippi had found for himself an effective way to deal with his problems and had organized efforts across the entire state. As part of SCLC's "peopleto-people" program, several members of our staff and I had traveled the fertile and sometimes depressing Mississippi Delta country in 1962. That trip provided me with an opportunity to talk with thousands of people on a personal basis. I talked with them on the farms and in the village stores, on the city streets and in the city churches. I listened to their problems, learned of their fears, felt the yearnings of their hope.

There were some flesh-and-blood scenes that I can never dispel from my memory. One of our earliest stops was a Catholic school that included the elementary and high school grades. The sister in charge in each classroom asked the question, "Where are you going tonight?" The answer was chorused, "To the Baptist Church!" They were referring to the Baptist Church where I was to speak for the mass meeting. The sister had urged them to attend. How marvelous that the struggle for freedom and human dignity rose above the communions of Catholic and Protestant. This was a bit of the hope that I glimpsed in the Mississippi Delta. Then, of course, there was the pathos. How sobering it was to meet people who work only six months in the year and whose annual income averaged $500 to $600.

Along with the economic exploitation that the whole state of Mississippi inflicts upon the Negro, there was the ever-present problem of physical violence. As we rode along the dusty roads of the Delta country, our companions cited unbelievable cases of police brutality and incidents of Negroes being brutally murdered by white mobs.

In spite of this, there was a ray of hope. This ray of hope was seen in the new determination of the Negroes themselves to be free.

Under the leadership of Bob Moses, a team of more than a thousand Northern white students and local Negro citizens had instituted a program of voter registration and political action that was one of the most creative attempts I had seen to radically change the oppressive life of the Negro in that entire state and possibly the entire nation. The Negroes in Mississippi had begun to learn that change would come in that lawless, brutal police state only as Negroes reformed the political structure of the area. They had begun this reform in 1964 through the Freedom Democratic Party.

The enormity of the task was inescapable. We would have had to put the field staffs of SCLC, NAACP, CORE, SNCC, and a few other agencies to work in the Delta alone. However, no matter how big and difficult a task it was, we began. We encouraged our people in Mississippi to rise up by the hundreds and thousands and demand their freedom-now!

Nothing had inspired me so much for some time as my tour of Mississippi in July 1964 on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. These were a great people who had survived a concentration camp existence by the sheer power of their souls. They had no money, no guns, very few votes and yet they were then the number-one power in the nation for they were organized and moving by the thousands to rid the nation of its most violent racist

When I was about to visit Mississippi, I was told that a sort of guerrilla group was plotting to take my life during the visit. I was urged to cancel the trip, but I decided that I had no alternative but to go on into Mississippi, because I had a job to do. If I were constantly worried about death, I could not function. After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point

We landed in Greenwood, the home of Byron de la Beckwith, indicted murderer of Medgar Evers. The sullen white crowd stood on one side of the gate and a cheering integrated crowd on the other. Two years ago this would not have been possible, for the first white persons to work in civil rights were thrown in jail for eating in a Negro restaurant.

We spent five days touring Jackson, Vicksburg, and Meridian. We walked the streets, preached on front porches, at mass meetings, or in the pool halls, and always God's children flocked by the thousands to learn of freedom. We stopped off in Philadelphia and visited the burned church which Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were investigating when they were so savagely murdered in June.

I was proud to be with the workers of the Council of Federated Organizations and students of the Summer Project, to work with them through the Freedom Democratic Party to make democracy a reality. Those young people make up a domestic Peace Corps. Our nation had sent our Peace Corps volunteers throughout the underdeveloped nationas of the world and none of them had experienced the kind of brutality and savagery that the voter registration workers suffered in Mississippi.

The chirch burnings, harassment, and murders in this state were direct results of the fact that Negro citizens could not vote and participate in electing responsible public officials who would protect the rights of all people. Many thousands had tried to register - in spite of violence, economic reprisals, and other forms of intimidation - yet in 1963 only 1636 Negr persons were registered in the entire state.

The federal government had a choice of working toward the gradual political reform of Mississippi through the civil process and through representative institutions such as the Freedom Democratic Party, or to send federal troops anytime a constitutional issue arose. The Freedom Democratic Party hoped to unite all persons of goodwill in the state of Mississippi under the platform and program of the National Democratic Party. We intended to send a delegation to Atlantic City and urge that they be seated. Our nation needed at least one party which was free of racism, and the National Democratic Party could make a significant step in this direction by recognizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as the official Mississippi delegation.

Everyone expected the Democratic Convention to be very dull and routine. Lyndon Johnson would name his running mate personally, and there were no issues which loomed as controversial enough to stir the convention. But everyone underestimated the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The group of sixty-eight Negroes from Mississippi descended on the convention with a display of power, which even Lyndon Johnson had difficulty coping with. Their power was the moral power on which this nation was built. They deliberately ignored the man-made rules of the convention and appealed directly to the heart and soul of America and her people. What we experienced in Atlantic City was a classical illustration of the power of nonviolence, in the political arena. Many Americans became aware of the facts for the first time as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party took its case before the nation and the credentials committee of the National Democratic Party.

The people of Mississippi knew they were in a police state. They realized that politics provided the avenue for educating their children, providing homes and jobs for their families, and literally making over the whole climate of the state of Mississippi. This is a lesson that all Americans needed to learn, especially those of us who had been deprived because of color.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Credentials Committee, if you value.' the future of democratic government, you have no alternative but to recognize, with full voice and vote, the Mississippi Freedom Democrat

This is in no way a threat. It is the most urgent moral appeal that 1 can make to you. The question cannot be decided by the splitting of legal hairs or by seemingly expedient political compromises. For what seems to be expedient today will certainly prove disastrous tomorrow, unless it is based on a sound moral foundation.

This is no empty moral admonition. The history of men and of nations has proven that failure to give men the right to vote, to govern themselves and to select their own representatives brings certain chaos to the social, economic, and political institution which allows such an injustice to prevail.

And finally this is no mean issue. The recognition of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party has assumed symbolic value for oppressed people the world over. Seating this delegation would become symbolic of the intention of this country to bring freedom and democracy to all people. It would be a declaration of political independence to underprivileged citizens long denied a voice in their own destinies. It would be a beacon light of hope for all the disenfranchised millions of this earth whether they be in Mississippi and Alabama, behind the Iron Curtain, floundering in the mire of South African apartheid, or freedom-seeking persons in Cuba. Recognition of the Freedom Democratic Party would say to them that somewhere in this world there is a nation that cares about justice, that lives in a democracy, and that insures the rights of the downtrodden.

The Freedom Democratic Party found itself immersed in the world of practical politics almost immediately. The strong moral appeal before the credentials committee had to be backed up with political support. The following days involved gaining enough persons on the committee to submit a minority report before the convention body, and then enough states to support us to demand a roll call vote which would make each state take sides openly. In general the sentiment of the convention was for the Freedom Party, but the fact that Lyndon Johnson had to run against Goldwater made everybody cautious, lest the entire South bolt the party with Mississippi.

Finally, a compromise emerged which required the regular part, to take a loyalty oath, and granted delegate-at-large status to two 0 the Freedom Party. This was a significant step. It was not a great victory, but it was symbolic, and it involved the pledge of high part officials to work with the Freedom Party for the next four years to gain registered voters and political strength in Mississippi. But then was no compromise for these persons who had risked their lives to get this far. Had I been a member of the delegation, I would probably have advised them to accept this as an offer in good faith am attempted to work to strengthen their position. But life in Mississippi had involved too many compromises already, and too man promises had come from Washington for them to take these seriously so their skepticism must be viewed sympathetically.

We will never forget Aaron Henry and Fannie Lou Hamer. Their testimony educated a nation and brought the political powers to their knees in repentance, for the convention voted never again to seat a delegation that was racially segregated. But the true test of their message would be whether or not Negroes in Northern cities heard them and would register and vote.

"Promising aspects of the elections"

In San Francisco, the Republican Party had taken a giant stride away from its Lincoln tradition, and the results of election day graphical) illustrate how tragic this was for the two-party system in America Those who sought to turn back the tide of history suffered a bitter defeat, and in the process degraded themselves and their party in manner seldom witnessed on our national political scene. The force of goodwill and progress dealt a telling blow to the fanaticism of the right, and Americans swallowed their prejudices in the interests of progress, prosperity, and world peace.

One of the more promising aspects of the election was that the grand alliance of labor, civil rights forces, intellectual and religious, leaders was provided with its second major victory within a year. This was the coalition which had to continue to grow in depth and breadth, if we were to overcome the problems which confronted us.

President Johnson had the opportunity to complete the job which was started by Roosevelt and interrupted by the war. Our very survival as a nation depended on the success of several rather radical reforms. The key to progress was still to be found in the states which President Johnson lost to Goldwater. Until the Southern power block was broken and the committees of our Congress freed from the domination of racists and reactionaries within the Democratic Party, we could not expect the kind of imagination and creativity which this period in history demanded from our federal government.

The problems of poverty, urban life, unemployment, education, housing, medical care, and flexible foreign policy were dependent on positive and forthright action from the federal government. But so long as men like Senators Eastland, Russell, Byrd, and Ellender held the positions of power in our Congress, the entire progress of our nation was in as grave a danger as the election of Senator Goldwater might have produced. The battle was far from won. It had only begun. The main burden of reform would still be upon the Negro.

Murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner

The murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, also known as the Freedom Summer murders, the Mississippi civil rights workers' murders or the Mississippi Burning murders, refers to three activists who were abducted and murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June 1964 during the Civil Rights Movement. The victims were James Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner from New York City. All three were associated with the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and its member organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They had been working with the Freedom Summer campaign by attempting to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote. Since 1890 and through the turn of the century, southern states had systematically disenfranchised most black voters by discrimination in voter registration and voting.

The three men had traveled from Meridian to the community of Longdale to talk with congregation members at a black church that had been burned the church had been a center of community organization. The trio was arrested following a traffic stop for speeding outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, escorted to the local jail, and held for a number of hours. [1] As the three left town in their car, they were followed by law enforcement and others. Before leaving Neshoba County, their car was pulled over. The three were abducted, driven to another location, and shot to death at close range. The three men's bodies were taken to an earthen dam where they were buried. [1]

The disappearance of the three men was initially investigated as a missing persons case. The civil rights workers' burnt-out car was found near a swamp three days after their disappearance. [2] [3] An extensive search of the area was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), local and state authorities, and four hundred United States Navy sailors. [4] The three men's bodies were not discovered until two months later, when the team received a tip. During the investigation it emerged that members of the local White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff's Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department were involved in the incident. [1]

The murder of the activists sparked national outrage and an extensive federal investigation, filed as Mississippi Burning (MIBURN), which later became the title of a 1988 film loosely based on the events. In 1967, after the state government refused to prosecute, the United States federal government charged eighteen individuals with civil rights violations. Seven were convicted and received relatively minor sentences for their actions. Outrage over the activists' disappearances helped gain passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. [5]

Forty-one years after the murders took place, one perpetrator, Edgar Ray Killen, was charged by the state of Mississippi for his part in the crimes. In 2005 he was convicted of three counts of manslaughter and was given a 60-year sentence. [6] On June 20, 2016, federal and state authorities officially closed the case, ending the possibility of further prosecution. Killen died in prison in January 2018.

Remembering ‘Freedom Summer,’ the civil rights effort that changed America 50 years ago

Fifty years ago this summer, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. But that didn’t come without a price. It was the era of the Freedom Summer, a brave and bloody campaign to get blacks registered to vote in Mississippi.

Over 10 weeks, 37 churches were bombed or burned. Four civil rights workers were killed. Many more were hurt. In our storytelling series “The Voices of Freedom Summer,” we hear from key figures in the battles of the early 󈨀s — and from people studying that struggle a half-century later.

Prayers For Safe Passage

The Freedom Summer volunteers took the baton from another group called the Freedom Riders, who risked their lives to challenge segregated travel centers in the South.

Last December, a group of Dallas school kids boarded a bus and followed the path of the Freedom Riders. They passed through Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi, shook hands with city leaders and saw 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which was bombed by white supremacists in 1963.

But the trip almost didn’t happen. Jerry Chambers, a civil rights activist and retired educator who led the project, had to push it back a month as he struggled to raise funds. And there was another obstacle. Chambers begins our series “The Voices Of Freedom Summer” with a reflection on last year’s journey.

[featuring “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” by Nina Simone]

Losing Innocence

Ernest McMillan was one of the young civil rights workers who traveled to the heart of the South to help blacks register to vote in 1964.

A college student then at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he’d go on to run the Dallas chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He’d also lose a close friend to violence and spend time in prison for demonstrating at a neighborhood grocery store.

Before all that, he was just a kid at a protest.

McMillan recalls when he first realized what he was up against. Editor’s note: McMillan’s story includes harsh language.

[featuring “Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)” from Miles Davis’ ‘The Original Mono Recordings’]

‘I Have Friends In The Graveyard For This’

Rev. Peter Johnson was a 19-year-old civil rights worker during the Freedom Summer. He and his colleagues pulled up to plantations across the South in an old school bus purposed as a mobile dentist’s and doctor’s office, helping blacks prepare for the test required to become a registered voter.

He remembers discovering explosives duct-taped underneath a borrowed Plymouth he was driving, the letters “KKK” scratched into the side of the car.

Here, Johnson reflects on that time — and how he feels about new forms of voter suppression considered less obvious than the poll tax that drew activists to Mississippi.

[featuring “Come Sunday” from Duke Ellington’s ‘Black, Brown & Beige’]

Power In Grief

Linwood Fields first went on Southern Methodist University’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage in 2009. He served as a student leader for the two years following. Fields, who’s now a member of the U.S. military, was inspired by the volunteers whose paths he traced. But none impacted him more than the young civil rights leader David Dennis.

He was about Fields’ age when the terror of the early 󈨀s in Mississippi gave him a grim platform from which to deliver an impassioned speech. It was a eulogy for his friend.

[featuring “If You’re Out There” by John Legend]

A Work Still Unfinished

When Cody Meador attended the Civil Rights Pilgrimage offered by SMU in 2008, she expected to feel the impact of lives lost for the right to vote on the battlegrounds of the South. But instead she found discrimination was very much alive in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

[featuring “Compared To What” by Eddie Harris and Les McCann]

At Home, A Museum Of Victory And Loss

The Freedom Summer effort drew national attention after black Mississippian James Chaney, 21, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, went missing. Schwerner’s wife and colleague Rita told the press in outrage that if Chaney was the only volunteer to have disappeared, the story wouldn’t have been in the news.

On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, went missing near Philadelphia, Miss., bringing nationwide attention to Mississippi and the Freedom Summer project. Photo courtesy of FBI via PBS

The three civil rights workers were found shot to death in Philadelphia, Miss., their bodies buried in an earthen dam near the Mt. Zion Methodist Church, one of the sites where Schwerner organized a “Freedom School” to train volunteers.

They’d been murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Parts of Texas were major hubs for the Klan — Fort Worth and rural Tarrant County included. Judge Maryellen Hicks remembers the group’s presence in the city even into the 1980s.

Hicks showed me around her three-story Fort Worth town home, filled with black memorabilia and art.

As part of our series “The Voices of Freedom Summer,” Hicks explains a pair of framed photos on an easel she keeps right by her dinner table.

[featuring “I’m On My Way” by Nina Simone]

KERA will be collecting more voices through the month of June. The PBS documentary “Freedom Summer” airs on PBS on June 24. See a trailer below.

PBS NewsHour is working on an ongoing online civil rights project. Do you or someone you know remember when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed? Share your memories with us by calling our oral history hotline at 703-594-6727, or email us your stories and memories from that time at NewsHour64 [at] gmail [dot] com.

Left: Freedom Riders Julia Aaron, left, and David Dennis were among the Freedom Riders who paved the way for Freedom Summer student volunteers. Pictured here in 1961, Dennis would eulogize activist James Chaney three years later. Photo courtesy of Paul Schutzer/PBS

Civil Rights Movement Timeline From 1960 to 1964

U.S. Embassy New Delhi / CC / Flickr

While the fight for racial equality began in the 1950s, the non-violent techniques the movement embraced began to pay off during the following decade. Civil rights activists and students across the South challenged segregation, and the relatively new technology of television allowed Americans to witness the often brutal response to these protests. This civil rights movement timeline chronicles important dates during the struggle's second chapter, the early 1960s.

President Lyndon B. Johnson successfully pushed through the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, and a number of other groundbreaking events unfolded between 1960 and 1964, the span covered by this timeline, leading up the tumultuous period of 1965 to 1969.

February 1: Four young Black men, students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, go to a Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sit down at a whites-only lunch counter. They order coffee. Despite being denied service, they sit silently and politely at the lunch counter until closing time. Their action marks the start of the Greensboro sit-ins, which sparks similar protests all over the South.

April 15: The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee holds its first meeting.

July 25: The downtown Greensboro Woolworth desegregates its lunch counter after six months of sit-ins.

October 19: Martin Luther King Jr. joins a student sit-in at a whites-only restaurant inside of an Atlanta department store, Rich's. He is arrested along with 51 other protesters on the charge of trespassing. On probation for driving without a valid Georgia license (he had an Alabama license), a Dekalb County judge sentences King to four months in prison doing hard labor. Presidential contender John F. Kennedy phones King's wife, Coretta, to offer encouragement, while the candidate's brother, Robert Kennedy, convinces the judge to release King on bail. This phone call convinces many Black people to support the Democratic ticket.

December 5: The Supreme Court hands down a 7-2 decision in the Boynton v. Virginia case, ruling that segregation on vehicles traveling between states is unlawful because it violates the Interstate Commerce Act.

May 4: The Freedom Riders, composed of seven Black and six White activists, leave Washington, D.C., for the rigidly segregated Deep South. Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), their goal is to test Boynton v. Virginia.

On May 14: Freedom Riders, now traveling in two separate groups, are attacked outside Anniston, Alabama, and in Birmingham, Alabama. A mob throws a firebomb onto the bus in which the group near Anniston is riding. Members of the Ku Klux Klan attack the second group in Birmingham after making an arrangement with the local police to allow them 15 minutes alone with the bus.

On May 15: The Birmingham group of Freedom Riders is prepared to continue their trip down south, but no bus will agree to take them. They fly to New Orleans instead.

On May 17: A new group of young activists join two of the original Freedom Riders to complete the trip. They are placed under arrest in Montgomery, Alabama.

On May 29: President Kennedy announces that he has ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to enact stricter regulations and fines for buses and facilities that refuse to integrate. Young White and Black activists continue to make Freedom Rides.

In November: Civil rights activists participate in a series of protests, marches, and meetings in Albany, Georgia, that come to be known as the Albany Movement.

In December: King comes to Albany and joins the protesters, staying in Albany for another nine months.

August 10: King announces that he is leaving Albany. The Albany Movement is considered a failure in terms of effecting change, but what King learns in Albany allows him to be successful in Birmingham.

September 10: The Supreme Court rules that the University of Mississippi, or "Ole Miss," must admit Black student and veteran James Meredith.

September 26: The governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, orders state troopers to prevent Meredith from entering Ole Miss' campus.

Between September 30 and October 1: Riots erupt over Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi.

October 1: Meredith becomes the first Black student at Ole Miss after President Kennedy orders U.S. marshals to Mississippi to ensure his safety.

King, SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organize a series of 1963 civil rights demonstrations and protests to challenge segregation in Birmingham.

April 12: Birmingham police arrest King for demonstrating without a city permit.

April 16: King writes his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in which he responds to eight White Alabama ministers who urged him to end the protests and be patient with the judicial process of overturning segregation.

June 11: President Kennedy delivers a speech on civil rights from the Oval Office, specifically explaining why he sent the National Guard to allow the admittance of two Black students into the University of Alabama.

June 12: Byron De La Beckwith assassinates Medgar Evers, the first field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Mississippi.

August 18: James Meredith graduates from Ole Miss.

August 28: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is held in D.C. Around 250,000 people participate, and King delivers his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech.

September 15: The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham is bombed. Four young girls are killed.

November 22: Kennedy is assassinated, but his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, uses the nation's anger to push through civil rights legislation in Kennedy's memory.

March 12:, Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam. Among his reasons for the break is Elijah Muhammad's ban on protesting for Nation of Islam adherents.

Between June and August: SNCC organizes a voter registration drive in Mississippi known as Freedom Summer.

June 21: Three Freedom Summer workers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—disappear.

August 4: The bodies of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman are found in a dam. All three had been shot, and the Black activist, Chaney, had also been badly beaten.

June 24: Malcolm X founds the Organization of Afro-American Unity along with John Henrik Clarke. Its aim is to unite all Americans of African descent against discrimination.

July 2: Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination in employment and public places.

July and August: Riots break out in Harlem and Rochester, New York.

August 27: The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDM), which formed to challenge the segregated state Democratic Party, sends a delegation to the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They ask to represent Mississippi at the convention. Activist Fannie Lou Hamer, spoke publicly and her speech was broadcast nationally by media outlets. Offered two nonvoting seats at the convention, in turn, the MFDM delegates reject the proposal. Yet all was not lost. By the 1968 election, a clause was adopted requiring equal representation from all state delegations.

December 10: The Nobel Foundation awards King the Nobel Peace Prize.

Your High School

1964 as the war in Vietnam and US Congress Authorities war against N Vietnam more American servicemen were dying, and after three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi the president signed the Civil Rights act of 1964 but this did not stop the violence as it continued to increase in many American Cities. Lyndon Johnson was also returned to power after a landslide victory. This was also the year The Beatles took the world and America by storm and Beatlemania went into overdrive as they released a series of number one hits including "I want to hold your hand" , "All my Loving" . Other British groups also found success including The Rolling Stones and The Animals and together with the American Talent of The Supremes and Bob Dylan many say this was one of the greatest years for music in the last century. Also one young loud talented boxer by the name of Cassius Clay won the Boxing World heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston.

How Much things cost in 1964
Yearly Inflation Rate USA 1.28%
Year End Close Dow Jones Industrial Average 874
Average Cost of new house $13,050.00
Average Income per year $6,000.00
Gas per Gallon 30 cents
Average Cost of a new car $3,500.00
Loaf of bread 21 cents
United States Postage Stamp 5 cents
Average Monthly Rent $115.00
Ticket to the movies $1.25

What Events Happened in 1964

  • The abolition of the death penalty in UK
  • US Congress authorizes war against N Vietnam
  • President Lyndon Johnson declares a War On Poverty Campaign.
  • Malta gains independence from the UK
  • Cassius Clay Beats Sonny Liston for World Heavyweight championship
  • The Boston Strangler is captured
  • Work Begins on The Aswan Dam by diverting the Nile to a manmade canal.
  • The British and French Governments announce commitment to build a tunnel under the English Channel
  • The first Ford Mustang from Ford Motor Company is made.
  • The most powerful earthquake in U.S. history at a magnitude of 9.2, strikes South Central Alaska
  • Race Riots in Harlem New York
  • The Poll Tax becomes illegal in all US states as it been used as a blunt tool for barring poverty-stricken African-Americans and whites from participating in the electoral process.
  • The so called BRAIN DRAIN of UK Scientists from UK to USA
  • Easter and Whitsun outbreak of Mods and Rockers Fights and disturbances on British Seaside Resorts
  • Nelson Mandela and seven others are sentenced to life imprisonment in South Africa
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr receives the Nobel Peace Prize,
  • The PLO Palistinian Liberation Organisation is established with Yasser Arafat as the head
  • The UK Interest Rate is Raised to 7%
  • UK Report expects population to explode over next 20 years and plans for 3 new towns including Milton Keynes
  • James Hoffa is found guilty and sentenced to eight years on bribery charges
  • World's Fair held in New York
  • U.S. Surgeon General repotrs that smoking may lead lung cancer
  • Civil War breaks out in Cyprus between Greeks and Turks
  • Tanzania Gains Independence From Great Britain and combines the former Tanganika and the Island of Zanzibar
  • Malawi Gains Independence From Great Britain
  • A riot during a soccer match between Peru and Argentina ends with the loss of 300 fans dead.
  • Great Train Robbers get 30 years each
  • Malta Gains Independence From Great Britain
  • Jack Ruby is convicted of the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President Kennedy
  • The Summer Olympics are held in Tokyo, Japan
  • The Winter Olympic Games are held in Innsbruck, Austria
  • Sidney Poitier becomes the first black actor to win the "best actor" Oscar
  • "Hello Dolly," "Funny Girl," and "Fiddler on the Roof" premier on Broadway in New York.
  • The Rolling Stones release debut album, "The Rolling Stones"
  • The Beatles make their first appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show.
  • The Beatles have 13 singles Billboard's Hot 100 at the same time
  • The first pirate radio station, Radio Caroline, is established
  • The Beatles hold the top five positions in the Billboard Top 40 singles in America
  • Bob Dylan releases "The Times They Are a-Changin"
  • BBC2 starts broadcasting in the UK.
  • Pablo Picasso painted his fourth Head of a Bearded Man
  • The Sun Newspaper is first published in the United Kingdom
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from Roald Dahl
  • Top of the Pops premieres on BBC television.
  • The Carpetbaggers
  • It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
  • The Unsinkable Molly Brown
  • My Fair Lady
  • Mary Poppins
  • BASIC (Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), an easy to learn high level programming language is introduced.
  • IBM announces the System/360.
  • The worlds first high speed rail network opens in Japan
  • First Ford Mustang is manufactured
  • Sony introduces the first VCR Home Video Recorder History of Video Recorders
  • The first driver less train runs on London Underground
  • China explodes its first Nuclear bomb

Inventions Invented by Inventors and Country ( or attributed to First Use )

The Origins of the U.S. Bureaucracy

In the early U.S. republic, the bureaucracy was quite small. This is understandable since the American Revolution was largely a revolt against executive power and the British imperial administrative order. Nevertheless, while neither the word “bureaucracy” nor its synonyms appear in the text of the Constitution, the document does establish a few broad channels through which the emerging government could develop the necessary bureaucratic administration.

For example, Article II, Section 2, provides the president the power to appoint officers and department heads. In the following section, the president is further empowered to see that the laws are “faithfully executed.” More specifically, Article I, Section 8, empowers Congress to establish a post office, build roads, regulate commerce, coin money, and regulate the value of money. Granting the president and Congress such responsibilities appears to anticipate a bureaucracy of some size. Yet the design of the bureaucracy is not described, and it does not occupy its own section of the Constitution as bureaucracy often does in other countries’ governing documents the design and form were left to be established in practice.

Under President George Washington, the bureaucracy remained small enough to accomplish only the necessary tasks at hand. [3] Washington’s tenure saw the creation of the Department of State to oversee international issues, the Department of the Treasury to control coinage, and the Department of War to administer the armed forces. The employees within these three departments, in addition to the growing postal service, constituted the major portion of the federal bureaucracy for the first three decades of the republic. Two developments, however, contributed to the growth of the bureaucracy well beyond these humble beginnings.

The cabinet of President George Washington (far left) consisted of only four individuals: the secretary of war (Henry Knox, left), the secretary of the treasury (Alexander Hamilton, center), the secretary of state (Thomas Jefferson, right), and the attorney general (Edmund Randolph, far right). The small size of this group reflected the small size of the U.S. government in the late eighteenth century. (credit: modification of work by the Library of Congress)

The first development was the rise of centralized party politics in the 1820s. Under President Andrew Jackson, many thousands of party loyalists filled the ranks of the bureaucratic offices around the country. This was the beginning of the spoils system, in which political appointments were transformed into political patronage doled out by the president on the basis of party loyalty. [4]

Political patronage is the use of state resources to reward individuals for their political support. The term “spoils” here refers to paid positions in the U.S. government. As the saying goes, “to the victor,” in this case the incoming president, “go the spoils.” It was assumed that government would work far more efficiently if the key federal posts were occupied by those already supportive of the president and his policies. This system served to enforce party loyalty by tying the livelihoods of the party faithful to the success or failure of the party. The number of federal posts the president sought to use as appropriate rewards for supporters swelled over the following decades.

The second development was industrialization, which in the late nineteenth century significantly increased both the population and economic size of the United States. These changes in turn brought about urban growth in a number of places across the East and Midwest. Railroads and telegraph lines drew the country together and increased the potential for federal centralization. The government and its bureaucracy were closely involved in creating concessions for and providing land to the western railways stretching across the plains and beyond the Rocky Mountains. These changes set the groundwork for the regulatory framework that emerged in the early twentieth century.

Lessons from the Election of 1968

Almost fifty years ago, on March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson stunned everyone by announcing that he would not run for a second term as President. Johnson had gone on television at nine o’clock that evening to address the nation on the war in Vietnam. It was not going well. In the past three years, the United States had dropped more tons of bombs on Vietnam than were dropped by all the belligerents combined in the Second World War. Twenty thousand Americans had died there, four thousand in the previous two months, following a surprise attack, known as the Tet Offensive, by North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces. Enemy losses were much higher, but that only made the war seem more horrific and out of control.

I was at home, sitting in the basement, where we kept our television set, listening to Johnson’s speech with my father. He was standing with his back to the screen, so that he would not have to look at Johnson. He was protesting Johnson’s policy on Vietnam. The only person present in the basement to appreciate the symbolism was me.

My father had already registered his opposition in a more substantive way. He had been working in Washington, D.C., for one of Johnson’s anti-poverty programs, but he had resigned because he felt he couldn’t work for an Administration that was propping up autocratic regimes in Saigon and napalming the Vietnamese. So we had moved back to Massachusetts, where he took a lesser job with, I assume, a lower salary.

In his address, Johnson announced a reduction of American air strikes and said that he would seek a negotiated settlement, but he also said that he was sending more troops. Then he said, “I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.” My father perked up. He did not, however, turn around. “Accordingly,” Johnson went on, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

“He’s not running!” my father shouted to my mother, who was upstairs. She had refused even to listen to Johnson. That’s the kind of house I grew up in. “He’s not running!”

For antiwar liberals like my parents, who had marched in Washington the previous October in a giant demonstration organized by a group known as the Mobe (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam), Johnson was a monster who had betrayed liberalism, and the knight who slayed him was Eugene McCarthy.

McCarthy was the senior senator from Minnesota, a liberal anti-Communist whose roots, like my parents’, were in New Deal politics. Unlike my parents, McCarthy had a spiritual side. As a young man, he had entered a monastery under the name Brother Conan but was kicked out for the sin of intellectual pride. McCarthy had always had a bit of contemptus mundi about him. Turning your back to the television set was the kind of gesture he would have understood.

In the beginning, McCarthy was a single-issue candidate. He was a dove. He ran against continued American military intervention in Vietnam. But he was also offended by the Administration’s insistence that its war powers were absolute, and by its increasingly transparent lies about the progress of the war. He had come to see the Administration as a danger to democracy. He was an enemy of what used to be called “the imperial Presidency.”

As unpopular as Johnson was in 1968 with Democrats like my parents, he was a man politicians thought twice about crossing. He had won the 1964 Presidential election, against Barry Goldwater, with the highest percentage of the popular vote in American history, and he knew how to squeeze his opponents. Even Democrats in Congress who knew that Johnson was driving the country off a cliff—and by the end of 1967, when four hundred and eighty-five thousand Americans were stationed in Vietnam, the folly of intervention had become plain—were loath to break with him publicly. But McCarthy did. In November, 1967, he announced that he was entering the Democratic Presidential primaries. He was running against a sitting President of his own party. Many people thought that he had committed hara-kiri—a noble act, possibly, but politically insane.

The New Hampshire primary, held on March 12, 1968, made those people think again. It wasn’t because McCarthy did especially well. Johnson’s name was not on the Democratic ballot, but he won easily as a write-in candidate, with forty-nine per cent of the Democratic vote. McCarthy got forty-two per cent, despite the fact that his name was the only name on the ballot, and even though he had five thousand New Hampshire students and two thousand out-of-state volunteers canvassing the state for him. McCarthy received about twenty-two thousand Democratic votes, roughly three votes for every campaign worker.

In national politics, twenty-two thousand was not an intimidating number of votes—twenty-two thousand people would not even fill half of Yankee Stadium—and New Hampshire was not a state that Democrats needed to carry. In the previous five Presidential elections, it had voted Republican four times. (The exception was the Johnson landslide in 1964.) The winner of the Republican primary, Richard Nixon, got eighty-four thousand votes, thirty thousand more than Johnson and McCarthy combined. But blood was in the water, and four days later, on March 16th, Robert F. Kennedy, the junior senator from New York, declared his candidacy.

If Kennedy hadn’t entered the race, Johnson could have fended off McCarthy. In 1968, the primaries played a minor role in the delegate-selection process. Thirty-six states did not even hold them. The parties controlled the process. The man who eventually won the Democratic nomination, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice-President, did not enter a single primary.

Robert Kennedy is one of the great what-ifs of American political history. In 1968, he was just forty-two years old. He had the most glamorous name in politics he wore the mantle of martyrdom and he had transformed himself from a calculating infighter—he had managed his brother’s Presidential campaign, in 1960, and served as his Attorney General after the election—into a kind of existentialist messiah. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, in Atlantic City, he had received a twenty-two-minute standing ovation just by appearing at the lectern.

There was a rawness in Kennedy’s face and voice that seemed to match the national mood. He was the personification of the country’s pain over its fallen leader. And he had the ability to reflect back whatever voters projected onto him. He seemed to combine youth with experience, intellect with heart, street sense with vision. He was a hero to Chicano grape pickers, to inner-city African-Americans, to union workers. He was a man of the times when the times they were a-changin’. Kennedy had haters. Having haters is part of the job of being a messiah. But he was salvific. He could rouse audiences to a frenzy and he could make hardened politicos weep. People thought that he could go to the Convention and steal the nomination from Johnson. People thought that he could beat Nixon.

Johnson was not salvific. “Waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on,” I heard Pete Seeger sing in Washington in 1967. It’s a song about a platoon in the Second World War, but everyone knew who the big fool was. The line was electric. Pete was a sing-along performer, and the liberal audience (who else would be at a Pete Seeger concert?) roared it out.

It was as though they had forgotten that Johnson had pushed through two major pieces of civil-rights legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination by race or religion or sex illegal, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed the franchise to African-Americans in the formerly segregated South. Those were the greatest legal advances in race relations since the Civil War amendments. But by 1968 Vietnam had eclipsed them.

Johnson had no experience in foreign policy. Much as Harry Truman had done, in 1947 and 1948, he allowed the generals and the policy hawks to convince him of a central fallacy of Cold War thinking: that America’s standing was at stake in every regime change around the world. He did not want to be the President who lost Southeast Asia to Communism.

“He scoffs whenever I suggest a scenic route.”

By 1968, Johnson’s Great Society programs—legislation on education, health care, urban renewal, and transportation whose scope rivalled that of the New Deal—were dying because of the cost of the war, and he had imposed a ten-per-cent income surtax, a dependable way to become unpopular with just about everybody. Inflation, which had been low for most of the postwar era, had reached four per cent. (It went much higher: the country was on the brink of an economic retrenchment that took fifteen years to work through.)

The message of New Hampshire, therefore, was not that McCarthy was the answer to the nation’s troubles. It was that Johnson was the face of what many voters wanted to get away from. New Hampshire did not make McCarthy seem electable so much as it made Johnson seem beatable. That was the message that Kennedy had been waiting to hear, and he wasted little time jumping into the race. He was accused, rightly, of opportunism.

Although Johnson had served as John F. Kennedy’s Vice-President, there was no love lost between him and the Kennedys. He was not cut out for a part in Camelot. Colonel Cornpone, Jackie Kennedy used to call him. At the first Cabinet meeting after J.F.K. was assassinated, Robert arrived late, and everyone in the room rose as a sign of respect, except for Johnson. Five years later, Johnson was losing one war overseas he could not engage on a second front at home. So, on March 31st, two weeks after Kennedy entered the race, Johnson made my father, briefly, a happy man.

After March 31st, the primaries became a mano a mano between Kennedy and McCarthy. As a campaigner, Kennedy was hot and McCarthy was cool, but McCarthy did not suffer from the contrast, at least among white liberals. He had established his own aura, the aura of the samurai: unswerving and ascetic.

On May 28th, he defeated Kennedy in the Oregon primary. It was the first time in twenty-seven consecutive races that any Kennedy had lost an election. On June 4th, Kennedy rebounded and won the big one, California. Minutes after declaring victory, he was shot in the Ambassador Hotel, in Los Angeles. He died on June 6th, along with the seeds of whatever future America he carried within him.

All the antiwar fury in the Democratic Party could now focus its hopes on McCarthy. I went with my family to see him on July 25th at an enormous rally at Fenway Park, in Boston. McCarthy’s wife, Abigail, who was closely involved in the campaign, defined McCarthy’s constituency as “academia united with the mobile society of scientists, educators, technologists and the new post-World-War II college class.” If that was your base in 1968, Fenway Park was the ideal place to address it.

Almost forty thousand people were jammed into a stadium whose official capacity is under thirty-eight thousand five thousand more listened outside. McCarthy was introduced by Leonard Bernstein, a man practiced in podium histrionics. I can still hear him cuing McCarthy’s entrance—“Even now, entering from the center-field bleachers . . .” A door opened under the stands, and McCarthy walked across the field to a speaker’s platform at second base.

McCarthy had adopted the rhetoric of revolution. It was to be a revolution of reason and common sense, of course McCarthy was a Midwesterner and a Catholic. He loathed the yippies and the student radicals his student volunteers were encouraged to go “clean for Gene.” But the language of revolution was what you used to mobilize antiwar liberals in 1968. So McCarthy spoke at Fenway about the “power of the people” and called his campaign “a kind of uprising.”

McCarthy had a wry and slightly professorial tone. “Almost everything that the Church tried to give up at the Vatican Council has been picked up by the Defense Department,” he said at one point. I don’t think that line would have meant much in Cleveland, but it received knowing chortles and applause in Boston.

He got his loudest and most sustained reaction when he mentioned the Convention, then one month away, in Chicago. “Any visit to Chicago is always beset with some uncertainties, some dangers,” he said (applause indicating that understatement was always appreciated), “but I think that we shall succeed there.” He said it in the most nonchalant tone of voice imaginable, but the cheers went on and on.

Those were the cheers of desperation, tribute to a valiant effort doomed to come up short. Everyone at Fenway knew that McCarthy did not have the delegates. He would have to inspire a stampede at the Convention to rip the nomination from Humphrey, who stood to inherit Johnson’s delegates. In the minds of everyone who was old enough, there probably flickered the memory of a speech that McCarthy had delivered at the 1960 Democratic Convention, putting Adlai Stevenson’s name in nomination. “Do not leave this prophet without honor in his own party,” McCarthy had said, setting off a floor demonstration that threatened to steal the Convention from J.F.K. But lightning was not likely to strike twice, and in 1960 Kennedy won on the first ballot, anyway.

We watched every minute of the 1968 Convention in our basement, and there were some very late nights. What everyone remembers are the attacks by police and National Guardsmen on demonstrators in the streets outside. In fact, the networks did not devote much time to covering those. Out of thirty-eight hours of Convention coverage, CBS devoted thirty-two minutes to the demonstrators. NBC devoted fourteen minutes out of nineteen hours of coverage.

But the scene inside the hall—the Chicago Amphitheatre, on the South Side, near the stockyards—was tumultuous enough. The CBS reporters Dan Rather and Mike Wallace were roughed up by security personnel. After a vote on an antiwar platform plank failed, members of the New York delegation joined arms and sang “We Shall Overcome.” When Senator Abraham Ribicoff, of Connecticut, was giving a speech, the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, shouted at him, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home.”

The antiwar delegates lost every battle. A last-minute attempt to draft Edward Kennedy was aborted, and Humphrey won the nomination on the first ballot, with some seventeen hundred delegates, eight hundred and forty-seven more than the rest of the field.

The Convention left the Party fractured. McCarthy refused to endorse Humphrey, who began the fall campaign far behind in the polls. “Right now, you’re dead,” his campaign manager, Lawrence O’Brien, told him. He did come back, and nearly made up the difference. At the end of September, he at last broke with Johnson and announced that he would halt the bombing. At the end of October, McCarthy finally endorsed Humphrey. It was not quite enough. On November 5th, something happened that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier: Richard Nixon was elected President.

The story of this election has been told in many books, from Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President 1968” and Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page’s mammoth “An American Melodrama,” both published in 1969, to Michael A. Cohen’s “American Maelstrom,” which came out in 2016. It is featured in classic histories of the postwar period, including Hodgson’s “America in Our Time,” Allen J. Matusow’s “The Unraveling of America,” G. Calvin MacKenzie and Robert Weisbrot’s “The Liberal Hour,” and Todd Gitlin’s “The Sixties.” The story of the 1968 Presidential election is like oral poetry, a saga passed down from bard to bard that no one (or no one of a certain age, maybe) seems to tire of hearing.

Lawrence O’Donnell’s “Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics” (Penguin) is the latest in this string of recitations. O’Donnell is the host of “The Last Word,” on MSNBC he has worked on Capitol Hill, and he was a writer and producer for “The West Wing.” His book relies almost entirely on published sources, and so it adds little to what we know. But he is a talented storyteller, and his analysis of campaign tactics is sharp.

And the story of that election still matters. In 1968, Americans elected a man with some savvy and no principles. In 2016, they elected a man with neither. O’Donnell’s book makes it a little easier to understand how we got from there to here. It turns out that the distance is not all that great.

Americans tend to overread Presidential elections. It’s not that the results aren’t consequential. It matters which party, and which person in which party, is in the White House. The mistake is to interpret the election as an index of public opinion (itself something of a Platonic abstraction).

In close elections, such as those of 1960, 1968, and 1976, the vote is essentially the equivalent of flipping a coin. If the voting had happened a week earlier or a week later or on a rainy day, the outcome might have been reversed. But we interpret the result as though it reflected the national intention, a collective decision by the people to rally behind R., and repudiate D. Even when the winner receives fewer votes than the loser, as in 2000 and 2016, we talk about the national mood and direction almost entirely in terms of the winning candidate, and as though the person more voters preferred had vanished, his or her positions barely worth reporting on.

Millions more Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and in 2012 and for Hillary Clinton in 2016 than voted for Donald Trump, but the Trump voter is now the protagonist of the national narrative. People talk about how Americans want to roll back globalization—even though most Americans who voted appear to want no such thing. The United States is one of the few democracies that does not have a coalition government, and a winner-take-all electoral system breeds a winner-take-all punditry.

The winner-take-all interpretation of the 1968 election was that, with the defeat of Hubert Humphrey, the nation repudiated liberalism. The election supposedly marked the demise of an ideological consensus that had dominated national politics since Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 and that made politically possible the use of government programs to remedy the inequities of free-market capitalism.

But did Humphrey lose because he was a liberal, or because he ran a tone-deaf campaign? “Here we are, the way politics ought to be in America, the politics of happiness, the politics of purpose, and the politics of joy,” he chirped in the speech in which he announced his candidacy. The date was April 27, 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated three weeks before. It was a bizarre moment to introduce a phrase like “the politics of joy.” And although Johnson had just been forced to withdraw from the race by two candidates who opposed his Vietnam policy, Humphrey did not mention Vietnam in the speech.

Even after he had the nomination in hand, he seemed reluctant to dissociate himself from a policy with which the electorate had clearly lost patience. Yet the popular vote was surprisingly close. The margin was eight hundred thousand votes, seven-tenths of one per cent of the total. Some of the Democratic base did not turn out, and some Democrats—my mother was one—voted but did not check a box for President (another symbolic protest performed for a local audience). Humphrey got twelve million fewer votes than Johnson did in 1964, and he still nearly won a plurality. It’s hard to believe that twelve million people consciously embraced liberalism in 1964 and consciously rejected it four years later.

O’Donnell argues that the lesson of 1968 is that “the peace movement won.” And although his McCarthy is not an entirely sympathetic figure—he relies considerably on Dominic Sandbrook’s 2004 biography, in which McCarthy comes off as sour and aloof—he is the hero of O’Donnell’s story. “The last word about Gene McCarthy,” he says, “should always be that no one did more to stop the killing in Vietnam than Senator Eugene McCarthy.”

This seems a stretch for any number of reasons, the most obvious being that McCarthy lost, and that the war continued for seven more years. Nixon didn’t want to be the President who lost Southeast Asia to Communism any more than Johnson did, and he had no idea how to end the war, either. More than a third of all the Americans killed in Vietnam were killed during his Presidency.

It wasn’t as though Nixon was winding things down. In 1970, he extended the war into Cambodia. In the last of the major campus disruptions, protesting students were killed at Kent State, in Ohio, and at Jackson State College, in Mississippi. In 1972, after running again on a promise to end the war, Nixon ordered the so-called Christmas bombing of North Vietnam: in the course of twelve days, some seven hundred and forty sorties by B-52s dropped twenty thousand tons of bombs. Sixteen hundred Vietnamese were estimated to have been killed.

The purpose of the Christmas bombing was to pressure North Vietnam to negotiate an end to the fighting, which finally happened in 1973. But, in 1975, the North Vietnamese marched into Saigon and united the country under Communist rule, exactly the outcome that France and the United States had been fighting to prevent for thirty years. By then, Nixon had resigned and Gerald Ford was President. When O’Donnell writes that “the peace movement drove U.S. forces out of Vietnam, not the North Vietnamese Army,” he is making the same mistake that every Administration made: imagining that it was decisions taken by Americans that determined the fate of Vietnam.

O’Donnell thinks that the nomination of Nixon marked the end of liberalism, at least in the Republican Party. That’s quite right: a certain type of Republican politician, the type represented by Nelson Rockefeller (the governor of New York, who ran a poorly mounted and hopelessly belated campaign against Nixon), George Romney (the governor of Michigan, who knocked himself out of the Republican primaries early by telling a reporter that he had been “brainwashed” about Vietnam), and John Lindsay (the mayor of New York, who some foolishly hoped might be Nixon’s Vice-Presidential pick), largely disappeared from the Party after 1968. But that leaves a question: Why didn’t their supporters become Democrats? This is where the diagnosis becomes complicated.

People who write and argue about politics are ideologues. They hold a coherent set of positions that they identify as liberal or conservative (or some variant, like libertarian or leftist). But, to millions of voters, those terms mean almost nothing. These voters do not think in ideological terms, and their positions on the issues are often inconsistent and lacking in coherence. Given the option, they will sometimes identify as moderates or centrists, but this tells us very little about how they will vote.

The fact that voters are often responding to nonideological cues helps to explain the apparent volatility of the electorate from race to race. In 1964, for example, running against Goldwater, a conservative from Arizona, Johnson carried the neighboring state of California with fifty-nine per cent of the vote. Two years later, running as a conservative who had prominently backed Goldwater in 1964, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California with almost fifty-eight per cent of the vote. In the 1968 Presidential election, forty per cent of the people who had voted for Johnson in 1964 voted for Nixon, even though Nixon’s opponent was Johnson’s own Vice-President. What cues were these voters responding to?

After Nixon’s victory, two books, both of which became enormously influential, proposed explanations. According to “The Real Majority,” by Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, the 1968 election proved that, particularly in a time of extremes like the late nineteen-sixties, centrism was the winning position. Nixon got to the center, while Humphrey and the Democrats remained associated with the extremes.

Centrism requires a delicate balancing act, which Nixon, a man with many innate liabilities as a politician, turned out to be extremely good at. He opposed the Johnson-Humphrey Administration’s policy on the war, but had no policy of his own. (Nixon never made the claim, often attributed to him, that he had a “secret plan to end the war.” That phrase was invented by a reporter.) As long as the war was going badly, people who favored withdrawal and people who favored escalation both found in Nixon a congenial alternative.

At the same time, Nixon figured out a position to run on. He became the candidate of “law and order.” Goldwater had used that expression in 1964, and so had Reagan in 1966. It was a brilliant political slogan, a whistle heard by many dogs. It transposed political issues like civil rights and Vietnam into what appeared to be a straightforward legal position: crime is wrong and criminals should be punished.

To liberals who believed in the righteousness of the civil-rights demonstrations and the antiwar protests, the disruption and violence that accompanied them was caused by the overreaction of the authorities. For most voters, though, the disruption and violence were the fault of the demonstrators. Most people don’t like righteousness in others. They can be quite righteous about it.

For these voters, it was not a contradiction to profess support for racial equality and to condemn the marchers in Birmingham and Selma, or to be against the war in Vietnam and to believe that people like Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman should be locked up. In polls taken in 1968, only three per cent of voters who objected to Johnson’s policy in Vietnam were also sympathetic to antiwar protesters. My parents were part of the three per cent.

Politically, the most important event in the United States in 1968 was, therefore, the assassination, on April 4th, of Martin Luther King. Riots broke out in more than a hundred cities. Thirty-nine people died and twenty thousand were arrested. More than fifty thousand troops were deployed. Washington, D.C., became a war zone. In Newark, New Jersey, there were nearly two hundred fires. Large numbers of white Americans did not interpret this disorder in terms of social justice. They interpreted it as a breakdown of civil society. The rioters were not black or white they were arsonists and looters (who happened to be black). Nixon showed that political advantage came from steering clear of the underlying issues. He gave people respectable reasons to vote for a candidate they favored for what they might have worried were not such respectable reasons.

The second influential post-1968 book was Kevin Phillips’s “The Emerging Republican Majority,” published in 1969. This is the book that popularized what became known as the Southern Strategy. Like Scammon and Wattenberg, Phillips saw that millions of voters were repelled by what they regarded as extremism, but he gave a name to what he thought was the key issue. He called it “the Negro problem.”

The big news electorally in 1964 was that a Republican carried five Southern states: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina. It was the first time those states had not gone Democratic since Reconstruction, and the reason was not obscure. The voting was white backlash against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Senator Goldwater had voted against. Goldwater was not a segregationist he was a states’-rights conservative. But he flipped the South to the Republican Party.

The key to exploiting this shift in party alignment, as Nixon understood, was not to oppose the civil-rights movement but to force the Democratic Party to take ownership of it. The Kennedys had seen the perils in that, and they had been extremely careful about not appearing to be too close to King. But Johnson effectively put his personal brand on the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and the Party thus had to take on the baggage of the urban rioting and the militancy of groups like the Black Panthers. Republicans didn’t have to say a word against integration. All they had to do was talk about law and order.

Still, Nixon didn’t carry the Deep South in the general election. George Wallace did. And Wallace didn’t use a dog whistle. Wallace was the dog. He was elected governor of Alabama in 1962, a time when the official logo of the Alabama Democratic Party was a rooster with a banner above it reading “White Supremacy.” The next summer, he achieved national recognition when he resisted the attempt to enroll the first black students at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa—the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” (The confrontation was staged, to allow Wallace to make his point in exchange for letting the students enroll. Those students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, were quietly admitted through another door.)

A year later, Wallace ran in the Democratic primaries, and surprised many people by winning a third of the vote in Wisconsin and more than forty per cent in Maryland. In 1968, he ran as an independent, hoping to win enough electoral votes to deny any candidate a majority, giving himself leverage in choosing the next President.

Wallace came to Massachusetts several times in the summer of 1968 on drives for signatures to get on the ballot. I heard him on one of those trips. The crowd was small and mostly hostile. What amazed me was that Wallace gave the stump speech he delivered everywhere, which consisted almost entirely of taunts, insults, and threats. He did not reason with his opponents.

He called professors and Washington bureaucrats “sissy britches” and mocked “the bearded professor who thinks he knows how to settle the Vietnam War when he hasn’t got enough sense to park a bicycle straight.” As President, he said, he would seek indictments for “any college professor who talks about hoping the Vietcong win the war.” He liked to invite hecklers to come up to the stage after his speech. “I’ll autograph your sandals,” he’d say. He told reporters, “I’d let the police run this country for a couple of years. I’m not talking about a police state, but sometimes it takes a police state to run some people.” Voters did not need to be told who “some people” were.

Wallace won just three per cent of the vote in Massachusetts, but his act played well across much of the country, where he spoke to boisterously enthusiastic audiences. After a rally at Madison Square Garden, supporters marched out chanting “White supremacy!” People told reporters that they admired him because “he says what he thinks.”

Late in the race, one of the reporters who covered Wallace, Douglas Kiker, tried to explain the phenomenon. “It is as if somewhere, sometime a while back, George Wallace had been awakened by a white, blinding vision: they all hate black people, all of them,” Kiker wrote in New York. “They’re all afraid, all of them. Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern! The whole United States is Southern! Anyone who travels with Wallace these days on his Presidential campaign finds it hard to resist arriving at the same conclusion.”

Wallace’s big mistake, late in the campaign, was to name as his running mate a former general, Curtis LeMay, who advocated the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. LeMay terrified everyone, and Wallace ended up with thirteen per cent of the vote. He was also hurt, as Humphrey was hurt, by being seen constantly on television surrounded by angry protesters. Those were the scenes people were voting to get away from. But Wallace carried the Southern states that Goldwater had won in 1964, and, as everyone now recognizes, he offered a taste of demagoguery to come.

Objects in the rearview mirror often really are closer than they appear. It’s not that far from Wallace to Trump. The focus on Presidential elections makes it hard to see that from one election to the next pretty much the same people are voting, and most people do not change much over time. The Presidency is a beach ball bouncing along the surface, the winner an artifact of the circumstance that there are usually only two candidates to choose between. “Public opinion,” or the forces that move it, runs below the surface, and has a much slower tempo.

In “Deeply Divided,” a 2014 study, the political scientists Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos argue that since 1960 our politics has been driven by two movements: the civil-rights movement and what they call a “countermovement,” which could be broadly described as anti-integrationist. It includes racists, but it also includes many white Americans who acknowledge the principle of racial equality but resist involuntary race-mixing, people who accept and even defend de facto segregation. “The collapse of the postwar consensus,” McAdam and Kloos maintain, was not because of Vietnam it “had everything to do with race.”

White voters abandoned the Democratic Party. In 1968, Humphrey got thirty-eight per cent of the white vote. In 1972, George McGovern got thirty-two per cent. In 1980, Jimmy Carter, a white Southerner, got thirty-six per cent. In 2016, Hillary Clinton, running against the toxic nitwit who is now the face of our politics, received thirty-seven per cent.

One thing that surprised analysts about Wallace voters was how young they were. To most observers during the campaign, it looked as though Wallace was appealing to older voters who were uncomfortable with social change or were unwilling to abandon old prejudices. These observers assumed that the United States would age out of those attitudes as the new day of tolerance and equality brightened. I’m sure we white Massachusetts liberals believed something like that. We thought that racial injustice and American exceptionalism were on history’s dust heap, only given a last breath by the election of Nixon in a crazy and fluky election year. We thought the gains of mid-century liberalism were lasting.

We were suffering under two delusions. The first was that ending de jure discrimination meant ending discrimination. We know better now about that. The other delusion, though, persists. This is the stereotype of sixties youth as progressive and permissive. There were such young people, of course, and they got a lot of press. But most young people in the nineteen sixties did not march for civil rights or protest the war in Vietnam. They had no sandals to autograph. Like young people in any era, most of them were like their parents. ♦

An earlier version of this article misstated Robert Kennedy’s age in 1968. He was forty-two, not forty-three. It also misstated the date of the California primary in 1968. It was on June 4th, not June 5th.

Lyndon Johnson Learns Fate of Missing Civil Rights Workers - HISTORY

Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964)

ROY WILKINS: There is no state with a record that approaches that of Mississippi in inhumanity, murder and brutality and racial hatred. It is absolutely at the bottom of the list.

NARRATOR: In 1964, the state of Mississippi called it an invasion. Civil rights workers called it Freedom Summer. To change Mississippi and the country, they would risk beatings, arrest, and their lives.

FANNY CHANEY: You all know what my child is doing? He was trying for us all to make a better living. And he had two fellows from New York, had their own home and everything, didn't have nothing to worry, but they come here to help us. Did you all know they come here to help us? They died for us.

UNITA BLACKWELL: People like myself, I was born on this river. And I love the land. It's the delta, and to me it's now a challenge, it's history, it's everything, to what black people it's all about. We came about slavery and this is where we acted it out, I suppose. All of the work, all them hard works and all that. But we put in our blood, sweat and tears and we love the land. This is Mississippi.

WHITE HUNTER: I lived in this delta all my life, my parents before me, my grandparents. I've hunted and fished this land since I was a child. This land is composed of two different cultures, a white culture and a colored culture, and I lived close to them all my life. But I'm told now that we mistreated them and that we must change, and these changes are coming faster than I expected. And I'm required to make decisions on the basis of a new way of thinking and it's difficult. It's difficult for me, it's difficult for all southerners.

WILLIAM SIMMONS: I was born in Mississippi, in the United States, and I'm a product of my heredity and education and the society in which I was raised. And I have a vested interest in that society, and I along with a million other white Mississippians will do everything in our power to protect that vested interest. It's just as simple as that.

NARRATOR: In 1954, the Citizens Council was established in the delta, the northwest section of the state where blacks outnumbered whites. The council's purpose, to preserve white political power by opposing integration. Council chapters soon spread across the state.

HODDING CARTER: Within four years, the Citizens Council was powerful enough that in the election of 1959, it threw its support openly and actively behind the candidacy of a damage suit lawyer named Ross Barnett, not one of the world's most successful politicians up to then and saw him elected over a supposed moderate who was himself a segregationist, but with a quieter voice than Ross Barnett. And from 1959 until 1963 in the Barnett Administration, the Citizens Council was the state and the state effectively on matters racial was the Citizens Council.

NARRATOR: Bankers, politicians and owners of businesses joined the Citizens Councils throughout the South. They punished people who supported integration or black voting rights by foreclosing mortgages, firing workers, or refusing loans to farmers. And they used their influence to push through laws that would insure continued white domination.

WILLIAM SIMMONS: It's primarily a struggle for power, and I think we would be stupid indeed if we failed to see where the consequences of a supine surrender on our part would lead.

NARRATOR: At the center of Mississippi's struggle for power was the black vote. In some counties, blacks outnumbered whites four to one. In 1962, in many counties, no blacks were registered.

BOB MOSES: It's a big psychological, you know, gap to overcome, is what a lot of people call the psychology of fear on part of most of the Negroes. They're afraid of losing their jobs, they've been brainwashed. They think that somehow all of this is the business of the white man and it's not something that they're supposed to be doing.

NARRATOR: Twenty-six year old Bob Moses came to Mississippi at the request of Amsey Moore, an NAACP leader. Moses and other SNCC organizers opened offices throughout the state to recruit local Mississippians.

UNITA BLACKWELL: I was asked, would I join the SNCC, which was Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and I said yes, and "What do I have to do?" They said just try to encourage people to go and try to register over to the courthouse. And that was my start of going around here to my neighbors and friends and asking them, you know, would they come and go to the courthouse and try to register to vote. People was being put off the plantations, people were threatened, folks was put in jail just because we wanted people to try to register to vote.

NARRATOR: Some attempting to register had even been murdered to stop black political activity. And the state passed new voting laws to make registration more difficult.

REGISTRAR: On this side . (inaudible) just like your meaning, your understanding of it.

LAWRENCE GUYOT: Registering to vote at that time meant that you filled out a 22-question questionnaire. One of the questions was interpret any of the 286 sections of the Mississippi constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar. Now, you have to bear in mind that some of those registrars couldn't read or write, but that didn't matter, they could still determine who should be registered if that person happened to be black. Because all whites who attempted to register were registered.

NARRATOR: As the struggle for voting rights escalated in the delta, tension was building in Jackson, the state capital, and the last stop of the Freedom Rides in 1961. A leader in Jackson and throughout the state was Medgar Evers, NAACP state field secretary. Evers had supported James Meredith during the battle to integrate the University of Mississippi. For ten years, he had traveled the state fighting for racial justice. And now helped organize the NAACP boycott of downtown stores.

MEDGAR EVERS: Don't shop for anything on Capitol Street. Let's let the merchants down on Capitol Street feel the economic pinch. Let me say this to you. I had one merchant call me and he said, "I want you to know that I've talked to my national office today, and they want me to tell you that we don't need nigger business." These are stores that help to support the white Citizens Council, the council that is dedicated to keeping you and I second class citizens.

Now finally, ladies and gentlemen, we'll be demonstrating here until freedom comes to Negroes here in Jackson, Mississippi.

NARRATOR: In June, 1963, students in Jackson poured out of their schools to protest the beatings and arrest of demonstrators at downtown sit-ins. In response, Jackson officials put police and firemen on 24 hour alert with orders to contain the demonstrators. Hundreds were arrested. Mayor Allen Thompson announced that Jackson could handle 10,000 if necessary. The attitude of Jackson city officials was another reminder that blacks in Mississippi would have no real power until they had the power to elect those who governed them.

REV. R. L. T. SMITH: If you are not a registered voter, remember this one thing. That Alan Thompson got in the mayor's office by the majority of the folks who were qualified to vote and voted on the day that he was elected. Ross Barnett got in office because he was elected by the majority of the folks who were qualified to vote and voted on the day that he was elected. And if you don't like this thing, let's get ready to change it.

NARRATOR: Demonstrators were not backing down, and many were being injured. For Medgar Evers, the situation grew more dangerous with every passing day.

MYRLIE EVERS: It was simply in the air. You knew that something was going to happen, and the logical person for it to happen to was Medgar. It certainly brought us closer during that time. As a matter of fact, we didn't talk, we didn't have to. We communicated without words. It was a touch, it was a look, it was holding each other, it was music playing. And I used to try to reassure him and tell him, "Nothing's going to happen to you. The FBI is here." He'd laugh. "Everybody knows you, you're in the press, they wouldn't dare do anything to you."

NARRATOR: On June 11th, 1963, Myrlie Evers watched at home as President John Kennedy made his strongest speech on civil rights.

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say it is the problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.

MYRLIE EVERS: Late that night, he came home, the children were still up. I was asleep across the bed, and we heard the motor of a car coming in and pulling into the driveway. We heard him get out of the car, and the car door slam. And in that same instance, we heard the loud gunfire. The children fell to the floor, as he had taught them to do. I made a run for the front door, turned on the light, and there he was. The force of the bullet had pushed him forward, as I understand, and the strong man that he was, he had his keys in his hand and had pulled his body around the rest of the way to the door. There he lay, and I screamed and people came out, our next door neighbor fired a gun, as he said, to try to frighten anyone away. And I knew then that that was it.

NARRATOR: Medgar Evers had been shot in the back by a single round from a high powered rifle. The one fingerprint found on the weapon belonged to Byron de la Beckwith, a member of the Citizens Council in Greenwood, Mississippi. Medgar Evers, 37 years old, died one hour later.

MYRLIE EVERS: When Medgar was felled by that shot and I rushed out and saw him lying there and people from the neighborhood began to gather, there were also some whose color happened to have been white. I don't think I have ever hated as much in my life as I did at that particular moment with anyone who had white skin. I screamed at the neighbors and when the police finally got there, I told them that they had killed Medgar. And I can recall wanting so much to have a machine gun or something in my hand and just stand there and mow them all down. I was just -- I can't explain the depth of my hatred at that point.

ROY WILKINS: We view this as a cold, brutal, deliberate killing in a savage, uncivilized state the most savage, the most uncivilized state in the entire 50 states. There is no state with a record that approaches that of Mississippi in inhumanity, murder, brutality and racial hatred. It is absolutely at the bottom of the list.

DAVE DENNIS: On the day that Medgar was killed, I mean, there was violence. There was no way to predict it, that was a different element of people who had never participated in a movement before. Guys off the street who were just angry, you know, who at that time we had very little contact with in the Jackson area. We had mostly worked through churches, we had worked through students, young people, and then with people in general. But the street people, we had not really worked with because they don't have anything to do with this because they always felt that they could not cope with the nonviolence. Not that they disagreed with what the movement, they just thought the tactics . (inaudible). You know . (inaudible) that group of people decided to speak out.

The police department and others came and they actually antagonized the people. They were there in full battalion gear with the riot armor on and guns and they were being pretty rough with the people on the street. And the people just said, "We're not going to take that. This is a funeral of our leader and here they are, you know, harassing us and the white folk killed him."

NARRATOR: Shots had already been fired when John Dorr, a Justice Department attorney, stepped between the crowds and the police. With the help of Dave Dennis and others, Dorr convinced both sides to back off. The demonstrators went home. Medgar Evers was buried in Arlington Cemetery with full military honors. No one was ever convicted of his murder.

The assassination of Medgar Evers focused national attention on the state which seemed at war with half of its own citizens. As anger grew, so did a concern that Mississippi could never be made to change from within. Civil rights leaders and sympathetic whites traveled to the South to see first hand the state called the closed society.

ALLARD LOWENSTEIN: Any doubts we had about the desirability of coming down before we came had been removed by what we've seen since we've been here. At least what we've discovered is the people who run Mississippi today can only do so by force. They cannot allow free election in Mississippi because if they did, they wouldn't run Mississippi. And as we go around Mississippi and are arrested and beaten and charged with miscellaneous and very imaginative traffic violations that don't occur and threatened and told to leave, we understand why the people asked us to come down here. Because inside Mississippi, the rule of force is so hard on them that they can't shake the . (inaudible). But when we leave Mississippi, we'll tell what we found and the people of the United States aren't going to allow this to go on forever.

NARRATOR: Movement leaders debated on how to keep national attention on Mississippi. In June, 1964, Bob Moses announced Freedom Summer.

BOB MOSES: We hope to send in to Mississippi this summer upwards of 1,000 teachers, ministers, lawyers, and students, from all around the country who will engage in what we're calling Freedom School, community center programs, voter registration activity, research work, work in the white communities. And in general, a program designed to open up Mississippi to the country.

NARRATOR: Opening up Mississippi would not be easy. Local newspapers warned of a coming invasion. Governor Paul Johnson calls in more highway patrolman. The city of Jackson ordered an armor truck for riot control, all to resist college students from across the country who had volunteered to work in the state during the summer.

BOB MOSES: Most of the students that people were bringing in for the summer project were from the large universities and from the families of --Who were politicians, bankers, lawyers and others. And we felt by this fact that bringing those particular people that the attention of their parents and relatives from the various different other parts of the country would be on these areas. And by having . (inaudible) whites in here is the press, the American public would have much more concern than if they were just a bunch of blacks they're bringing in the state.

NARRATOR: The first Freedom Summer volunteers gathered for training in Oxford, Ohio.

JIM FORMAN: We're going down there, we're trying to place a real situation that will occur, namely there'll be a mob at the courthouse and we want to get used to this, used to people jeering at us. And we also want the white students who are playing the mob to get used to saying things, calling out epithets, calling people niggers and nigger-lovers.

That was very good because you all got carried away, see? I mean, you were just supposed to yell and you started hitting us, so you got out our frustration. But that's what happens, you know? It's just what happens. People begins shouting, then somebody lurches forward and then everybody begins to lurch forward so that was even better than we had anticipated.

NARRATOR: The students were warned of violence and of the possibility of death once they crossed the Mississippi state line.

ANDY GOODMAN: I want people in this room to understand one, that people should expect to get beaten and--

NARRATOR: The first wave of recruits, including 20 year old Andrew Goodman from New York City, left Saturday, June 20th, for Mississippi. Goodman rode with veteran civil rights workers James Chaney, age 21, and Michael Schwerner, age 24. Sunday, June 21st, on Andy Goodman's first day in Mississippi, the three men drove to investigate the burning of a black Methodist church. The church had been the scene of a civil rights meeting just weeks before. Around 3:00 that afternoon, their 1963 blue Ford station wagon was stopped by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price outside the town of Philadelphia. The three young men were released by Deputy Price around 10:30 that night. It was then that they disappeared. In Oxford, Ohio, volunteers were waiting to travel south.

BOB MOSES: We had to tell the students what we thought was going on, because if in fact anyone was arrested and then taken out of the jail, then the chances that they're alive was just almost zero. And we had to confront the students with that before they went down because they now had --The ball game is changed.

NARRATOR: Within days, the disappearance was national news. A massive search was ordered by President Lyndon Johnson. Two hundred sailors from the naval air station in Meridien moved into the Philadelphia area and were joined there by FBI agents.

TV COMMENTATOR: In Meridien, the wife of missing Mickey Schwerner, Rita Schwerner, flew from Oxford where she had been training many of the summer volunteers. She was greeted by James Farmer, head of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality.

RITA SCHWERNER: It's tragic, as far as I'm concerned, that white northerners have to be caught up in the machinery of injustice and indifference in the South before the American people register concern. I personally suspect that if Mr. Chaney, who is a native Mississippian Negro, had been alone at the time of the disappearance, that this case, like so many others that have come before, would have gone completely unnoticed.

SUMMER VOLUNTEER: Their disappearance, although it might have been calculated to try and drive people away from this state, just the opposite effect on me and everyone else. Whenever an incident like this happens, and they happen fairly often, although not usually this serious, everyone reacts the same way. They become more and more determined to stay in this state and fight the evil system that people have to live under here. I'm down here because I believe my freedom is very much entangled with the freedom of every other man, and if another man's not free, then I'm not free. So I'm fighting for my own freedom here.

REPORTER: Are you scared?

SUMMER VOLUNTEER: Yes, I'm very much afraid. Everyone here is. But we knew before we came down something about what it's going to be like and I don't know of anybody that's turning back because of things like this that happen.

J. EDGAR HOOVER: We most certainly do not and will not give protection to civil rights workers. In the first place, the FBI is not a police organization. It's purely an investigative organization, and the protection of individual citizens, either natives of this state or coming into the state, is a matter for the local authorities. The FBI will not participate in any such protection.

NARRATOR: By early July, the volunteers had arrived in full force. During the summer, 80 civil rights workers were beaten, and 1,000 arrests were reported. One of the most dangerous jobs was traveling from house to house in isolated rural areas to build support for a new political party.

VICTORIA GRAY: We have organized into the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. We are holding a . (inaudible) registration drive throughout the state, encouraging every Negro and white who wants a stake in his political future to prove it by getting his name on a freedom registration book. We have scheduled three state meetings and district caucuses. And on August 6th, here in Jackson, we will hold our state convention. At that time, we will elect a slate of delegates to the national convention in Atlantic City. And when that convention meets, we will present ourselves for seating as the only democratically constituted body of Mississippi citizens worthy of taking part in that convention's business.

NARRATOR: Volunteers collecting signatures for the party found themselves openly challenging the way life had been lived in Mississippi for three-quarters of a century.

PETER ORRIS: People would be sitting down and you would say hello and you'd shake their hands. Now, that was an unusual thing for a white person to do to a black person in Mississippi at that time. Frequently, people would respond by not looking us in the eye. At the end of every phrase, there would be a ma'am or a sir, depending on who as there, and they would say yes to everything we said. We'd say, "Would you like to be involved in the voter registration project? Will you go down to vote?" "Yes, sir." And we knew we were not getting across. We knew they were just waiting for us to go away because we were a danger to them. And in many ways we were. We had much less to risk than they did. This was their lives, their land, their family, and they were going to be here when we were gone.

NARRATOR: Despite the fear, 60,000 signed up as members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. This mass political awakening reminded segregationists of the years following the Civil War, a time when blacks had been elected to high political office.

WILLIAM SIMMONS: We have had experience in the past with Negro political domination. It was known as the Reconstruction. There are some who call this present attempt to build up political power through a mass registration of unqualified nigger voters the second reconstruction.

JUDGE TOM BRADY: I don't want the Negro, as I have known him and contacted him during my lifetime, as a class to control the making of the law that controls me. To control the government under which I live.

REPORTER: Would you feel better, then, if there were some legal means of keeping all Negroes off the rolls?

JUDGE TOM BRADY: I'd feel better, and I think this country would be better off if all Negroes were removed from it, because I think it is a potential source of racial strife.

NARRATOR: While the search for the missing civil rights workers continued, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The new law increased the federal government's power to ban discrimination in public places, but did little to give southern blacks the vote. In Mississippi, the civil rights groups pushed forward with the drive to sign up members for the new Freedom Democratic Party. Summer volunteers also supplied legal and medical services and set up a system of community centers and alternative schools, all part of Freedom Summer.

For years, most blacks in Mississippi had been denied the right to a decent education. SNCC opened 41 Freedom schools across the state. By day, the volunteers taught everything from the 3Rs to innovative courses in black history. By night, the schools were used for political meetings, to explain the new party and to sign up new members. These activities and the presence of white volunteers teaching in black schools and living in black homes offended many white Mississippians.

WILLIAM SIMMONS: When the civil rights workers invaded the state in the summer of 1964 to change us presumably into their own image, they were met with a feeling of some curiosity, but mostly resentment. They fanned out across the state, made a great to-do of breaking up our customs, of flaunting social practices that had been respected by people here over the years. That was the time of the hippies just coming in. Many had on hippie uniforms and conducted themselves in hippie ways. They were not exactly the types of models that most people that I knew wanted to emulate. Also, the arrogance that they showed in wanting to reform a whole state in the way they thought it should be created resentment.

NARRATOR: By late July, the three young men had been missing for six weeks. Many lost hope that they were still alive, but the goals for Freedom Summer were unchanged. Volunteers wanted to prove that black and white could live and work together.

UNITA BLACKWELL: I remember cooking some pinto beans and that's all we had. And everybody just got around the pot, you know, and that was an experience, you know, just to see white people coming around the pot and getting a bowl and putting some stuff in. And then sitting around talking and sitting on the floor, sitting anywhere because, you know, there wasn't any great dining room tables and stuff that we had been used to working in the white people houses. And go in there and find them all sitting, you know, and everybody sitting and they'd ring a bell or something and tap, and you'd come in and bring the stuff and put it around. But this, you were sitting on the floor and they was talking, you know, and we was sitting there laughing. I guess they become very real and very human, we each to one another.

NARRATOR: On August 4th, on a farm outside the town of Philadelphia, the bodies of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were discovered buried together in an earthen dam. The autopsy reports indicated that the men had been killed by .38 caliber bullets. A later report revealed that James Chaney, the one black victim, had also suffered severe bone and skull fractures.

MR. GOODMAN AND WIFE: Throughout our history, countless Americans have died in the continuing struggle for equality. We shall continue to work for this goal and we fervently hope that Americans so engaged will be aided and protected in this noble mission. For ourselves, we wish to express our pride in our son's commitment and that of his companions . (inaudible) and that of his companion now lie now in Mississippi asking each hour to express those truths that are self evident.

NARRATOR: August 7th, 1964, the funeral of James Chaney in Meridien, Mississippi.

DAVE DENNIS: I feel that he's got his freedom and we're still fighting for it. But what I want to talk about right now is the living dead that we have right among our midst, not only in the state of Mississippi, but throughout the nation. Those are the people who don't care, those who do care but don't have the guts enough to sign up for it, and those people who are busy up in Washington and other places using my freedom and my life to play politics with. That includes the President on down to the governor of the state of Mississippi. In my opinion, as I stand here, I not only blame the people who pulled the trigger or did the beating or dug the hole with the shovel, I bury the peace . (inaudible). But I blame the people in Washington, DC and on down in the state of Mississippi for what happened just as much as I blame those who pulled the trigger.

See, I know what's going to happen. I feel that even if they find the people who killed those guys in . (inaudible), you got to come back to the state of Mississippi and have a jury or they come, their aunts, their uncles. And I know what they're going to say, not guilty because no one started pulling the trigger. I'm tired of that.

Another thing that makes me even tireder, though, that is the fact that we as people here in the state and the country are allowing this to continue to happen, even us black folk. So I look at the young kids here, that's something else that I grieve about. And little Ben Chaney here and the other ones like him around in this audience. When you want someone to baby-sit . (inaudible) black mammy to hold her baby. And as long as he can do that, he can sit down beside me, he can watch me go up there and register to vote, and he can watch me take some . (inaudible) the garbage in this state and he can sit down as I rule over him just as he's ruled over me for years. This is our country, too. We didn't have to come here, and they brought us over here.

I have been approached by the people of my national office at CORE, and that is to make sure that this speech that's given is calm, they don't want a lot of, you know, things stirred up and everything else like that. And I'd agreed to do that. And I said, "Okay, fine, that's good." Then when I got up there and I looked out there and I saw little Ben Chaney, things just sort of snapped and I was in a fantasy world, to be sitting up here talking about things are going to get better and we should do it in an easy manner in nonviolence and stuff like that because this country, you cannot make a man change by speaking a foreign language, he doesn't understand what you're talking about. This country operated then, and still operates, on violence. I mean, as you've said, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, that's what we respect.

NARRATOR: The parents of Chaney and Schwerner wanted their sons buried side by side in Meridien. But Mississippi law enforced segregation even in death. James Chaney, age 21, was buried alone in a segregated cemetery. The state never brought anyone to trial for the murder of the three young men. But in federal court, Deputy Cecil Price and six others were found guilty of civil rights violations in connection with the killings and received sentences ranging from three to ten years.

As Freedom Summer moved towards August, the state's Democratic Party met to select delegates to the national convention. As usual, blacks were not allowed to participate. But this would be no ordinary election year. Two weeks later, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party chose its own delegates to challenge the right of the all white regulars to represent the state. The MFDP emphasized that it was open to all citizens.

ELLA BAKER: The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is only beginning, and it is beginning on the basis that it believes that a political party should be open to all the people who wish to subscribe to its principles. That means it's open to even the son of the father on whose plantation you worked, if that son has reached the point that he is willing to subscribe to your principles.

NARRATOR: The MFDP delegation of 64 blacks and 4 whites prepared to leave for Atlantic City. Their goal was to be seated at the Democratic National Convention as the true representatives of their own state. For many, it was their first trip out of Mississippi. For all, this was the culmination of Freedom Summer, the final opportunity to open up Mississippi to the nation.

VICTORIA GRAY: Yeah, I think one of the things that made the delegation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party so hopeful, you know, so expectant, was the fact that people had made a discovery, a discovery that there is a way out of, you know, much of what is wrong with our lives. And that there is a way to change it, and that is through the execution of this vote, you know. And so we can't get past these people at the state level because they lock us out. But we just know that once we get to the national level, with all the proof that we have been locked out and the fact that we've had the courage to go ahead and create our own party, then we feel like we are going to get that representation that we've been denied for so long.

NARRATOR: Atlantic City, New Jersey, site of the 1964 Democratic Convention. Lyndon Johnson expected no opposition in getting his party's nomination, but was concerned the MFDP would disrupt party unity. With the arrival of the Freedom Democrats on August 20th, there were now two delegations in town from Mississippi. The Democratic Party would have to decide which would represent the state on the convention floor. That decision would be made by the credentials committee. On Saturday, August 22nd, America watched this nationally televised hearing.

JOE RAUH: It is the very terror that these people are living through that is the reason that Negroes aren't voting, that they're kept out of the Democratic Party by the terror of the regular party. And what I want the credentials committee to hear is the terror which the regular party uses on the people of Mississippi, which is what Reverend King was explaining, which is what Aaron Henry was explaining, and which is what the next witness will explain, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer.

FANNIE LOU HAMER: Mr. Chairman and to the credentials committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and I live at 66 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi. Some . (inaudible) is the home of Senator James O. Eastman and Senator Stint. But the Freedom Democratic 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 of their hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America.

EDWARD NEWMAN: We will return to this scene in Atlantic City, but now we switch to the White House and NBC's Robert Kuralski.

NARRATOR: Lyndon Johnson cut off coverage of MFDP testimony by making a last minute request for network air time.

JOE RAUH: We had an hour before the credentials committee. Fannie Lou Hamer made her famous pitch, Martin Luther King -- We had the greatest array of people you can ever imagine and the credentials committee was very impressed, but Johnson was not.

NARRATOR: Despite the TV cutoff by the President, Mrs. Hamer's message had gotten through. Viewers back home sent telegrams to delegates, urging support of the MFDP. But President Johnson was afraid southerners would desert the party if the MFDP were seated. He began pressuring liberals close to the Freedom Democrats. Senator Hubert Humphrey, a long time champion of civil rights, was feeling that pressure. Many believed he would not be selected for the vice presidency unless he helped stop the MFDP.

HUBERT HUMPHREY: My only interest in this is an attempt to try to bring about a reconciliation of views in the hopes to keep our convention united with one objective: to defeat Mr. Goldwater in November and to carry forward the democratic program.

NARRATOR: Humphrey assigned Walter Mondale, his young protege from Minnesota, to work out a solution.

WALTER MONDALE: See, everybody was trying to think of something that was simple and would solve it, that would satisfy everybody. The problem was there was no such solution. And so we'd go around and around and around and everybody try this and try that, and writers would see if they could write around the problems and philosophers to see if they could dream of something to dream over the problem. It wouldn't go away, it had to be resolved. It had to be compromise, I think, in the way that we did it. And it was inevitable that some people would be unhappy.

NARRATOR: The committee did come up with a compromise. It offered the MFDP two seats at large, meaning they would not represent the state of Mississippi. It allowed the all white regulars to be seated only if they would swear loyalty to the democratic ticket. Finally, the committee promised to bar from future conventions any delegation guilty of discrimination. In response, all but four of the all white regulars walked out of the convention.

WALTER MONDALE: It may not satisfy everybody, the extremes on the right or the extremes on the left. But we think it is a just compromise. We think it is based soundly on the law. We think it clearly recognizes without compromises the basic devotion of this party to human rights, and we think it represents and sets the stage for the overwhelming victory of the man who more than anybody else in the world represents the cause of justice and law today, President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

NARRATOR: Lyndon Johnson announced that Hubert Humphrey would be his running mate before boarding the plane for the convention. In Atlantic City, the Freedom Democrats had not yet decided whether to accept or reject the compromise.

JOE RAUH: We've got an offer to our people, we've got a great deal out of this. I think to call this a loss is a mistake.

REPORTER: You were talking before of no compromise. Now you've got two delegates in, the regular party's gotten three. Do you think you've made substantial gain?

JOE RAUH: I think we made a terrific gain. We'll always talk no compromise at a convention . (inaudible).

REPORTER: Are the leaders of the Freedom Democrats satisfied?

JOE RAUH: I don't think so and I don't blame them. Nobody ever gets all they want. The leaders and the regulars aren't satisfied either, they're going back to Jackson.

NARRATOR: Political allies and national civil rights leaders urged the MFDP to accept the compromise. But the Freedom Democrats voted overwhelmingly to turn it down. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, "We didn't come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired."

BOB MOSES: I think people felt that the Democratic Party would actually embrace them. I think there was a lack of real understanding of the depth to which the local southern politicians were entwined in the Democratic Party and that there would be a real reluctance on the part of the national Democratic Party leadership to take in black people at the expense of these southern politicians.

UNITA BLACKWELL: The whole issue around the compromise for us, and for me, was that it was some kind of political ploy that they understood, but for us, for Mississippi, it was what was right and what was wrong. It was we had been done wrong. Our rights had been taken away, and you just couldn't issue some two seats at large to correct that. And it was a moral situation that had to be righted. So it was not just a political something to get away with, is that we sit in rooms and negotiate. You know, they knew about those kind of things, but we didn't. How to sit in rooms and negotiate away and say, "You know, we'll take the best of this, a piece of that." We went after what was right, and it was the wrong, the way we had been treated for hundreds and hundreds of years denied the right to register to vote, denied the right to participate in the political process, and that's what was going on.

NARRATOR: The MFDP delegates made one last appeal for national attention. They tried to sit in the seats abandoned by the Mississippi regulars.

REPORTER: Would you identify yourself for us, please?

FANNIE LOU HAMER: My name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. I'm the vice chairman of the Freedom Democrat Party.

REPORTER: Where did you get the credentials to get into the building tonight, Mrs. Hamer?

FANNIE LOU HAMER: Some of my old friends of ours gave us an invitation to come in. We sit with them a while, and we wanted to sit in our own seats.

REPORTER: Do you have any kind of credentials that will get you into these seats?

FANNIE LOU HAMER: No, we don't. Only as American citizens.

REPORTER: Mr. Sergeant at Arms, have you had any contingency plans for this?

SERGEANT AT ARMS: Not at all, I'm just standing here peacefully trying to keep this aisle clear.

ANNIE DEVINE: That's the way do down in Mississippi when they are before the eyes of the world, they are peaceful and loving. And when they get back to Mississippi, "Nigger, you can't come in here, Nigger, you can't come in there. Nigger, you get out!" And here we are in the eyes of the world and seeing the same thing that happens down, way down, in the Deep South, Mississippi.

NARRATOR: The MFDP was never seated at the 1964 convention, but their protest opened up the Democratic Party and changed national politics. For some, Atlantic City ended in disillusionment. They had lost faith in America's leaders, but they had come to know their own power.

ANNIE DEVINE: The country refuses to demand that Mississippi give Negroes their rights, their privileges. We didn't ask to be elected to anything, we didn't ask for any patronage. All we ask is to let us sit.

Watch the video: Life Portrait Lyndon Johnson


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