Civil Rights Act of 1964 Signed into Law (July)
Effects of the Civil Rights Act
The Selma Injunction (July)
Lemuel Penn Murdered (July)
Deacons for Defense & Justice (July)
Impact of Northern Urban Rebellions on the Southern Freedom Movement
Massive Evasion of School Integration
Integrating Americus High School (Fall)
Delta Ministry Founded in Mississippi (Sept)
SNCC Delegation to Africa (Sept-Oct)
MFDP Congressional Challenge (Nov '64-Sept '65)
Hoover Tries to Destroy Dr. King (Nov-Dec)
King Awarded Nobel Prize (Dec)
Scripto Strike, Atlanta (Nov-Dec)
Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (Dec)
ASCS Elections — A Struggle for Economic Survival (Dec)
For preceding events see:
Civil Rights Bill Passes in the House
Civil Rights Bill — Battle in the Senate
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed into law by President Johnson on July 2nd, 1964.
Contents of the Civil Rights Act
The Act contains 10 "Titles" (subject areas):
For continuation see:
Effect of the Civil Rights Act (below)
Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States
For more information on Civil Rights Acts:
Books: Civil Rights Legislation
Web: Civil Rights Act 1964
See Civil Rights Act of 1964 Signed into Law for contents of the Act.
Looking back more than four decades later, it is clear that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an historic victory and a crucial milestone, but it did not end racial inequality, discrimination, or injustice. Passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 codified a huge victory for the Freedom Movement. It had been more than 80 years since any effective race-related civil rights legislation had been enacted on the national level, and the Act was won on the streets of southern communities with blood, sweat, and tears. Because laws exist within a social/political environment, it is impossible to separate the specific effects of the 1964 Civil Rights Act from the influence of the Freedom Movement as a whole. Clearly, without the Movement there would have been no Act. And without the Movement's inspiration and support, few Blacks would dare implement it by patronizing formerly "white-only" establishments or sending their children to "white" schools.
In the South, the Act played a vital role in fundamentally altering Black lives for the better by helping to end the Jim Crow system of segregation that had oppressed and humiliated nonwhite Americans for generations. And to some extent the Act also improved conditions for Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Indians, and women in all parts of the country insofar as overt discrimination was concerned. But the Act did not address issues of covert (defacto) discrimination that were (and still are) so prevalent nationwide.
The Act also greatly benefited white southerners. Under the Jim Crow social system the South was an economic and cultural backwater, with investment largely limited to those industries and institutions seeking the lowest possible wages and the smallest capital investment. With the end of segregation came new investment from sources that had previously avoided the South because of its peculiar institutions. Tourism expanded, and national motel, eating, shopping and banking chains flooded into the South. Universities were able to attract endowments, educators and researchers who would not have associated themselves with, or become part of, an apartheid society. All of which opened up new and better economic opportunities for whites — particularly educated middle-class whites — even more than for Blacks.
But in order to win support from pro-business, anti-regulation Republicans in the Senate, the Act was weakened significantly from what it should have been. The analysis below calls attention to these inadequacies, not to negate or dismiss what was a significant victory, but to counter the myth that has grown up over the years that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts forever ended racism, racial discrimination, racial injustice, and race disparities in the U.S.
The Act had little effect on voting rights. It did not eliminate so-called literacy tests, one of the main methods used to exclude Black voters in the South, nor did it address economic retaliation, police repression, or physical violence against nonwhite voters. The Act also failed to address the pernicious notion of voter "qualification" — the idea that citizenship does not confer an automatic right to vote, but rather that voters must meet some arbitrary standard beyond citizenship. The Act did require that voting rules and procedures — including those related to voter qualifications such as "literacy" — be applied equally to all races, but in states that systematically denied Blacks equal access to a qaulity education, an education-based criteria for voter qualification was inherently biased in favor of better-educated whites and against Blacks who were restricted to segregated, separate, and unequal school systems. Moreover, the Act left determination of who did, or did not, meet state-imposed voter qualifications in the hands of local Voter Registrars throughout the South, all of whom were white.
In the year after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law there was little significant increase in the number of Black voters in the Deep South. To win effective voting-rights legislation the Freedom Movement had to struggle, suffer, and die before the Voting Rights Act was finally passed in August of 1965.
Ending the Jim Crow system of overt, legally-enforced (dejure) segregation was the Act's greatest achievement. The Act overturned state and local segregation laws, and within a few years most "Colored" and "White-Only" signs came down across the South. Instead of Blacks ending up in jail for violating a segregation ordinance, it was business-owners and local governments who faced lawsuits for denying equal service to Blacks. But social customs and generations of habit change slowly. For a time, Blacks in the Deep South who crossed the color-line still faced physical violence from whites, and some were arrested on phony "Disturbing the Peace" charges.
After the Act went into effect, it became riskier for politicians to incite race-hatred over integration of public accommodations (though many still did so regarding school desegregation). Without white-supremacist demagogs inciting boycotts and violence against companies that dared to integrate, most businesses came to accept Blacks as cash-paying customers. A few firms run by die-hard segregationists continued to defy the law by maintaining separate restrooms or water-fountains or refusing to serve Blacks at all, yet by the end of the 1960s they were the exceptions rather than the rule.
But while the end of legally-enforced segregation benefited the Black population in general, it proved devastating to Black-owned businesses. Few Black merchants had the capital to compete with white-owned firms, particularly the national franchise chains that began moving into the South. Most southern banks were white-owned, and many refused to extend start-up loans to Black entrepreneurs or commercial credit to established Black businesses seeking to expand into a now integrated marketplace. The same applied to Black farmers seeking equipment-loans and Federal farm subsidies to compete against increasingly mechanized, and subsidized, white-owned farms. Across the South, many Black-owned cafes, motels, stores, funeral homes, insurance agencies, and gas stations, that had once provided goods and services otherwise denied to Blacks by segregation were forced out of business, as were many Black-owned farms.
With segregation of public facilities dying out, campus-based civil rights groups either moved on to other issues or lapsed into dormancy. This accelerated SNCC's evolution from a coordinating committee of student direct-action groups to an organization of community organizers — a change that began in 1962 with the McComb Project and for practical purposes was completed by mid-1964.
In 1964, ten years after the Brown decision, 98% of all Black students in the South are still in segregated "colored" schools — no more than 2% were in integrated class rooms. After passage of the Act, by 1965 the number attending integrated schools rose slightly to 6%, and by 1967 the ratio was 22% — which still left 78% in segregated classes. But over the following years, Movement pressure and lawsuits filed under Title IV of the Act eventually eliminated dual "white" and "colored" school systems. And on the college level, Blacks with the grades (and the money) were eventually admitted to southern universities without the necessity of lawsuits and Federal intervention.
In theory, the elimination of the separate and un-equal school systems should have meant that all schools were integrated. But that was not the case. In a phenomenon known as "white flight," many white parents began withdrawing their children from public schools that had a significant minority of Black students. In cities with neighborhood schools they moved to districts where few Blacks lived or to predominately white suburbs which had separate school systems. And in both rural and urban areas they established white-only private schools — commonly called "academies" — often with financial help from state and local government. As a result, most southern public school systems in communities where Blacks comprised more than a quarter of the population eventually became overwhelmingly Black.
For Movement activists, school integration was a means not an end — the goal was a quality education for Black children. The theory of school integration was that so long as Blacks were in separate segregated schools, education boards and budgets controlled by whites would not provide adequate funding, but if Black and white children were in the same schools the same funding would apply to all. That was the theory. But with "white flight," that did not occur. Today, predominantly white suburban school systems have far more resources than overwhelmingly Black inner-city systems. In those rural areas of the South where Blacks are numerous, public schools are mostly Black because white students are in private academies. And since whites are reluctant to pay taxes for public schools that their children don't attend, the predominantly-Black public schools are chronically underfunded.
Still, despite "white flight" and chronic underfunding, Black students in the South today do receive a better education than they did under the old Jim Crow system — or if not better, at least a longer education. In 1964 only 25% of southern Black adults had a high school diploma, by 2003 that number had risen to 80%. Nationwide, in 1964 there were only 300,000 Blacks attending college, in 2002 there were 2,300,000, an increase of 660%.
But while the eventual ending of separate and unequal school systems did benefit Black children, Black educators were not so fortunate. When the separate school systems were eventually combined it was mostly the Black teachers and administrators who lost their jobs. And in many cases they were the ones who had most opposed racist stereotypes, believed in Black students' abilities, nurtured them, instilled pride, and demanded that they perform.
For employers covered by the Act, overt, explicit, discrimination on the basis of race or gender was prohibited. Want-ads and job requirements could no longer specify "white" or "male." All occupations and promotions were (in theory) opened to all races and genders. But covert discrimination continued. Some employers claimed they could not find "qualified" Blacks, Latinos, or women, and there was much litigation over what constituted "discrimination." To avoid legal penalties yet still retain an almost all-white or all-male workforce, many companies (and government agencies) adopted a strategy of "tokenism," hiring a few Blacks, Latinos, or women in visible positions, but limiting the number to the smallest they could get away with.
Labor unions could no longer overtly use race or gender as a bar to membership, nor could they continue to maintain segregated white and "colored" locals. But in most cases you had to have the job before you could join the union. And even where that was not the case, unions were struggling to survive in an increasingly anti-labor environment and numbers were dwindling, so there were few openings for new members. Moreover, the Act did not address — and unions fiercely resisted — any kind of preferential hiring or promotion or affirmative action to compensate for past discrimination.
Still, income for Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native-Americans, and women rose significantly after 1964 as more, and better, jobs became available — in part due to the Act and in part to the social dynamic created by the Freedom Movement. In constant (inflation-adjusted) dollars, the median income for a Black family in 1964 was a bit under $19,000, but by 2002 it was well over $33,000, an increase of 78%. In the mid-60s, 42% of all Blacks lived below the poverty line, by 2002 that proportion had dropped to 24%. But despite these gains, income and unemployment for Blacks and Latinos continues to lag behind that of whites. Average income levels for women also rose significantly, though Black and Latino women continue to lag behind white women. While women as a group still earn less than men, after 1964 the gap began to narrow. By 2003, a women's average income had come up to 80% of a man's. But all of these different gains were primarily due to racial minorities and women entering occupations and obtaining higher-paid jobs that had previously been barred to them. The wages of traditional "colored" or "womens" work — particularly in the agriculture and service sectors — remained stagnant or actually declined in purchasing power.
See Freedom Day in Selma for preceding events.
After the high point of Freedom Day in October of 1963, Movement activity in Selma begins to ebb. The arrests, trials, and lack of bail money make it difficult for students to continue direct-action protests. As in Mississippi, the economic terrorism of the White Citizens Council takes a heavy toll of firings and evictions. Attendance at the weekly mass meetings of the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) begins to dwindle. SNCC is forced out of its rented office. With the support of Pastor Father Ouellet S.S.E (Society of Saint Edmund), it manages to operate clandestinely from the St. Elizabeth Parish offices, but effectiveness is diminished by the need for secrecy. Led by SNCC organizers Prathia Hall, Worth Long, John Love, Mary Varela, Silas Norman, and others, SNCC carries on but the organization's limited resources are stretched thin, and most of its meager funds and the majority its activists are focused on the struggle in Mississippi — particularly during Freedom Summer.
In the local community, even the most dedicated Movement supporters are becoming discouraged at the lack of tangible success. All but a few of those who apply to register are denied. The Department of Justice files lawsuit after lawsuit, which they often win in the courts, but those legal victories have no noticeable effect — the white power-structure continues to prevent Blacks from voting. When the Lafayettes came to Selma at the end of 1962, roughly 150 of 15,000 eligible Blacks were registered to vote (1%), after enduring two years of struggle, sacrifice, arrests, beatings, firings, and lawsuits, only 335 are registered (2%). As Justice Department official John Doar reports:
[Even though] the litigation method of correction has been tried harder here than anywhere else in the South, [Dallas County Blacks still have not been provided with] the most fundamental of their constitutional rights — the right to vote." — John Doar.
But with enactment of the Civil Rights Act in July, there is a sudden upsurge in hope. On Saturday, July 4, four Black volunteers of SNCC's Selma Literacy Project — Silas Norman, Karen House, Carol Lawson and James Wiley — attempt to implement the new law by desegregating the Thirsty Boy drive-in. A crowd of whites attack them, and they are arrested for "Trespass." At the movie theater, Black students come down from the "Colored" balcony to the white-only main floor. They are also attacked and beaten by whites. The cops close the theater — there will be no integration in Selma, no matter what some Federal law in Washington says.
Sunday evening there is a large mass meeting — the first big turnout in several months. Sheriff Clark declares the meeting a "riot." Fifty deputies and possemen attack with clubs and tear gas. Monday, July 6, is one of the two monthly voter registration days. SNCC Chairman John Lewis leads a column of voter applicants to the Courthouse. They hope that the new law will offer them some protection, but Clark herds 50 them into an alley and places them under arrest. As they are marched through the downtown streets to the county jail, the deputies and possemen jab them with clubs and burn them with cattle prods.
On July 9, Judge James Hare issues an injunction forbidding any gathering of three or more people under sponsorship of SNCC, SCLC, or DCVL as organizations, or with the involvement of 41 named leaders including SNCC organizers, the Boyntons, Marie Foster, Rev. L.L. Anderson, Rev. F.D. Reese, and others. In essence, this injunction makes it illegal to even talk to more than two people at a time about civil rights or voter registration in Selma Alabama. And because it is an injunction rather than a law, Judge Hare can jail anyone who — in his sole opinion — violates it. And he can do so without the fuss, bother, and expense of a jury trial.
Activists and their attorneys file appeals. They know that at some bright day in the distant future the blatantly unconstitutional order will eventually be overturned by a higher court. But here and now it paralyzes the Movement. Neither DCVL nor SNCC have the resources — human, financial, legal — to defy the injunction with large-scale civil disobedience. The weekly mass meetings are halted, SNCC organizing is driven deep underground, and a pall of discouragement saps voter registration attempts. For the next 6 months there is are no public Movement events in Selma — not until January 2nd, 1965, when Dr. King and SCLC challenge the injunction by calling a mass meeting to kick off the Voting Rights Campaign of 1965.
See Selma Voting Rights Campaign & March to Montgomery for continuation.
For more information on the Selma Civil Rights Movement:
Books: Selma Voting Rights Campaign & March to Montgomery
Web: Selma Voting Rights Campaign & March to Montgomery
Personal stories of the Selma Movement: Charles Bonner & Betty Fikes
In the pre-dawn hours of July 11 — nine days after the Civil Rights Act is signed into law — Lt. Colonel Lemuel Penn of the U.S. Army Reserve is driving home to Washington DC with two other Black field officers after completing a training exercise at Fort Benning Georgia. They are in uniform, and as they switch drivers in Athens Georgia they are spotted by a three-man Ku Klux Klan "security patrol" consisting of James Lackey, Howard Sims and Cecil Myers. Seething with hate and rage at Blacks and the Civil Rights Bill, the Klansmen tail the Army officers out of town. "I'm going to kill me a nigger," says Sims.
The Klansmen are members of Klavern 244 of the United Klans of America. Led by Robert Shelton, the UKA boasts of its white, Christian, patriotism. It is the largest, and one of the most violent, Klan organizations in the South. Among its many "patriotic" acts are the savage attacks against the Freedom Riders in 1961 and the murder of four little girls in the Birmingham Church Bombing less than a year earlier.
The three Klansmen from Athens follow the Army officers until they pass through a foggy bottom where Highway 172 crosses over the Broad River. Lackey is driving, he speeds up to pull alongside the car containing the Black Army officers. Myers and Sims open fire with shotguns killing Colonel Penn, a World War II combat veteran.
There is extensive media coverage of the murder. With an aggressiveness that was notably lacking in previous racial murders, the FBI vigorously pursues the investigation. In return for immunity from prosecution, James Lackey confesses and identifies and the other two as the shooters. Sims and Myers are tried by an all-white jury in Madison County. Lackey testifies against them. On September 4th, the 12 white men on the jury take just 81 minutes to acquit both Klansmen of murder.
Federal prosecutors indict Sims, Myers, and four other members of Klavern 244 under Title-II of the Civil Rights Act which makes conspiracy to deny someone of their civil rights a crime — one of the first such cases under the new law. The Klansmen appeal, and Federal district judge William Bootle rules that this use of the Act is an unconstitutional usurpation of state jurisdiction. In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court reverses him and rules that the killers can be tried under the Civil Rights Act. In July of 1966, Sims and Myers are convicted on conspiracy charges, the other four Klansmen are acquitted. Sims and Myers are sentenced to 10 years in Federal prison for the cold-blooded assassination of a Black U.S. Army officer. They serve 6 years before being paroled.
For more information Civil Rights Movement murders:
Lemuel Penn Murder
Martyrs of the Movement
In the summer of 1964, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organizes a Louisiana "Summer Task-Force" that is similar to COFO's Summer Project in adjacent Mississippi, though on a smaller scale, and with far less media attention. The Summer Task-Force sends CORE field-secretaries and northern volunteers into parishes (counties) across the state where they support local Movement activities, promote voter registration, and help communities organize themselves against white-supremacy. Unlike COFO, however, CORE includes direct-action protests as an integral component of its strategy.
Halfway between Shreveport and Monroe, Jonesboro Louisiana is a small, gritty, paper-mill town well off the main highway. It's the seat of Jackson Parish, population just under 16,000, roughly a third of whom are Black. Despite passage of the Civil Rights Act, segregation still rules Jonesboro. As part of the Summer Task-Force, an integrated team of CORE field-secretaries and volunteers begins organizing there. They are harassed and opposed at every turn by local authorities. In a typical instance, Fred Brooks, a veteran of the Nashville Student Movement is arrested for drinking at the "white" water fountain when he brings Blacks to the courthouse to register. Appeals to the Federal government for enforcement of the Civil Rights Act produce no results.
The Ku Klux Klan is strong in Louisiana's northern parishes. Whites in pickup trucks with Confederate flag emblems and rifles racked across the rear window patrol the back roads to ambush activists. Crosses are burned to intimidate Black communities and churches suspected of supporting the Freedom Movement are bombed. Three carloads of Klansmen spot Ronnie Moore (Black) and Mike Lesser (white) on a rural road. The two CORE workers escape in a high-speed chase, but Moore is then arrested for "reckless driving."
Korean War veteran Ernest "Chilly Willy" Thomas gathers a group of Black men to stand armed guard outside the CORE Freedom House. Black high school teacher Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick organizes a volunteer (and unofficial) "auxiliary police force" to protect both the community and CORE activists from Klan attack. The men supply their own weapons. Firearms are common household items in the South, most people — Black and white — own a shotgun, or rifle, or pistol and for children, guns and hunting are part of the culture they grow up in.
In violation of the Civil Rights Act, the publicly-financed Jonesboro library and swimming pool are still segregated — Black children cannot read any of the books or cool off in the sweltering summer heat. Led by CORE, local youth attempt to integrate the library and pool. More than 40 are arrested at the library and 15 at the pool. The parents of some of the students involved are then arrested in their homes for "Contributing to the Delinquency of Minors." The Ku Klux Klan retaliates for this challenge to segregation with a caravan of more than 25 trucks and cars that parades slowly through the "Quarters," Jonesboro's main Black neighborhood. The Klansmen are armed and their identities hidden by white hoods which is a violation of Louisiana law. Leading the caravan is a Sheriff's patrol car.
At a meeting held in the union hall, Thomas and Kirkpatrick merge their two groups into the Deacons for Defense and Justice which they later incorporate as a Louisiana non-profit organization for the purpose of "educating United States citizens, and especially minority groups, in the principles of democracy." The Deacons are not the first in the Freedom Movement to practice armed self-defense against the Klan — Robert Williams and the Monroe, NC, NAACP branch he led did so in 1957, as did the Black community in St. Augustine FL, and also individuals and ad-hoc groups in Southwest Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. But the Deacons are the first to set up a formal, explicit — and public — self-defense organization.
The Deacons adopt strict rules and discipline. Members must be 21 or older — many are World War II and Korea combat veterans in their thirties and forties. Members pay $10 to join and monthly dues of $2. They supply their own shotguns and rifles, and the organization supplies ammunition purchased in bulk through a discount program of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The bylaws make it clear that the Deacons stand for defense, not provocation. They will not offensively attack whites or white- owned property, but they are determined to defend civil rights activists and the Black community — with guns if necessary. Equipped with walkie-talkies and CB radios for communications, guards are posted around the Freedom House and outside mass meetings, Deacons patrol the Quarters at night, and armed escorts are provided for CORE freedom-fighters entering and leaving town.
CORE activists in Jonesboro welcome the Deacons and work closely with them. The Deacons assign a personal bodyguard to Charles Fenton, the white CORE project director. The Deacons make clear that while they share the same general goals as CORE they are not nonviolent. As they see it, their role is defense and CORE's role is organizing and protesting. Both groups understand that protesters have to be nonviolent, but against Klan night-riders, ambush, or mob-attack the Deacons stand ready to meet fire with fire. A CORE summer volunteer writes home: "For many, [nonviolence] stops at the end of a demonstration or when the day's work is thru. Most accept self-defense at night for granted." 
Knowing that they and their families have at least some protection from KKK attack emboldens the young protesters and their numbers grow. In December of 1964, they win their first victory by forcing the library to desegregate in accordance with the Civil Rights Act. When the Klan retaliates by burning crosses, the Deacons threaten to kill anyone coming into the Black community with hostile intent.
Early in 1965, a Black coach is fired for his Movement activities.
Students, parents, and teachers organize a boycott of the Negro High
School and white merchants. The cops attempt to suppress Black students
who are nonviolently picketing the school. They summon the fire
department to attack the children with high-pressure water hoses
Birmingham-style. (Both the police and fire departments are, of course,
all white.) A carload of Deacons pulls up, they step out and begin
calmly loading their shotguns. The authorities confer and decide to send
the firemen back to their station. Author Adam Fairclough later writes
in his book Race and Democracy: "
For the first time in the
twentieth century, an armed black organization had successfully used
weapons to defend a lawful protest against an attack by law
Louisiana Governor McKeithen, who had campaigned on a segregationist platform, sees the writing on the wall. He realizes that the old Jim Crow order maintained by police repression and Klan violence can no longer be sustained. His over-riding goal is business investment and economic expansion, he dreams of a professional football team and a "superdome" stadium in New Orleans. After seeing the tumultuous events of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign, he fears the publicity consequences of deadly racial shootouts and a sustained spiral of violence and retaliation. Three weeks into the boycott he travels to Jonesboro, and along with other civic leaders he forces the Jonesboro authorities to come to terms with Black leaders.
The Deacon's model of disciplined self-defense in partnership with CORE organizers is welcomed in many Black communities that are besieged by Klan violence. During the latter half of 1964, Deacons chapters spread to other Louisiana towns such as Monroe, Ferriday, and Vidalia. At the request of local Movement leaders, in February of 1965, Thomas, Kirkpatrick, and Fenton travel to Bogalusa LA to organize a Deacons chapter that becomes famous for confronting the Klan head-on. Other Deacon chapters provide security for the Natchez Movement in 1965 and the Meredith Mississippi March Against Fear in 1966. By the end of 1966, the number of active Deacons is somewhere in the hundreds with chapters in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. (Since many chapters operate semi-clandestinely and only a few Deacons publicly stand forth as members, accurate numbers are not available.)
By the end of the 1960s, the surge of Klan activity and violent white resistance sparked by the Brown decision is subsiding. Their war of terror to maintain segregation and deny Blacks the right to vote through violence has failed, and their ranks are dwindling. Under pressure from the Freedom Movement, Federal law enforcement is finally willing to investigate, arrest, convict, and jail Klansmen who blow up churches and bushwhack citizens exercising their Constitutional rights. No longer confidant that they are immune from prosecution, the threat of going to prison increasingly deters KKK members from violent acts of terrorism — a deterrence that the Federal government could have imposed at any time had it summoned the political will to do so. As KKK violence diminishes, there is less need for formally organized self-defense groups like the Deacons. Some chapters disband, while others go inactive until such time as they might be needed again.
A few in the media even go so far as to portray the Deacons as a "black KKK" or "black racists." But the Deacons do not hunt down whites to attack them, nor do they engage in retaliation or terrorism against random whites in general. And far from being anti-white racists, they risk their lives to protect white CORE activists along with Blacks. In response to accusations that the Deacons are a "KKK in reverse," Charles Sims of the Bogalusa chapter responds: "Everything we done, we walked like men, and we never done anything 'less we was defendin' ourselves or our people. ... They [whites] bring the fight to us. We don't take it to them." 
The Deacons are well aware of the necessity of nonviolence by those who participate in marches, sit-ins, and other direct-action protests. They understand the tactical realities of police departments, judicial systems, and mass-media public relations so they do not call for violence — even defensive violence — by protesters. When asked by an interviewer how activists could best advance the movement, or achieve its aims, Deacon leader Charles Sims replies, "I believe nonviolence is the only way. Negotiations are going to be the main point of this fight." 
Freedom Movement activists practice different kinds of nonviolence. Those who adhere to "philosophical," Gandhian-type, nonviolence are firm in their opposition to anything that might be considered violence including self-defense. The heart of their philosophical nonviolence is taking action to oppose injustice, and winning over adversaries through love and redemptive suffering. Among their number are such famous leaders as Dr. King and James Farmer. But despite their discomfort with self-defense and their unswerving commitment to total nonviolence as a way of life, they recognize the right of local Blacks to defend themselves, their communities, and their guests against attack — even if they use arms to do so. Which means that philosophically nonviolent leaders often have to put aside their personal beliefs and accept armed guards in places like St. Augustine, Greenwood, and Bogalusa.
But only a small fraction of those active in the Freedom Movement practice philosophical nonviolence. The great majority of activists are "tactically" nonviolent, and as the label implies, they are willing to embrace other tactics as circumstances warrant — including self-defense. They see nonviolence as a tool for mobilizing effective direct-action protests, as a technique for organizing a community, and as a political strategy to achieve specific goals. But they do not necessarily love their enemies or believe in redemptive suffering. And for the most part they view nonviolent protests and community self-defense as complementary rather than antagonistic strategies. A briefing paper for CORE's summer-task force volunteers states:
The concept that we are going to go South and, through love and patience, change the hearts and minds of the southern whites should be totally discarded.
At times, King, Farmer, and others who follow philosophical nonviolence express their personal discomfort at having armed guards — police, Deacons, individuals — protect them from Klan violence. Their organizations, SCLC and CORE, remain committed to nonviolence and do not organizationally engage in self-defense. But neither they as individuals, nor their organizations, ever refuse to support a local movement or participate in an activity because of the Deacons or other Black self-defense efforts. They could choose to issue an ultimatum that they will not march, or speak to a mass meeting, or spend the night in a community if armed guards are present — but they do not. And the majority of activists who work for those nonviolent organizations are tactically nonviolent and they greatly appreciate the protection provided by groups such as the Deacons and local folk who stand armed watch to keep them alive during long, dark nights of Klan terror.
Yes, of course there are debates and arguments between individuals and organizations within the Freedom Movement over strategies and tactics, self-defense, and the meaning and uses of nonviolence — and the media make much of those disagreements. But Movement activists debate everything — at length — at great length. As Joyce Ladner famously observed: "SNCC folk would argue with a street sign." But those arguments take place within an overall framework of unity, as do similar debates over direct-action versus lawsuits, protests versus voter-registration, electoral politics, the nature, and meaning, and role of leadership, and so on. That was the great strength of the Freedom Movement, we could debate, we could disagree, we could argue, but the next morning we put our bodies on the line side by side, maybe in different ways, but always together.
See Confronting the Klan in Bogalusa With Nonviolence & Self-Defense for continuation.
For more information on the Deacons for Defense and Louisiana Civil Rights
Books: Deacons for Defense
Web: Bogalusa LA Movement & Deacons for Defense
[This article briefly outlines some of the ways that the northern urban uprisings of 1964-1968 affected the Southern Freedom Movement. This article does not attempt to provide an analysis or history of the uprisings in general, or assess their overall impact on Black history or American society.]
[Words matter, language can be as powerful as force. In the American Revolution, for example, the colonial rebels were "traitors" to the British, but to the rebels themselves they were "patriots." The terms used to describe the outbreaks of urban violence that occurred between 1964-68 can still stir passionate debate and disagreement to this day. To the media, political leaders, and some Freedom Movement activists they were "riots," a word that to many people carries negative and disparaging connotations. To most Movement activists, however, they were "uprisings," "rebellions," or "revolts," terms that are meant to convey some sympathy and solidarity with the underlying rage that motivated the outbreaks (though not necessarily agreement with the actions themselves). This article uses those three terms in that sense. (See The Urban Uprisings and the Southern Freedom Movement — a Discussion for some of our debates and conversations regarding this article.)]
On the morning of July 16, James Powell (15) of Harlem is waiting for summer-school to start on New York's East side. An altercation occurs with a white building super, and then an off-duty police Lieutenant who happens by. The cop shoots the boy twice, killing him. On the night of July 18, CORE organizes a large protest against police brutality to demand that the officer be arrested in the killing (which never happens, no criminal charges are ever filed against him). Several thousand demonstrators march towards the precinct station. The police tactical squad charges into them with clubs swinging and violence rapidly spreads, involving large numbers of Harlem residents who had not been part of the CORE protest. Stores are broken into and looted, some are burned. At first, only white-owned shops are hit, but then the destruction spreads without regard to the owner's race. To reporters and TV crews, residents express rage and hatred against whites in general and fury at a long history of police brutality by white cops against Blacks. The violence lasts for two nights and expands to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. One Black man is killed, some 400-500 are arrested, and property damage is estimated at between $500,000 to $1,000,000 (equal to $3.7 million - $7.5 million in 2012 dollars).
A week later, on July 24, police arrest a Black man in Rochester NY for disorderly-conduct. A crowd gathers, there are arguments and insults. More police are summoned including some with police dogs. TV images showing K9 dogs attacking Birmingham children are still fresh in peoples' minds and the use of dogs enrages the crowd. Violence breaks out leading to three nights of looting and burning. The National Guard is called in to "restore order." Four people are killed (all Black), 350 injured, 800 arrested. Property damage is estimated at over $1,000,000. A month later, on August 28, similar violence breaks out for three days in Philadelphia when police harass a Black women whose car is stalled on a main street — 350 injured, 775 arrested, 225 stores damaged or destroyed.
For the next four years, from July of 1964 through March of 1968 cities across the nation experience "long hot summers," when Blacks revolt against police brutality and racial oppression. The three largest of these outbreaks — Watts (Los Angeles), Newark, and Detroit — leave more than 100 dead, 3,000 injured, 12,000 arrested, and $110 million in property damage (equal to $820 million in 2012 dollars). When Dr. King is assassinated in April of 1968, more than 125 cities explode with rage and violence.
Prior to the Black urban rebellions of 1964-1968, the term "race riot" had usually meant mobs of whites, or white police, or both, attacking and killing Blacks or Latinos or Asians or other racial minorities, burning their homes and businesses, and expressing hatred against those who were not white. What makes the urban uprisings of 1964-68 different is that it's Blacks looting and destroying mostly white-owned property and expressing rage against whites. However, as with previous "race riots," those who are killed, injured, and arrested are still overwhelmingly Black.
The fundamental causes of the northern uprisings are systemic — institutional racism, police oppression, job and housing discrimination, underfunded inadequate schools, commercial exploitation by merchants, social and political isolation, and a host of other abuses experienced in daily lives. In the words of the Kerner Commission appointed by President Johnson to investigate the revolts, "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal."
While the root causes of the northern uprisings are local conditions, they are also to some degree influenced by events in the South. The brutal southern assaults on nonviolent protesters carried on the nightly news — particularly the use of attack dogs and fire hoses against women and children — infuriates northern Blacks, many of whom are recent immigrants from southern states who have their own searing memories of segregation. The Southern Freedom Movement is forcing the media, government, and white-society in general to acknowledge and address southern issues, but little attention is being paid to the issues festering in the urban ghettos of the North. Northern Blacks see victories being won in the South such as passage of the Civil Rights Act. But most of the original proposals that would have affected northern Blacks, such as those restricting job discrimination by private employers, have been stripped out of the Act, or greatly watered down, leaving northern Blacks to ask: "What about us?"
Southern Blacks, of course, burn with the same anger and frustration as those in the North, but in the South there is a sense of making at least some progress, and the hope of better days to come. And while southern towns do have distinct Black and white neighborhoods, the races are much more intermingled than in the North. In the South, Blacks and whites have far more personal contact and relations with each other than the economic and social isolation that characterize northern ghettos. The language itself acknowledges these differences, "Black communities" and "Black neighborhoods" in the South, "ghettos" in the North.
Yet the northern uprisings do directly affect southern Blacks and the Southern Freedom Movement. For generations, "going north" to a better future had been the dream of many southern Blacks — particularly southern Black college students whose plan was "get your degree and head north, leaving segregation behind." But the rebellions, and the reasons behind those rebellions, call that strategy into question, and some experience it as a crushing of hope — a choice between northern ghettos or southern segregation. Others experience the media transmission of rage against whites as a liberation, giving voice to emotions long held back behind clenched teeth.
Some white southerners see the northern explosions of Black rage as ominous portents of Black retribution that confirm their determination to suppress Black progress and resist social equality at all costs. But other southern whites, including some in the power-structure, see the uprisings as a cautionary warning of what will happen if they don't come to some accommodation with nonviolent protesters. For them, Dr. King now begins to look like the "lesser of evils," and concepts like negotiating with "responsible Negro leaders" no longer seem as unthinkable as before.
The rebellions of 1964 and 1965 occur during summer civil rights mobilizations such as the Mississippi Freedom Summer. On many southern projects they have a polarizing effect. Some of the Movement's Black activists have devoted their lives to Gandhian philosophical-nonviolence, and for them the violence and rage are deeply disturbing. Most activists and organizers are tactically nonviolent, and while many criticize the rebellions for lack of program, strategy, and effectiveness, many also resonate with the fury and say "About time!"
Few of the white volunteers have ever encountered either that kind of Black anger or the long-running strategic debates around nonviolence. Many of them are deeply committed to a vision of an inter-racial "beloved community" that is threatened by both the violent fury of the northern uprisings and its echoes among the Black field-secretaries and project directors to whom they look for leadership. And while close to half of the northern volunteers have been active with civil rights groups in the North, for others the sudden revelation of deeply entrenched institutional racism and inequality in their home communities comes as disconcerting shock.
The rebellions unsettle, and in some cases infuriate, some of the white liberals who had been supporting the Southern Freedom Movement financially and politically. The Black fury that erupts in cities they live in (or at least sometimes visit or drive through) is aimed at all whites — including them — not just those bad southern sheriffs. For some, helping poor, downtrodden, nonviolent Negroes far away down South is satisfying, even ennobling; but these enraged Blacks are another matter entirely and their support begins to fall away. On the other hand, for many liberals the uprisings confirm the absolute necessity of addressing racial injustice, North and South, and they continue to support the Movement.
Since 1960, the funding base of the major civil rights organizations has steadily expanded, but by mid-1965, with the urban rebellions — and then the cry for "Black Power" in 1966 — that trend reverses. Though all the organizations habitually operate on a shoestring at the outer edge of their resources, the increase in northern donations from the start of the 60s to the middle of the decade allow them to greatly expand their programs and staff — which puts them into economic crisis when financial support from the North goes into decline.
The urban rebellions do more than just strike fear into the hearts of individual whites, they also frighten the power-structure and galvanize law enforcement agencies. The destroyed buildings have all been in the Black ghetto, and the looted shops mostly owned by the smallest of small businesses with no real political or economic consequence. But what if the violence spreads into white neighborhoods and commercial districts? FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is not just a paranoid racist, he's also a consummate political operator and empire builder. He uses the violence to greatly expand and intensify the Bureau's COINTELPRO operations against the Freedom Movement and all other organizations and movements he considers "Un-American," — both North and South.
Investigations, wiretaps, false information leaks to the media, divisive dirty-tricks, "tips" to employers alerting them to "subversive" employees, efforts to undermine funding, and other methods of harassing and dividing Movement activists are ramped up. Just at the time when the Freedom Movement is finally beginning to have some success in restraining police repression and abuse on the part of state and local law enforcement, Federal sabotage and repression begins to greatly increase. SNCC, CORE, SCLC, their leaders, and other organizations active in the Southern Freedom Movement are targeted by these damaging attacks. And the military, both the Army and the National Guard, who had played a protective role in places like Little Rock, the Freedom Rides, and the Desegregation of 'Ole Miss, now begins to shift its focus to suppression of "Black militants," and the waging of urban warfare against Black communities in American cities.
In some ways, the reactions of the national mass media to the urban uprisings parallel that of those whites who are horrified and offended. Many (though, of course, not all) papers, journalists, and TV news personalities whose reports had favorably contrasted the hope and courage of nonviolent protesters with the oppression and injustice of southern segregationists now redirect their focus towards hate-filled "Black militants," "kill-whitey" stories, and sensational claims that Black Muslims are secretly arming and training terrorists to attack whites from mosques that are being converted to armed bases for imminent urban guerrilla warfare. And, of course, it is not lost on publishers and networks that scare-stories sell newspapers and boost ratings. The mass media also has enormous power to define that which is important, and one of the effects of their intense focus on rage and "riots" is to glorify anger and violence as a means of social change (or at least as a way to "make whitey listen"), and in the eyes of many — both Black and white — this diminishes the perceived effectiveness of nonviolent political action.
Some mainstream newspapers and TV commentators villify Black leaders, condeming them for not being able to halt the "riots," or even blaming them for instigating the violence. Many in the media and government demand that Dr. King halt the urban uprisings. Intense pressure is brought down on him to somehow do so. When he proves unable to calm the northern ghettos, some dismiss him as no longer of any use (to them). Before the Harlem uprising, most of the mainstream media treat Malcolm X as an irrelevant, anti-white, loose-cannon, a nut-case that no one need be concerned about. After the rebellions of 1964, the more sensational elements portray him as a looming menace to all that right-thinking (white) citizens hold dear. Seven months after the Harlem uprising Malcolm X is assassinated.
The rebellions make media headlines and do grab the attention of white politicians, but rage is not a strategic program. Burned out streets provide no jobs, gutted stores provide no necessities. And while a few of the uprisings result in ongoing community organizations that can build political power capable of addressing deep-seated economic and social issues, most do not. Northern Black political, religious, and community leaders have long urged Dr. King, SCLC, and SNCC to expand their organizing into northern cities. As spasms of violence erupt in city after city, the pressure — the demand — that SNCC and SCLC come north intensify. The NAACP and CORE have long been active in the urban centers of the North, but the ghettos are so large and the problems so intractable that everything that everyone has done seems but a drop in the bucket, and people are casting about for some new solution. Perhaps King's charisma, SNCC's organizing savvy, SCLC's ability to mobilize large protests, can replicate in the North their successes in the South.
But these demands to expand into the north come at a time when financial resources are dwindling and many white supporters are beginning to fall away. And also at a time when the FBI's COINTELPRO program of spying, disruption and divisiveness is increasingly targeting the Freedom Movement. Ultimately, Dr. King and SCLC attempt to apply the skills and strategies of the Southern Freedom Movement to the slums of Chicago, but despite heavy commitments of money and staff diverted from the South, they meet with little success. SNCC also tries to open northern projects, but they too are unable to replicate in the North the successes achieved in the South.
Black rage, urban violence, and the looting and destruction of mostly white-owned property add fuel to a rising "White-Backlash" incited and inflamed by conservative politicians intent on riding white resentment to electoral victory. Mobilizing suspicion and fear of the "other" is a tried-and-true formula for political success (no less so in the 21st Century than the 1960s). For right-wing politicians and campaigns, both North and South, the political rhetoric and imagery of dangerous, destructive, violent Blacks now begins to increasingly appear along side of — and eventually replace — the traditional white racist rallying cries of "race-mixing," "white-womanhood," and their stereotypes of "simple," "shiftless," and "inferior." In reality, the violence is confined to the Black ghettos, and the number of whites killed in the urban explosions is just a tiny fraction of the number of Blacks whose lives are taken. And in fact, over many generations the number of whites actually harmed in any way pales to insignificance compared to the number of Blacks lynched, brutalized, raped and dispossessed by white violence. Nevertheless, many whites react with intense and illogic fear. A fear that leads to counter-anger of their own and demands for "law & order" in regards to both urban rebellions and nonviolent protests.
See New Orleans School Desgregation for preceding events.
In the decade after the Brown decision, meaningful change in most southern school systems is effectively stalled by the Supreme Court's "All Deliberate Speed" decision ("Brown II") and the South's Massive Resistance" campaign. As of June 1964 at the end of the 1963-64 school year, 98% of all Black students in the South are still in segregated, separate and unequal "Colored" schools.
In many respects, Virginia plays a leading role in the South's Massive
Resistance to school desegregation. Ten years after Brown, 95% of
Virginia's Black children are still in separate "Colored" schools. When
Prince Edward County, the focus of one of the original Brown cases,
shuts down its entire school system in 1959 rather than allow Black kids to
sit in the same classroom as whites, the county becomes the model for
intransigent resistance to integration. For five years, Black children in
Prince Edward are denied any education at all while government funds are
used to subsidize whites attending all-white private schools. Finally, on
May 25th, 1964, the Supreme Court decides
Griffin v. County School Board of
Prince Edward County. Stating that, "
...the time for mere
'deliberate speed' has run out," it rules that the county's public
schools must be reopened to children of all races, and that taxpayer funds
cannot be used to pay tuition private academies.
On July 2nd, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed into law. Though disappointed that the Act is weaker than what they had originally demanded, Freedom Movement leaders hope that the prohibition against racial segregation in publicly-owned facilities (such as schools) can be used to finally end Massive Resistance to school integration. One key factor is that under the Act, Federal funds can now be denied to school systems that continue to practice racial segregation. Another important section allows parents whose children are denied equal access to request that the Federal government sue school authorities on their behalf (as opposed to the NAACP having to fund and fight lawsuits in every district across the South).
Griffin v. County School Board and passage of the Civil Rights Act ends many of the South's Massive Resistance strategies. Most southern school boards are forced to make some small, grudging steps towards token desegregation. This results in some modest integration gains, mainly in the Border and Upper-South states.
Knowing they can no longer keep their schools 100% pure white, segregationist politicians shift their strategy for maintaining separate and unequal systems to methods of severely limiting the number of Blacks attending previously all-white schools. One widely used ploy are the so-called "freedom of choice" plans adopted by many school boards across the South. Under these plans, separate (and unequal) white and "Colored" school systems are still maintained, but parents are "free" to choose which school — white or "Colored" — their child is to attend. But Blacks who choose a white school face economic retaliation from the White Citiznes Council (firings, evictions, foreclosures, boycotts) and violent terrorism from the Ku Klux Klan. Since few Black families can risk losing their job, home, or business, the segregationists know that only a tiny number of Black children will enroll in formerly all-white schools. Those few then face implacable hostility and abuse from the white students who outnumber them hundreds-to-one, and harassment and humiliation by administrators and teachers. Unrelenting pressure on Black pupils and their families can then be counted on to force many (in some cases all) to "freely choose" to withdraw from the white school and go back to the "Colored" school (see Integrating Americus High School below).
These "freedom of choice" plans allow the authorities to piously claim that they no longer practice racial discrimination — that Blacks are "freely choosing" to send their children to the all-Black "Colored" schools. Since school officials no longer require Blacks to attend a "Colored" school, they proclaim they're in compliance with the Civil Rights Act and Federal court decisions — and therefore should continue to receive Federal school funds. In public school systems across the South, these "freedom of choice" plans successful limit integration to miniscule tokenism and effectively perpetuate segregation for another four years until they are stricken down by a series of court decisions in 1968 (see End of Dual White & "Colored" School Systems).
In the long-run, however, the most persistent and effective method of evading school integration is "white flight." When Blacks do manage to enroll (and remain) in formerly all-white schools, whites either move to suburban districts where few Blacks live, or withdraw their children from public schools and send them to private academies. In Richmond, Virginia, for example, whites in 1960 outnumber Blacks by roughly 60%-40%, but by 2000 that has reversed and whites are down to 40% of the city population. Yet even though 40% of the people are white, in 1995 the public schools are 88% Black and only 12% "other" (white, Latino, Asian, and Native American). When parents send their children to private academies, they are, of course, expected to pay the tuition. But various tricks and schemes are devised to offset some of those costs with government funds. In addition to maintaining school segregation, white flight results in lower funding for all public schools because whites who abandon the public system vote to lower their taxes by cutting education budgets. And as under-funded schools decline in quality, more whites transfer to private institutions, which further reduces public school funds.
See Integrating Americus High School (below) for continuation.
See also:Student Strike at Moton High
Students and Parents Challenge School Segregation
NAACP Builds the Case
Brown v Board of Education
"Massive Resistance" to Integration
"All Deliberate Speed" Decision
Clintion, Tennessee — First White School Desegregated
Nashville "Grade-a-Year" School Desegregation Scheme
The Little Rock Nine
Youth March for Integrated Schools Washington, DC
New Orleans School Desgregation
Integrating Americus High School
Crawfordville, GA, School Bus Struggle
End of Dual White & "Colored" School Systems
For more information on school desegregation:
Books: Schools and School Desegregation
Web: School Desegregation
[Throughout the South in the 1950s and '60s, thousands of courageous Black children dare to be the first to integrate previously all-white schools. As did the heroic The Little Rock Nine, many endure humiliation, abuse, and cruel injustice. These school integrators are the unsung heroes and heroines of the Freedom Movement. This description of the integration of Americus High School in the Fall of 1964 is presented as an example of what so many young Americans, in so many places, endured for freedom.]
On August 31, 1964, David Bell Jr., Robertiena Freeman, Dobbs Wiggins, and Minnie Wise defy a century of oppression by enrolling in Americus High School under a so-called "freedom of choice" plan.
[After the Supreme Court's Griffin v. County School Board ruling and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ends many of the South's Massive Resistance to school integration strategies, many southern school districts adopt phoney "freedom of choice" plans to minimize the number of Black children attending formerly all-white schools. See Massive Evasion of School Integration above for more information.]
Their parents are battered by threats of economic retaliation and violence. Inside the school, they suffer constant hostility and harrasment, they are subject to racial slurs and humiliation, tripping, shoving, and covert blows. Toilet-paper, bottles and stones are thrown at them. Teachers and administrators do nothing to stop the abuse — some support it and those who do not fear for their jobs if they are suspected of siding with a Black child.
Over the course of weeks, Bell, Wiggins, and Wise are forced out, "choosing" to transfer back to the "Colored" high school. But Freshman student Robertiena Freeman endures, the lone Black in a sea of white hatred. A year earlier, she had been one of the teenage girls imprisoned in the Leesburg stockade, surviving on stubborn courage and a fierce commitment to freedom. Now she holds on against all odds in Americus High School, refusing to surrender, taking everything they throw at her without flinching. As the end of the school year approaches the cops move in, arresting her and her boyfriend on a phony "morals" charge and sentencing her to reform school. If she's in jail and unable to take her final exams, they can flunk her out and Americus High can end the year still all-white, still without the blemish of a single Black face. But the Freedom Movement, the Black community, and a few local white allies stand to her defense. The charges are resolved, she's allowed to study for — and pass her — exams. She remains at Americus High and eventually graduates.
But Robertiena Freeman and the three other Black students are not the only ones persecuted for their commitment to racial justice at Americus High School. On the first day of class in the Fall of 1964, Greg Wittkamper, a white student whose family is part of the interracial Koinonia Farm accompanies them to school. For four years he holds to his faith, refusing to support white-supremacy. He is spat on, jeered, and physically attacked. His books are torn up, his locker soaked in urine, and food is mashed into his face at lunch. The rest of the white students treat him as a social pariah, a "race traitor" to be shunned and humiliated by all. But he endures as a nonviolent soldier for justice.
[ Koinonia Farm is an interracial Christian community founded in 1942 and still living their faith today. It is home of the "Cotton Patch Gospel," birthplace of Habitat for Humanity, Jubilee Partners, Prison Jail Project, and Fuller Center for Housing and other ministries.]
See Americus GA Protests and Crawfordville, GA, School Bus Struggle for continuation.
See also:Student Strike at Moton High
Students and Parents Challenge School Segregation
NAACP Builds the Case
Brown v Board of Education
"Massive Resistance" to Integration
"All Deliberate Speed" Decision
Clintion, Tennessee — First White School Desegregated
Nashville "Grade-a-Year" School Desegregation Scheme
The Little Rock Nine
Youth March for Integrated Schools Washington, DC
New Orleans School Desgregation
Massive Evasion of School Integration
Crawfordville, GA, School Bus Struggle
End of Dual White & "Colored" School Systems
For more information on school desegregation and the Georgia Civil Rights
Schools and School Desegregation
Georgia Movement Atlanta Albany
Albany, Americus, & SW Georgia Movements.
See Freedom Day in Hattiesburg and Organizational Structure of Freedom Summer ~ Clergy for preceding events and background.
In the 1960s, the National Council of Churches (NCC) is an ecumenical association of some 30 Protestant and Orthodox denominations representing more than 40 million members. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, new leaders emerge, including Reverands R.H. Edwin Espy, Colin Williams, Harvey Cox, Eugene Carson Blake, Jon L. Regier, Robert Spike, and others. In their view, American churches are overly self-centered — too focused on ritual and institutional growth, and too little engaged in the concerns and crises of the secular world. They believe this leads many churches to become disengaged and uninvolved in God's work in the world and therefore increasingly marginal and irrelevant to people both within and without their congregations. Theologian Rev. Harvey Cox writes:
The first premise is that for us, as for Moses, an act of engagement for justice in the world, not a pause for theological reflection, should be the first 'moment' of an appropriate response to God.
For years, the NCC has limited itself to occasional statements and semons in favor of racial equality. But in June of 1963, impressed by the emerging Freedom Movement, deeply aware of the Movement's faith-based roots in the Black church, and inspired by Dr. King's call to conscience in Letter From a Birmingham Jail, the new leaders convince the NCC board that it's time to move beyond words to active participation in the struggle. Within the NCC they establish a Commission on Religion and Race (CORR) and direct it to mobilize church resources for, "negotiations, demonstrations, and direct action" and "to make commitments, call for actions, [and] take risks" in the cause of racial justice. A budget of $177,000 is approved for the remaining half of 1963, and $277,000 (equal to $2,050,000 in 2012) is promised for 1964.
CORR participates in the August 28 March on Washington, mobilizing more than 25,000 marchers. Following the march, it becomes involved in civil rights activites in many southern communities including recruiting minister to participate in local struggles and providing bond money to bail out arrested demonstrators. In January of 1964, at SNCC's request it recruits clergy to participate in Freedom Day in Hattiesburg and then the "perpetual picket" at the Forrest County courthouse. In June, it funds and organizes the two week-long orientation programs for Freedom Summer volunteers in Oxford Ohio, and mobilizes some 300 ministers and seminary students to spend their vacations (or longer periods) supporting the Movement in Mississippi as "advisors."
Soon after it is founded in the summer of 1963, CORR sends ministers to Clarksdale Mississippi to support the movement there led by Aaron Henry of the NAACP. Their attempts to contact and work with local white clergy on behalf of racial justice meet a wall of adamant resistance. A local court issues injunctions against the northern ministers forbidding them to demonstrate, incite others to protest, or encourage disturbances of the peace. There in the heart of the Delta, the CORR ministers come face to face with ruthless political oppression and stark, grinding poverty.
Focusing on the Delta, CORR leaders begin extensive consultations with local activists and Movement organizational leaders including Bob Moses of COFO, Jim Forman of SNCC, Dave Dennis of CORE, and Andy Young of SCLC. Drawing heaviliy on SNCC's experience and grassroots orientation, CORR proposes that the NCC undertake a "Delta Ministry" project. The plan calls for a sustained, decade-long mission of community and economic development, literacy, education, and health programs, leadership training, political organization, and building bridges between the Black and white communities.
Southern denominations and religious leaders within the NCC oppose the idea. Many still support segregation and white-supremacy. Others acknowledge that while some changes must someday eventually be made in race-relations, they believe it must come about gradually as whites accomodate themselves to new ideas. They fear that the Delta Ministry intends to push "too far, too fast" to the discomfort of whites whose peace of mind is to them of greater concern than the daily oppression and suffering of Blacks. Some pose jurisdictional arguments against the plan on grounds that the Ministry is to be overseen from the national level rather than by the local (white) communions in Mississippi. There are also theologic objections from those who believe that the roll of the church should be limited to tending the spiritual needs of parishioners, encouraging "racial reconciliation," and engaging in charity by feeding & clothing the destitute. They maintain that religious institutions should NOT become involved in political issues or "civil rights" — that social struggles, protests aimed at erradicating injustice and exploitation, and organizing the poor to end the inequalities of power that lie at the root of poverty are not the proper province of God's ministers.
As a practical matter, funding for the Delta Ministry has to come from white denominations and churches. Ministering to mostly poor congregations, Black churches have little money and many demands on the meager funds they do manage to scrape together. Fear is pervasive and the dangers are real, pastors who engage in Freedom Movement activity risk being arrested, beaten, or killed, and churches all over the South have already been bombed and destroyed in retaliation for Movement activity. From conviction or convenience, many Black ministers also share the belief that churches should not involve themselves in social struggle. And those who are willing to engage in political issues have their own programs to finance, and what money they have left for outside contributions is more likely to go to Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) than the predominantly white National Council of Churches.
In February of 1964, the NCC approves formation of the Delta Ministry (DM). In an attempt to ameliorate objections from white religious leaders in the South, the decision emphasizes over and over that the DM is to be a "ministry of reconciliation" and a "ministry of services of direct relief to relieve suffering," and it is placed under the jurisdiction of the Division of Home Missions under Rev. Regier rather than the more activist CORR which continues to participate in Movement struggles across the South. But opposition from southern whites remains fierce, most white churches in Mississippi halt their financial contributions to the NCC in protest of both the CORR and the DM, and implementation of the plan is delayed from spring to September as consultations with representatives of Mississippi's white communions drag on.
The Delta Ministry commences operation on September 1, 1964 with a $74,000 budget for the remainder of 1964 (equal to $548,000 in 2012 dollars). But opposition from their southern white members causes many NCC denominations to deny money for the DM, while grant requests to foundations and the Federal government for literacy and hunger programs go nowhere. The United Church of Christ does give $10,000, and a few individual churches kick in another $1,100 but that still leaves a huge shortfall in the 1964 budget. It is the World Council of Churches (WCC) that provides the bulk of the funds for the remaining months of 1964. Most WCC efforts are directed towards poverty and social programs in the under-developed colonial countries Africa, Asia, and Latin America — the poorest of the poor — but for the first time ever the WCC contributes money for a project in the United States — the wealthiest nation on the planet. For 1965, the Delta Ministry requests a budget of $415,000 from the NCC, which agrees to only $260,000, and of that only $166,000 is actually raised (a third of which comes from the WCC).
Under the leadership of first Rev. Regier and later Rev. Art Thomas, the Delta Ministry opens an office in Greenville on the Mississippi River with five full-time staff members and a number of volunteers. The ongoing Hattiesburg ministers project led by Rev. Bob Beech is folded into the DM, as is the ministerial effort against Klan violence in McComb led by Rev. Harry Bowie. Initially, most of the DM staff and many of its volunteers are drawn from Freedom Summer participants. Some of them remain in the state for the rest of their lives, committed to the causes of racial justice, equality, and economic opportunity.
Early in 1965, the Delta Ministry leases Mt. Beulah, a former Black Junior College west of Jackson, as a headquarters and training center. With projects underway in a number of Delta counties plus Hattiesburg and McComb, by the end of 1965, DM is one of the most active Movement organizations in the state, staffing community centers, freedom schools, health projects, and organizing efforts. In 1965 it plays a crucial leadership role in founding the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) one of the first, largest, and most effective Head Start programs of the War on Poverty (and also one of the most controversial because of its direct connection to the Freedom Movement).
But chronic under-funding weakens effectiveness, and adamant resistance from southern white denominations within the NCC constantly diverts organizational energy into internal controversies. In the tradition of SNCC and CORE, the DM emphasizes developing economic and political power for the poorest and most disadvantaged, but that puts them into direct conflict with poweful white interests. Political splits and conflicts within the state's broader Freedom Movement also affect the DM as some elements of the Black elite begin to ally themselves with the power-structure when War on Poverty jobs, political appointments, and elected offices start becoming available to Blacks in the latter half of the 1960s. Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties, at the height of its activity in 1967 the Delta Ministry has the largest field staff of any civil rights organization in the South.
For more information on the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and the Delta
Religion and the Civil Rights Movement
Web: Mississippi Movement
After the betrayal of their hope by the Democratic Convention, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) delegates return to Mississippi in late August. Many of the CORE and SNCC staff organizers who have been on the front lines for years are exhausted and burned out.
[By the end of the summer] the staff, as Mrs. Hamer would say, 'was all wore out.' All of us were physically exhausted from the sheer burden of all the organizing work. Many more of us than we knew then were totally burned out. Emotionally scarred, spiritually drained from the constant tension, the moments of anger, grief, or fear in a pervading atmosphere of hostility and impending violence. — Kwame Ture. 
For the first time in my life I understood how soldiers feel when they return from wars and have to grope unwillingly for answers to innocent questions such as 'How are you?' — Cleveland Sellers. 
In September, long-time Freedom Movement supporter Harry Belafonte offers to bring a delegation of SNCC leaders with him to the Republic of Guinea where he is putting together a troupe of African entertainers to tour America. At Belafonte's request, President Sekou Toure extends an official invitation and offers to host the SNCC workers as guests of the people of Guinea.
[The Republic of Guinea — sometimes referred to as Guinea-Conakry to distinguish it from Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea — was one the first nations in Black Africa to win independence from European colonial rule. Led by Sekou Toure, the Guinean people achieved liberation from France through elections and a national plebiscite in 1958.]
On September 11, the SNCC delegation consisting of SNCC President John Lewis, Executive Director James Forman, Communications Directory Julian Bond, COFO Project Director Bob Moses, and activist-organizers Prathia Hall, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bill Hansen, Donald Harris, Matthew Jones, Donna Richards, and Ruby Doris Robinson fly from New York to Dakar, Senegal and from there to Guinea.
That seven-hour trip was like a family outing, with people roaming the aisles, laughing and eating and drinking. You could feel everyone letting go and relaxing almost immediately. We really were like battle-weary soldiers headed out for a little R&R. — John Lewis. 
In Guinea, the SNCC delegates are welcomed as important visitors and significant allies in the world struggle against racism and colonialism. They are greeted by President Toure and other government officials, invited to state affairs, and a seaside villa with cars and drivers are put at their disposal. All a far cry from the treatment they are used to in the United States.
But these physical conveniences did not explain the sense of well-being that filled all of us. The real reason was that we had come from several years of intense struggle to this place where there were no sheriffs to dread, no Klan breathing down your neck, no climate of constant repression. We had come from years of living as blacks in an enemy white world to this land of black people with black socialist rulers. We could relax at last. In the group we often talked about the tremendous pleasure of just being able to go to sleep at night without listening to every noise outside, worrying about bombings or armed attacks. — James Forman. 
The contrast between an African nation ruled and run by people of color and segregated America where Blacks are restricted to the most limited and menial of occupations is stark and compelling. Mrs. Hamer later recalls: "I saw black men flying the airplanes, driving buses, sitting behind big desks in the bank and just doing everything that I was used to seeing white people do." 
Being in Africa, the ancestral mother-land, has a profound affect on the SNCC activists, deepening their awareness of history and their place in it. James Forman later writes: 
I stood alone on the verandah of the Villa Silla, looking out into the dark night. Around me grew the rich, tropical vegetation, and below the waves of the Atlantic Ocean lapped against the coast. The night was still.
I wondered if my ancestors had come from this land.
I wondered if they had been chained in the bowels of some slave ship docked on this coast.
I wondered if they had been taken from here to be stood on the selling block in some town of the Americas and auctioned off like animals.
I wondered how many of them had died in the long, brutal passage across that ocean out there.
I wondered what their names had been, how they looked, whether they had revolted against enslavement — or perhaps killed themselves rather than accept a life in chains.
This was Mother Africa. We belonged here. This was our home. In the United States, we were strangers in a foreign land. We were separated from our people. We belonged here in Mother Africa, helping to build the continent of our brothers and sisters.
And then I thought of the millions of black people in the United States who could never get to Africa, whose lives were locked in the daily grind of racist poverty. We had to stay there and struggle inside the United States. We had to make a revolution to end the racism, the poverty, the crushing of our dignity.
But the choice came hard.
As they meet with African leaders and political activists, the SNCC
delegation discovers that the U.S. State Department and mass media are
fundamentally distorting the information that Africa receives regarding
race-relations in America. Bob Moses, for example, sees a photo of Mrs.
Hamer and himself in a magazine published by the U.S. Information Agency,
the caption reads: "
Moses & Hamer leading delegates of the MFDP
to their seats at the Democratic Party convention."
Julian Bond later recalled, "There were all these pictures of Negroes
doing things, Negro judges, Negro policemen, and if you didn't know
anything about America, like Africans would not, you would think that these
were really commonplace things. That's the worst kind of deceit."
We learned quickly how little the African students and activists we met knew about SNCC or about the civil rights movement in America. When we told them about our years of demonstrations and protests and campaigns, about the sit-ins, the arrests, the beatings and imprisonments, the March on Washington and the summer that had just concluded in Mississippi, they were enthralled, impressed and, in most cases, surprised. They had no idea of the intensity of the opposition we faced in America. Most knew very little about it. They were the victims of pro-American propaganda, newspaper stories and photographs showing American blacks and whites living together in supposed harmony, all of it arranged and orchestrated by U.S. government agencies, all of it meant to give the impression that everything was idyllic in America. — John Lewis. 
The young African political activists are "voraciously curious" about the struggle against racism America. Most of all, they are interested in Malcolm X and in SNCC's relationship to Malcolm. John Lewis later recalls:
Back in America, we were considered radical by the mainstream elements of both the movement and society in general. Malcolm X was considered even further to the left than we — an extremist, a revolutionary. But here in Africa, among these young freedom fighters, we were dismissed as mainstream, and it was Malcolm who was embraced. — John Lewis. 
While the rest of the SNCC delegation returns to the states, John Lewis and Don Harris continue their previously-planned journey through Africa. By chance, they encounter Malcolm in Nairobi, Kenya.
It turned out he had just come from a conference of nonaligned nations in Cairo, where he had spoken about using a group called the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAU) to bring the problems of black people in America before the United Nations. He also wanted to raise the levels of awareness and involvement in Africa about the situation of black people and their struggle in America. ... As Malcolm talked, it was clear that Africa was doing for him the same thing it was doing for us — providing a frame of reference that was both broadening and refreshing. The man who sat with us in that hotel room was enthusiastic and excited — not angry, not brooding. He seemed very hopeful. ... He told us how happy he was to see SNCC reaching out like this to Africa, and how more black people in America needed to travel and see and learn what was happening with blacks outside our country, not just in Africa but all over the world. ... He talked about the need to shift our focus, both among one another and between us and the white community, from race to class. He said that was the root of our problems, not just in America, but all over the world. — John Lewis. 
When the SNCC delegation returns from Africa they bring with them a strengthened international perspective and the realization that it's up to them to tell the true Freedom Movement story to the world.
[The destiny of Afro-Americans is] inseparable from that of our black brothers in Africa. It matters not whether it is in Angola, Mozambique, Southwest Africa, or Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Harlem, U.S.A. The struggle is ... the same ... It is a struggle against a vicious and evil system that is controlled and kept in order for and by a few white men througout the world. — John Lewis. 
They also come back from Africa with an increased desire to work more closely with Malcolm. In the following months, Malcolm is invited to speak at an MFDP support rally in Harlem, Fannie Lou Hamer and the SNCC Freedom Singers participate in an OAU event organized by Malcolm, and in February of 1965, at SNCC's invitation Malcolm addresses a mass meeting in Selma Alabama at the height of the voting rights struggle. A few days later he is assassinated.
For more information on SNCC:
For preceding events see MFDP Challenge to Democratic Convention
Late in August, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City and the SNCC and CORE organizers return to Mississippi. Many are angry at the Democratic Party leadership's refusal to recognize them as legitimate delegates representing Mississippi and furious at the devious political manipulations used to prevent them from bringing their case to a vote on the convention floor. To them, the actions of Johnson, Humphrey, Mondale and others are a betrayal of public pledges and private promises made over the past years of bitter struggle. Yet they are determined to carry on. They are proud of what they have achieved — and proud of holding together in the face of adversity.
Across the state, [the MFDP] had a county-by-county structure under responsible, elected leaders who enjoyed the respect of their communities. The state executives were acknowledged movement leaders. So the party could really take root and grow. They had had a taste of battle and were ready for more. For them, Atlantic city was not a defeat, it was a revelation. They could carry the fight to the highest level and survive. And everyone — leadership and rank and file — was eager to keep up the pressure. But how? — Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael) 
While the MFDP now has a solid organizational base, there is turnover among the experienced SNCC and CORE field-secretaries. Some return to school to resume educations that had been put on hold for the Freedom Movement, and some return to, or take up, movement work in other areas of the South. And among those organizers who do remain in Mississippi, some suffer from burnout and exhaustion.
Though some Freedom Summer volunteers choose to remain working on their county projects, most return to school or home at the end of the summer. Their departure is expected, but losing hundreds of full-time activists (and the outside resources they have access to) slows the tempo of organizing and reduces the number and scope of projects.
In the aftermath of Atlantic City, the MFDP has to chart its future course. The immediate question is whether or not to support Johnson in November. Some activists argue that the MFDP should have nothing more to do with the Democrats. Instead, they want the MFDP to become an independent, Black-oriented political party. But with the "regular" (white) Mississippi Democrat Party apparatus now actively supporting the Republican candidate Goldwater, many in the MFDP hope that by campaigning for Johnson they can supplant the segregationists and eventually win recognition from the national party, or at least reap some political rewards after LBJ's inevitable victory. Their view prevails, and the MFDP urges voters to support the Democratic candidate.
After the Atlantic City convention, the MFDP chooses new attorneys — Arthur Kinoy and William Kunstler of the National Lawyers Guild. Based on their legal work, the MFDP adopts a bold plan to push forward the Movement in Mississippi. They will challenge the legitimacy of the 1964 election in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legal arguments and tactics are complex, but the essence is clear and simple — since almost half of the state's population are denied the right to vote, and those few Blacks who do manage to register are prevented from freely participating in the electoral process, the election is clearly fraudulant. Therefore, the House will be asked to set aside the results, refuse to seat the state's white Congressmen, and instead call for new and fair elections in which every citizen can vote regardless of race. Legally, the House has the power to refuse to seat, or to unseat, any member for any reason it chooses — the question is whether it has the political will to do so in defense of Black voting rights.
The plan is controversial. The national office of the NAACP opposes it as radical, impractical, and a threat to their alliances with the Democratic Party establishment — they refuse to participate or provide any support, saying in a public statement: "The NAACP does not endorse the method proposed by the MFDP." Some long-time Movement activists also disagree with the plan for very different reasons, some because they believe electoral politics of any kind to be a dead-end, some because they favor an independent Black party, some because they see a legal/legislative-oriented strategy focused on distant DC as a diversion from grassroots organizing of poor Blacks in Mississippi.
The proponents, of course, know that the chances of actually unseating the white Congressmen are slim to none. But they argue that the effort provides a way of continuing the momentum from Freedom Summer and the Atlantic City challenge, pushing forward local organizing, building the MFDP on the ground, and dramatizing the denial of voting rights and fraudulent elections before the nation. And they believe that if they can build a strong enough case to gain at least some support in Congress this time around, they raise the spectre of future challenges to white-dominated elections across the South.
Under the rules, only a defeated candidate can challenge an election in the House, so Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray run for Congress in three of the state's five Congressional districts. Back in June, MFDP candidates had run in the Mississippi Democratic Primary election, but with few Blacks able to vote they were easily defeated. They then tried to get on the November ballot as Independents, but the state Board of Elections blocked them. So since they are not on the official ballot, they run on a "Freedom Ballot" as was done in 1963. This means that supporters are asked to cast unofficial Freedom Ballots in churches and community centers. In addition to laying the legal basis for the Congressional Challenge, the mock election provides further opportunities to organize and mobilize MFDP members, build up the party's infrastructure, and develop precinct, county, and district leadership.
See MS Freedom Primer #2 The Freedom Vote & the Right to Vote.
Since few Mississippi Blacks are registered and whites are overwhelmingly for Goldwater, on election day November 3rd the MFDP's effort to support Johnson has no effect on the election outcome. For the first time since Reconstruction, Mississippi goes Republican — by a margin of 87% to 12%. And as expected, LBJ also looses the other Deep South states of Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina — the states that along with Mississippi have been most ruthless in denying Blacks the right to vote. Also as expected, he wins a nationwide landslide victory over Goldwater. The Democrats gain two seats in the Senate, giving them a two-thirds majority, and 36 seats in the House, providing a huge 295 to 140 majority over the Republicans.
At a White House meeting after the election, Dr. King presses LBJ on the urgent need for federal legislation to protect black voting rights in the South (the kind of legislation that was stripped out of the 1964 Civil Rights Act). The President tells him, "I can't get a voting rights bill through [the coming] session of Congress." Moreover, to enact his "Great Society" and "War on Poverty" programs, LBJ tells King he will need the support of southern Senators. Support he would lose if he tried to pass voting-rights legislation. He assures Dr. King that eventually he will address voting rights — but not in 1965.
Johnson's promise of someday satisfies neither Dr. King nor the Freedom Movement as a whole.
On December 4th, 1964, the MFDP files official notice with the House of Representatives that they are challenging the election in the three Mississippi Congressional districts where Hamer, Gray, and Devine ran on the Freedom Ballot. Under the rules, the challenged candidates have 30 days to respond, bringing the matter to January 4th, 1965, the opening day of the 89th Congress.
See MS Freedom Primer #3 The Right to Vote & the Congressional Challenge.
Nationally, CORE, SNCC, and SCLC issue statements of support, James Farmer and Dr. King hold press conferences, and King writes members of Congress telling them that the Challenge addresses "the root cause of Mississippi injustices — the total denial of the right to vote on account of race."
In the North, Movement supporters lobby their Represenatives and mobilize public support for the Challenge. In a memo to Friends of SNCC, Jeff Freed of the S.F. State College chapter explains the significance of the Congressional Challenge:
The whole challenge is a precedent-setting action; there has been no other time in American history when the people of the United States have directly challenged the right of Congressmen to represent them. This is not an impeachment proceeding ... this is a conflict between the will of the people and the practices of organized politics in the United States.— Jeff Freed. 
Congressman William Ryan (D-NY) agrees to move a "fairness resolution" in addition to the Challenge that would block the seating of all five of the white men "elected" to the House from Mississippi. A dozen other members, including John Conyers (D-MI), Edith Green (D-OR), Patsy Mink (D-HI), and the eldest son of FDR, James Roosevelt (D-CA), pledge to support him. The White House and Democratic Party leadership bear down hard to isolate these upstart trouble-makers.
(On January 2nd, in an action little noted by the media and politically ignored in Washington, Dr. King breaks the The Selma Injunction by addressing a mass meeting in Brown Chapel to launch a Voting Rights Campaign in the Black Belt of Alabama.)
The 89th Congress convenes for the first time on January 4th, 1965. Hundreds of MFDP supporters journey by bus from Mississippi to support the Challenge and lobby for the Ryan's resolution. It is illegal to carry signs or conduct a protest inside Capitol buildings, so they line the underground tunnels that Representatives use to reach the House chamber.
On opening day, as congressmen and their aides made their way through these tunnels, they turned a corner and found themselves passing between two lines of silent, working black men and women from Mississippi. The people, spaced about ten feet apart, stood still as statues, dignified, erect, utterly silent. ... The congressmen had come by in little groups, each group, a congressman and one or two aides, deep in conversation. They'd turn the corner, and for a moment the sight of our people would stop them dead in their tracks. We didn't move or say a mumbling word. Then the group would walk between the two rows, but now suddenly very silent. It's hard to describe the power of that moment. I looked into the legislators' faces as they passed. Most could not take their eyes off those careworn, tired black faces. Some offered a timid greeting, a smile, or tentative wave. Others flushed and looked down. All seemed startled. Some clearly nervous, even afraid. All seemed deeply affected in some way. Our people just stood there and looked at them. For these lawmakers using the tunnels that morning, that impassive, profoundly physical presence was an unexpected confrontation with reality. That grave, mute presence became the most effective and eloquent of testimonies. To those passing congressmen, the issue of Southern political injustice could no longer remain an abstract statistic, distant and dismissable. — Kwame Ture. 
Speaker of the House McCormack convenes the session and begins swearing in the members. Rep. Ryan stands to move his resolution. McCormack ignores him. Fifty other members rise to demand that Ryan be heard. The Speaker is forced to recognize Ryan who objects to seating any of the candidates from Mississippi. They are forced to stand aside while the rest of the House is sworn in.
The House then considers Ryan's objection. If the five from Mississippi are not seated, the implication is that new elections will have to be called. Rep. Edith Green demands and wins a roll call vote. The "fairness resolution" is defeated 149-276. But 149 votes to bar five "elected" members of Congress is an astonishing number, more than one-third of the House. The five from Mississippi are sworn in, but the three being directly challenged by Devine, Gray, and Hamer are only "provisionally" seated pending the outcome of the lengthy process.
In one sense, the vote to seat the Mississippi Congressmen is a defeat for justice and a victory for racism. Every member of Congress knows that for generations Blacks in Mississippi — indeed, across the South — have been illegally denied the right to vote. Yet when the time comes to take a stand, almost two-thirds of the House close their eyes to that injustice.
Yet in another sense, winning support from a third of the House for the objection is a huge victory for the Freedom Movement — not a conclusion of the struggle, but a major milestone nonetheless. And it has immediate effects in Mississippi. Editorials in the southern press squeal in outrage that the fair name of Mississippi has been "traduced by radicals." The local airwaves are filled with whining complaints that (as usual) Congress has turned against them and treated unfairly the fair defenders of the glorious "Southern way of life." But those 149 votes send a clear political message to the white power-structure.
The governor (Paul Johnson) hastily circulated a letter to all state offices — voting registrars, law enforcement, judiciary, everybody — urging "restraint, courtesy," and a cessation of violence at least while the state was under this "cruel spotlight of Congressional scrutiny." See, the size of the vote meant that the challenge would now have to go foward in Congress. The seating of the three was "provisional." Only the "fairness" resolution vacating [all five] seats had been voted down. The state officialdom was shaken. I mean in serious shock, Jack! — Kwame Ture. 
Later that night, President Johnson delivers his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress. It extolls his vision of a "Great Society" and proclaims his "war against poverty." In an address that goes on for almost 4,500 words, only 35 of those words refer to civil rights and the Freedom Movement that is shaking the foundations of America. His one reference to voting rights is a single vague platitude in a laundry list of "apple pie" cliches. The systematic disenfranchisement of southern Blacks is most definitely not on Johnson's agenda for 1965.
From January 4th, the MFDP has 40 days to gather evidence in support of their Challenge to the three provisionally seated Congressmen. The challenged Congressmen then have 40 days to collect counter-evidence, followed by 10 days for the MFDP to collect rebuttal evidence. All the evidence is then submitted to Congress, there are periods for filing briefs and legislative process, and then (finally) Congress votes to decide the issue.
With the assistance of Movement and volunteer lawyers, SNCC and CORE organizers and MFDP activists fan out across the state collecting affidavits attesting to the white power-sturcture's ruthless denial of Black voting rights. Under the House rules, the MFDP has the power to supoena and compell testimony from white officials — the authority to force them to publicly answer questions in locations chosen by MFDP.
These suddenly chastened white Mississippi politicians and their lawyers came, polite as you please, to the Masonic temple or to small Delta churches, packed to the rafters with their black fellow citizens. I said, now look at this. Southern chivalry, Jack. I mean it was courtesy titles all ovah the place. 'Yes, sir; no, madam.' Mr. This, Mrs. That. Man, the peoples had them a field day. Some claimed they'd racked their brains for questions to ask, 'Jes' to hear dat white man say 'yes, ma'am' or 'no, sir to me one more time.' — Kwame Ture. 
Some 600 affidavits and depositions testifying to the systematic suppression of Black voting rights in Mississippi are collected and submitted to Congress.
[See Deposition of Mrs. Elizabeth Allen for an example.]
With the national media focused first on Selma, then the March to Montgomery, and then on the Klan violence in Bogalusa, the MFDP effort is little noticed in the North, but it has a significant effect in Mississippi.
SNCC organizer Hardy Frye recalls:
I worked on that campaign. What we had to prove was that so many thousands of people were denied the right to participation. And I know in Holly Springs one of us walked up to [Sheriff] Flick Ashe and said, 'You're subpoenaed.' I know we did the mayor. We did the deputy sheriff, and we did the police chief. And across every county, people would do that. We subpoenaed all those people, and they actually had to come, the sheriff and the mayor ... and they had to testify. So we stacked reams and reams of information of people testifying that they had been denied the right to participate in the party, denied the right to vote, etc.
We had hundreds of people across the state who testified and who, for the first time, saw leading county officials having to explain their behavior before a committee. These are small counties where everybody knows everybody, Black and white, and to have these major political officials having to testify ... And you can imagine in a town the size of Holly Springs what the discussion was. A lot of Black people went, because you could go sit in the audience. And these guys had to get up and say that they did or did not do something. That's pretty heavy for a community. — Hardy Frye. 
Once the MFDP's evidence is collected and submitted to the House, the process drags on, making slow headway against resistance from both the Democratic Party leadership and the Johnson political machine. But the cumulative effect of the Freedom Movement's struggle for voting rights — from the martyrdom of Harry & Harriette Moore to the March to Montgomery — finally force Washington to address the issue, and the 3,000 pages of Challenge testimony becomes an vital part of the evidence used to demand effective voting legislation. The Voting Rights Act is fought through the House, the southern filibuster in the Senate is broken, and Johnson signs it into law on August 6th, 1965.
Though the Voting Rights Act has by then passed in the House by more than 300 votes, when the MFDP Challenge finally reaches the floor on September 17, it is defeated 143-228.
When our challenge was voted on in Congress, the close outcome surprised the Mississippi congressmen. It shook them. It really shook them. They couldn't believe that so many of their colleagues stood up and voted on our behalf as did. That vote just really turned things upside down. John Bell Williams, for example, the white congressman from Madison, the congressional district where Miss Devine was from, went back to the other white Mississippi congressmen and said, "You're going to have to do something, because if they come back again, they're going to win." When he came back to Mississippi, Williams put the same word out. I believe it was this Congressional Challenge that made the white Mississippians know that business as usual was not going to continue. — Victoria Gray Adams. 
For more information:
CRMVets: Mississippi Congressional Challenge
Books: Mississippi Movement
Mississippi Movement & MFDP A Discussion
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
Atlantic City Revisited — Walter Mondale and "The Movement" [PDF]
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
Documents:Mississippi Congressional Challenge Documents
See FBI's COINTELPRO Targets the Movement for preceding events.
Back in 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized illegal FBI wiretaps on Dr. King's home and the SCLC offices. By 1964, this secret electronic surveillance has been expanded to include hotel rooms and the homes of friends that King stays with while traveling.
[In September of 1964, Robert Kennedy resigns as Attorney General to successfully run for the Senate in New York. He is replaced by Nicolas Katzenbach.]
As part of its COINTELPRO operation to disrupt and destroy the Freedom Movement, the FBI regularly leaks derogatory information to the media who then repeat the slanders as coming from "high government sources." Based on unsubstantiated FBI allegations, in April of 1964 conservative columnist Joesph Alsop alleges that an unnamed associate of Dr. King is a Communist. News reports quickly follow, detailing supposedly secret testimony to Congress by FBI Director Hoover charging "Communist influence" over the Civil Rights Movement."
As a general rule, Dr. King prefers not to respond to false charges and personal slanders against himself. But when the Freedom Movement as a whole is smeared he stands to its defense. On April 23 he tells a press conference: "[It is] difficult to accept the word of the FBI on communistic infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement when it has been so completely ineffectual in protecting the Negro from brutality in the Deep South."
Though he considers himself entitled to defame and vilify anyone he chooses, the slightest criticism of himself or the FBI sends Hoover into a towering rage. King's retort is no exception, and Hoover's already virulent hatred intensifies. FBI agents are ordered to expand their surveillance and redouble their efforts to find damaging personal information that can be used to destroy King's reputation.
In October, the world learns that Dr. King has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Hoover's obsessive malice can no longer be restrained, it finally erupts into public view on November 18 when he tells a group of journalists that in reference to King's criticism of FBI effectiveness, "I consider King to be the most notorious liar in the country. He goes on to charge that King is, "one of the lowest characters" in America, and "controlled" by Communist advisors.
King responds that he is "appalled and surprised" by Hoover's attack. He offers to meet with the FBI Director to discuss the Bureau's "seeming inability to gain convictions in even the most heinous crimes perpetrated against civil rights workers." He cites as examples the brutality in Albany, the four little girls killed in Birmingham, and the lynching of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman.
Hoover intensifies his vendetta against King. Behind the scenes, FBI officials escalate their smear campaign by leaking more derogatory stories to the media. Meanwhile, FBI field agents meet with religious organizations, universities, and government officials to "confidentially" brief them that Dr. King is "associating with Communists" and having extramarital affairs in hotel rooms while on the road for speaking engagements and meetings.
From their illegal hotel bugs they assemble a composite audio tape which they believe indicates sexual activity. They package the tape with an "anonymous" letter supposedly from a Negro man. The letter threatens King with public exposure unless he commits suicide before accepting the Nobel Prize. To conceal its FBI origins, they mail it from Miami on November 21. When the package arrives at the SCLC office in Atlanta, staff members are busy preparing for Dr. King's trip to Europe for the Nobel Prize. They assume it's just another recording of a King speech, so without reading the letter they toss the package into a pile of low-priority correspondence to be dealt with when someone has time. Dr. King doesn't actually hear the tape or read the letter until weeks after returning from Oslo.
Publicly, Hoover presses his attack. In a Chicago speech on November 24, he characterizes the Civil Rights Movement as: "pressure groups that would crush the rights of others under heel." And, "They have no compunction in carping, lying, and exaggerating with the fiercest passion, spearheaded at times by Communists and moral degenerates."
Dr. King fears that the public controversy with Hoover risks diverting the Freedom Movement from the critical work ahead. It distracts media attention from the real issues, and with first the Nobel Prize and then the Selma campaign on the horizon he is unwilling to expend precious time and energy responding to FBI slanders. As a conciliatory gesture, he arranges through intermediaries to meet face-to- face with the FBI Director on December 1st. King allows Hoover to dominate the meeting with a long rant justifying and defending the Bureau. Afterwards, King further defuses the situation by telling the press that the meeting was friendly and amicable and that, "I sincerely hope we can forget the confusions of the past and get on with the job."
Dr. King's effort partially succeeds. Hoover and the FBI cease their public attacks, but covert efforts to destroy King and thwart the Freedom Movement continue. In 1976, a special committee of the U.S. Senate investigates illegal political activity by Hoover and the FBI. In regards to the FBI's effort to destroy Dr. King they conclude:
From December 1963 until his death in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to "neutralize" him as an effective civil rights leader. ... Congressional leaders were warned "off the record" about alleged dangers posed by Reverend King. The FBI responded to Dr. King's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize by attempting to undermine his reception by foreign heads of state and American ambassadors in the countries that be planned to visit. When Dr. King returned to the United States, steps were taken to reduce support for a huge banquet and a special "day" that were being planned in his honor.
The FBI's program to destroy Dr. King as the leader of the civil rights movement entailed attempts to discredit him with churches, universities, and the press. Steps were taken to attempt to convince the National Council of Churches, the Baptist World Alliance, and leading Protestant ministers to halt financial support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and to persuade them that "Negro leaders should completely isolate King and remove him from the role he is now occupying in civil rights activities." ... The FBI sought to influence universities to withhold honorary degrees from Dr. King. Attempts were made to prevent the publication of articles favorable to Dr. King and to find "friendly" news sources that would print unfavorable articles. The FBI offered to play for reporters tape recordings allegedly made from microphone surveillance of Dr. King's hotel rooms.
The FBI mailed Dr. King a tape recording made from its microphone coverage. According to the Chief of the FBI's Domestic Intelligence Division, the tape was intended to precipitate a separation between Dr. King and his wife in the belief that the separation would reduce Dr. King's stature. The tape recording was accompanied by a note which Dr. King and his advisers interpreted as a threat to release the tape recording unless Dr. King committed suicide. The FBI also made preparations to promote someone "to assume the role of leadership of the Negro people when King has been completely discredited."
The campaign against Dr. King included attempts to destroy the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by cutting off its sources of funds. The FBI considered, and on some occasions executed, plans to cut off the support of some of the SCLC's major contributors, including religious organizations, a labor union, and donors of grants such as the Ford Foundation. One FBI field office recommended that the FBI send letters to the SCLC's donors over Dr. King's forged signature warning them that the SCLC was under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service.
For more information on COINTELPRO and Martin Luther King:
Martin Luther King
Repression and Opposition Against the Movement for partial list of books.
Martin Luther King
FBI Against the Movement
Exhausted by his overwhelming speaking schedule, by mid-October Dr. King is close to collapse and has to be hospitalized in Atlanta. On the morning of October 14, a call from his wife Coretta informs him that he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1964.
Accompanied by his wife, family members, the Abernathys, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Cotton, Septima Clark, Wyatt Walker, and a number of other Movement activists, Dr. King flies to Europe on December 4. After several days of speeches, meetings and honors in London, they arrive in Oslo on December 10 for presentation of the Award by Norway's King Olav.
Dr. King accepts the Award not for himself, but as the representative of the Freedom Movement as a whole, saying in his Acceptance Speech: "I come as a trustee, for in the depths of my heart I am aware that this prize is much more than an honor to me personally." And in his Nobel Lecture he reiterates that he accepts the Prize, "...not for myself alone but for those devotees of nonviolence who have moved so courageously against the ramparts of racial injustice and who in the process have acquired a new estimate of their own human worth. Many of them are young and cultured. Others are middle aged and middle class. The majority are poor and untutored. But they are all united in the quiet conviction that it is better to suffer in dignity than to accept segregation in humiliation. These are the real heroes of the freedom struggle: they are the noble people for whom I accept the Nobel Peace Prize."
The next day Dr. King gives a Nobel Lecture titled The Quest for Peace and Justice. He preaches a sermon of justice to the world on racism, poverty, war and nonviolence. In prophetic words that echo to this day, he says:
There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. ... I refer to racial injustice, poverty, and war.
This problem of poverty is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves. Take my own country for example. We have developed the greatest system of production that history has ever known. We have become the richest nation in the world. Our national gross product this year will reach the astounding figure of almost 650 billion dollars. Yet, at least one-fifth of our fellow citizens — some ten million families, comprising about forty million individuals — are bound to a miserable culture of poverty.
There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will. The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed — not only its symptoms but its basic causes. This, too, will be a fierce struggle, but we must not be afraid to pursue the remedy no matter how formidable the task." — Martin Luther King. 
Cognizant that he is speaking on a world stage to an international audience, Dr. King links the Freedom Movement to global liberation struggles:
But on another and more important level, what is happening in the United States today is a relatively small part of a world development. ... All over the world, like a fever, the freedom movement is spreading in the widest liberation in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and land. They are awake and moving toward their goal like a tidal wave. You can hear them rumbling in every village street, on the docks, in the houses, among the students, in the churches, and at political meetings.
... and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers in Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. ... What the main sections of the civil rights movement in the United States are saying is that the demand for dignity, equality, jobs, and citizenship will not be abandoned or diluted or postponed. If that means resistance and conflict we shall not flinch. We shall not be cowed. We are no longer afraid." — Martin Luther King. 
The Nobel Prize comes with a $54,000 award (equal to $400,000 in 2012). As is often the case with significant sums of money, it is both a blessing and a curse. Some SCLC associates of Dr. King believe they deserve a share of the largess. Coretta King pleads with her husband to set aside $20,000 to ensure a college education for their four young children. He and his family live in a rented home on his modest salary as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the family car is an old Ford with 70,000 miles on it, and they have almost nothing set aside for the future.
But King has always used his speaking fees and book royalties for the struggle, never for himself. And in his view the Nobel Prize has been awarded to the Movement, not to the man. Despite domestic consequences, and recognizing that SCLC is only one part of the larger Freedom Movement, he divides the award giving $25,000 to the Gandhi Society, $12,000 to SCLC, with the remainder divided among SNCC, CORE, NAACP, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, National Council of Negro Women, and the Urban League.
For more information on Martin Luther King:
Books: Martin Luther King
Web: MLK Awarded Nobel Prize
In the mid-1960s, Scripto is a major manufacturer of pens, pencils, and cigarette lighters. With over 900 employees, it is one of Atlanta's largest corporate employers. The Scripto plant is in a Black neighborhood, a few blocks from where Dr. King lives. More than 600 of the company's 800+ production workers are Black (mostly women) and all but 6 of them are classified as "unskilled." Almost all of the 200 or so white production workers are "skilled," even though most of them were trained by — and still do the same work as — the "unskilled" Blacks. The "unskilled" workers earn $1.25/hour, providing an annual income below the Federal poverty level. The "skilled" workers, of course, are paid more (though less than what unionized blue-collar workers in the North earn).
In 1963, a group of the Black women contact the International Chemical Workers Union (ICWU) and begin an organizing drive at the Scripto plant. They win a majority of the workers, and in June of '64 the union is certified as the bargaining agent. The company offers a 4% raise for the "skilled" workers and only a 2% raise for the "unskilled." Late in November, the workers (Black and white) go out on strike for better pay and an end to racial discrimination in job classifications. Scripto advertises for scabs, and at the bottom of each ad they claim to be "An equal Opportunity Employer."
Many of the strikers are members of Ebenezer Baptist Church where the Kings, father and son, are pastors. They ask for help and SCLC responds. "More and more, says Dr. King, "the civil rights movement must identify itself more closely with the forces of labor." The day after he returns to Atlanta from receiving the Nobel Prize, Dr. King walks the picket line with the striking workers. Led by C.T. Vivian, Hosea Williams and SCLC field staff, mass meetings — Freedom Movement style — are held at a nearby Black church. The ICWU and SCLC issue a joint call for a national boycott of Scripto products. Labor organizations, SCLC affiliates, and Operation Breadbasket networks distribute more than 500,000 leaflets through union halls, churches, and civil rights organizations across America.
Scripto feels the pressure. On January 9, 1965, they sign a union contract. The workers win across-the-board wage increases that total 8% over three years, the 155 strikers who had been fired are re-hired, and the company agrees to end racial discrimination in job classification.
Atlanta's white power-structure is, of course, less than enthusiastic — in their view, raising issues of unions, exploitation, poverty-level-wages, working conditions, and racial discrimination on the job infringe on the sacred right of private businesses to operate in whatever manner they deem most profitable.
Many of Atlanta's older, more conservative Black power-brokers, also resent King's action as a violation of their long held insistance that he refrain from mounting protests in their city. And some are troubled at the thought of linking civil rights with economic justice and higher pay. In their view, civil rights apply to, and benefit, all Blacks from all walks of life — particularly those who are wealthy enough to patronize white-only restaurants and other facilities, or who have the education and background to aspire to middle-class jobs and government positions. But raising economic issues awakens the spectre of class conflict and other radically dangerous ideas, especially for those who are themselves employers of other Blacks.
For Dr. King, the Scripto strike represents a significant step forward from Operation Breadbasket's "Don't buy where you can't work" consumer boycotts into broader issues of class — poverty, union rights, economic justice, employment & housing discrimination. As the Freedom Movement moves forward in the years to come he increasingly focuses on these economic issues — slumlords and exploitation in Chicago, labor rights in Memphis, and the interracial Poor Peoples Campaign. All of which brings him into greater and more intense conflict with both the white power-structure and the affluent Black establishment.
For more information on the Atlanta Civil Rights Movement:
Books: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, & Southern Christian Leadership Conference
MLK's Leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement (National Park Service)
The Scripto Strike (Georgia State Univ. Library)
See Civil Rights Act of 1964 for preceding events.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed into law on July 2nd. In passing the Act, Congress bases its authority to prohibit racial discrimination in public accommodations on the "Interstate Commerce" clause of the Constitution which grants it the power to regulate trade between the states — the rationale is that businesses that deny service based on race hinder the interstate movements of people and goods. Segregationists in the South quickly file lawsuits challenging the Act as an unconstitutional Federal interference in state and private affairs.
The Heart of Atlanta is a large motel that refuses to rent rooms to Blacks. The owner sues to overturn Title II of the Act. He makes two main legal arguments: First, that Congress overstepped its authority under the Interstate Commerce clause. Second, that the Act denies him his right to choose customers and operate his business as he wants which violates the "Takings" clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Lester Maddox, the owner of the Pickrick restaurant in Atlanta, is a staunch segregationist. The day after the Act is signed into law, Blacks attempt to integrate the Pickrick. Maddox threatens them with a gun and passes out ax-handles to white patrons who threaten to club the protesters. He files a similar suit against the Act.
The two cases are paired and tried before a three-judge panel in Federal court. In October, the three judges rule in favor of the Civil Rights Act. The Supreme Court hears the case on appeal. In December, they unanimously uphold the Act and affirm that Congress does have the power to enact anti-discrimination legislation under the Commerce clause, and that doing so does not violate the "Takings" clause.
Rather than serve Blacks, Maddox eventually closes his restaurant. His defiance turns him into segregationist hero, and in 1966 he becomes Governor of Georgia in a convoluted election process that ends when the legislature appoints him to office.
To this day, conservatives continue to argue cases before the court that the Interstate Commerce clause does not grant Congress power to enact national legislation regarding matters as varied as discrimination, environmental protection, health & safety regulations, and health care insurance. Similarly, they continue to claim that imposing national standards of practice and behavior on private businesses violates the Takings clause.
For more information on the Atlanta Civil Rights Movement:
Books: Civil Rights Legislation
Civil Rights Act 1964 (Web Links)
Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S. 379 U.S. 241 (FindLaw)
Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S. (New Georgia Encyclopedia)
In the mid-1960s, most southern Blacks still till the soil, raise livestock, harvest timber or work as domestic servants in white homes. Many of those in agriculture are hired-hands laboring for an employer, some of them are full-time, but most are seasonal. Others are self-employed farmers working on their own behalf. Some of these Black farmers own their own land, but most are tenants — they work land that someone else owns. Some of these tenant farmers rent land from the owner for a fixed annual amount, others are sharecroppers who keep a fraction of the crop they raise and tender the rest to the landlord. Most Black tenant farmers precariously exist from year to year within the context of the South's semi-feudal plantation system. With no legal rights to the land they farm, a word from the owner is all it takes to eliminate their livelihood. All economic, political, and social power is in the hands of the white planter, and Blacks are expected to accept injustice and exploitation with a submissive, "Yass suh, boss."
But mechanization is rapidly changing the face of American agriculture. Where once a plantation required hundreds of men, women, and children to "chop" the weeds out of the long rows of cotton by hand and drag their burlap sacks behind them as they pick the bolls for pennies a pound, now herbicides and machines do the work cheaper and faster. With their labor no longer needed, Black tenant farmers are being shut off from the land they had once worked. In 1920, there were 467,000 tenant farm families in the five Deep South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. By 1954, thirty-five years later, there are only 182,000 left. With no land to farm, many of the former tenant farmers head north to the urban ghettos of New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles; others remain in their decrepit shotgun-shacks, eking out a bare, impoverished existence as seasonal day-laborers.
In 1954, some 94,000 Black families "own" their own land in the five Deep South states (compared to 182,000 tenant farmers). "Own" is a slippery term because most Black-owned farms are deeply in debt and mortgaged to the max. While Blacks who "own" their own land have a degree of financial and social independence only dreamed of by tenant farmers, they too struggle to survive. With machines to do the work, the larger the field the greater the profit. On average, white-owned farms are five times as large as those owned by Blacks. Using their disproportionate economic leverage, white land-owners try to expand by acquiring Black-owned land and Blacks struggle to hold on in the face of economic domination by the white power-structure — the banks that hold their mortgages, the suppliers who extend them credit, the corporations who determine the selling-price of their crops, and the competing white farmers who can more easily afford to mechanize. Against these long odds, Black land-owners are barely hanging on by their fingernails. Some, for example, have to rely on northern relatives for cash-money to pay property taxes.
The Supreme Court's Brown v Board of Education ruling in 1954 signals an eventual end (someday) to the South's "Jim Crow" system of enforced social inequality through legally-madated segregation. And Black efforts to win voting rights threatens white political domination, particularly in counties with Black majorities. Faced with what they see as an unthinkable spectre of Black social equality combined with Black political power, segregationists adopt a conscious strategy of driving Blacks out of the South by whatever means they can.
White Citizens Councils encourage plantation owners to switch from cotton and tobacco to less labor-intensive crops, or to convert their land to timber, dairy herds or catfish-farming. Low-interest loans are made available to help white farmers mechanize so that Black field hands and tenant farmers can be replaced as fast as possible by machines. To force Black land-owners into bankruptcy and foreclosure, the white business community cuts off credit and supplies, and local governments reassess Black land to increase property taxes. When Black farms go under, they are quickly snapped up at bargain-basement prices by wealthy, politically-connected whites.
As shown in the table below, in the 15 years from 1954 to 1969 almost 95% of all remaining Black tenant farm families lose their land, and the number of Black-owned farms is cut by more than 60%.
|Black Farmers, 1954-69, Five Deep South States (SC, GA, AL, MS, LA)|
|Year||Black-Owned Farms||Percent Remaining||Black Tenant Farms||Percent Remaining|
|All data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture.|
As a general rule, white farmers in the South are politically conservative. They fiercely oppose taxes, welfare, government regulation of any kind, and almost all non-military expenditures — except for Federal agriculture subsidies. When it comes to crop payments and farm benefits they crowd the public trough, sucking up every dollar they can. And in terms of total dollar amounts and impact on peoples lives, Federal agriculture subsidies in rural counties dwarf the expenditures and programs of all other Federal, state, and county programs.
For small farmers, the amount of Federal aid they receive (if any)
can mean the difference between survival and bankruptcy.
Agriculture subsidies and other forms of rural government
assistance reach individual farmers through U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) agencies such as the Agricultural Stabilization
& Conservation Service (ASCS). But the benefits are not divided
equally among all farmers. Instead, each county has an elected
ASCS county committee that determines who gets how much Federal
support, how many acres are allotted to each farmer for planting
in cotton or other subsidized crops, who gets pre-planting
Commodity Credit and crop-conversion loans, and so on. As the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights put it, "
[The county committee
makes the] delicate decisions affecting the size of a farmer's
allotment, on adjustments of program benefits between landlord and
tenant, and on the appeals of farmers objecting to cuts in
allotments. The county committee also hires the [ASCS] county
As established by the Roosevelt administration, the agriculture subsidies distributed by the ASCS are not limited to land-owners. Everyone actively engaged in farming on their own behalf — regardless of race — is supposed to receive their fair share and be eligible to vote for the county committee members. In theory, this includes sharecroppers and other kinds of tenant farmers. But that ain't the way it works in the South.
As long-time Alabama civil rights activist Rev. Solomon Seay put it:
We need a farm agency that will get down to us like this white agency with these white agents is getting down to white people. We need people who can speak in a language we can understand. I used to wonder how all my white neighbors got such fine cows and fine pastures and fine tractors. I kept snooping around and I found out my white neighbors were getting loans from the government. My [farm] agent hadn't told me that! — Solomon Seay. 
In their effort to drive Blacks off the land, the segregationists are aided and abetted by officials of the USDA — a bureaucracy that civil rights attorney J.L. Chestnut describes as "... a racist plantation, disguised as a government agency." State-level and regional ASCS officials are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture in Washington, and as of 1964 no Black has ever been appointed in the South. The state heads supervise the county-level ASCS managers who are, of course, all white as are almost all the other ASCS staff. Many ASCS officials are avowed racists and segregationists. Some are themselves plantation owners. Alabama FHA Director Robert Bamberg, for example, owns a huge 4,200 acre plantation with 25 tenant families in Perry County, Alabama. The county ASCS elections are run by the ASCS staff and overseen by the state-level USDA officials. It's no surprise then that no African-American has ever been elected to a county committee in the South — not even in counties that have huge Black majorities. The result is described by SNCC organizer and civil rights attorney Don Jelinek:
The cotton allotments allocated to blacks was less than that for whites, and less than strict formulas required. The subsidy payments for blacks wasn't paid at all, or was underpaid, or paid directly to the company store for the plantation owner to "adjust their account." The net result was that a white farmer and a black farmer could own or farm equal amounts of equal quality adjacent land, but the white would prosper while the black went bankrupt or end up working for the white.— Don Jelinek. 
To deny Blacks their fair share of government support, ASCS county committeemen (they are all men) and USDA bureaucrats routinely refuse to provide forms or other benefit information, cite imaginary application inadequacies, withhold payments, and invent new and vague regulations on the spot. Statistics reported by the Civil Rights Commission tell the tale. For example:
|Example Average Cotton Allotment in Acres, 1964|
|Hale County, AL||39.5||8.8|
|Sumter County, AL||61.5||11.9|
|Holmes County, MS||85.7||9.5|
|(Blacks outnumber whites by more than 2 to 1 in these example counties.)|
And even among white farmers, the county committees skew the benefits so that the lion's share usually goes to the wealthiest and most politically powerful planters.
After the Brown decision in 1954, USDA officials and ASCS county committees use Federal agriculture programs as political weapons to suppress the growing Freedom Movement. Year after year they specially target Blacks who speak out in support of civil rights, or are known to belong to the NAACP, or who attempt to register to vote, or send their children to a "white" school, or whose family members participate in freedom marches or sit-ins. Credit and home loans are denied, and acreage allotments reduced or eliminated. Blacks who complain or argue quickly find themselves in jail for "Disturbing the Peace," or some other trumped up charge.
And from Washington there is silence. Complaints disappear into some bureaucratic limbo, never to be heard from again. Lawsuits are blocked, stymied, and dismissed. Administrations change hands from one President to the next, but the pattern of USDA appointments and decisions remains the same — all white, all the time.
In the closing months of 1964 (simultaneous with the MFDP Congressional Challenge), COFO begins organizing farm owners and tenants in 12 Black-majority Mississippi counties to vote and run for office in the ASCS elections scheduled for December 3rd. Under the ASCS election system, each county is divided into 5-10 rural "communities" of 200-300 farms. The eligible farmers in each community elect a three-person community committee. These community committee members then meet and elect the three-person county committee. It is the county committee that has the real decision-making power.
It is the responsibility of ASCS staff — who are hired and fired by the county committee — to inform and educate farmers about the election procedures and which community each farmer votes in. They also determine who is — and who is not — eligible to vote. And then they are the ones who count the votes. State-level USDA officials are supposed to make sure that all is done fairly.
With only a few weeks before the election date, COFO field organizers fan out across the Delta counties, educating, encouraging, mobilizing. It is hard going. Afro-American farmers know right well they never receive their fair share of cotton allotments and are regularly cheated out of their subsidies, but they also know they face severe economic retaliation from whites if they run as candidates or attempt to vote (or, as white landowners put it, "meddle") in an ASCS election. And they also have to learn from scratch the complex election requirements and rules for a system they have been shut out of for generations.
The ASCS staff hinder and confuse Blacks who are trying to figure out where the community boundaries are. If a farmer signs a nomination petition for a candidate in a different community, the signature is invalid and the nominee is disqualified. People who show up to vote at the wrong polling place cannot cast a ballot. Candidates who do manage to get their names on the ballot receive visits from sheriffs, mortgage holders, and landlords threatening dire consequences if they don't withdraw their names. COFO field organizers are followed, harassed, and arrested on phony charges.
In a few places voters can cast their ballots by mail, but most have to show up in person at a polling place in their community. Each Black farmer who defies the intimidation campaign by showing up to vote is strictly questioned and required to show proof of eligibility as someone actually engaged in farming. Not so whites. Poll watchers report numerous examples of ASCS staff allowing whites to cast fraudulent ballots. Three white nurses from Batesville in Panola County, for example, are allowed to vote on their verbal claim that their mother once left them some land, as are a pair of Coca-Cola drivers in their green uniforms with equally vague justifications. Though Black farmers outnumber whites by 500 in Panola, twice as many whites cast ballots as Blacks. None of Panola's Black candidates are elected.
Poll watching can be a dangerous. In Madison County, where Blacks own 40% of the land, George Raymond and Marvin Rich of CORE are beaten by white thugs and then arrested at a community polling site, as is organizer Eartiss Crawford. Bill Forsyth, Bill Ware, Madeline McHugh, and Tom Ramsay are forcibly ejected from Madison polling places, Euvester Simpson, Elaine Delott, and Ann Darden are arrested. Poll watchers in other counties are also abused and arrested.
Across the Delta the same pattern is repeated, Black voters are intimidated and blocked from voting on trumped up technicalities while ineligible whites are allowed to cast ballots. Despite the odds, here and there a few Blacks manage to win a seat on a community committee, but not enough to elect anyone to the county committee where all the power resides.
COFO careflully documents the wide-spread intimidation and fraud and reports it all to the USDA in Washington. The evidence is irrefutable, not only have officials systematically violated their own long-established internal rules regarding fair ASCS elections, but they are in clear violation of Title VI of the recently enacted Civil Rights Act of 1964. But at the USDA, politics trumps both law and morality. Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman grudgingly rules that new elections must be held in a few communities — but so few, and so scattered, that even if Blacks win every seat they still won't be able to elect a single person to any county committee.
Black farmers counter that the abuses were county-wide and that re-voting in just a few communities is meaningless. They boycott the new votes, refusing to participate in a sham intended to conceal USDA complicity in subverting fair elections. Says Otha Williams, president of the Madison County Farmers' League: "We are tired of tokenism and half-way measures. When you get your ballot, throw it away! Don't vote!"
Though disappointed that no Blacks are elected to any county committee, and furious at the way Mississippi whites and USDA officials conspired to rig the vote, Black farmers and Freedom Movement organizers are not discouraged. In the words of author John Dittmer:
..organizers who had worked on the ASCS elections believed the experience worthwhile. The vote had been a means of reaching new people with a program important to the farmers, who in many areas turned out in unexpectedly large numbers. Despite fraud, intimidation at the polls, and disappointing results, both the farmers and movement activists looked forward to the next election. Starting from scratch, they had waged an impressive campaign. At a time when the Mississippi movement appeared to be losing touch with its constituency, the ASCS elections proved that local people would still respond, given a practical reason to do so.— John Dittmer. 
With a full year to prepare, better education materials, and broader awareness of the issue, activists believe they will be more successful in 1965. But they also know that in response to their ASCS challenge white planters will disposes their Black tenant farmers at an accelerated rate so that those tenant farmers won't be eligible to vote in next year's elections. And the white power-structure will intensify economic pressure on Black land-owners to drive them under as well.
See ASCS Elections — 1965 for continuation.
For more information on ASCS election struggles:
CRMVets: ASCS Election Documents
Web: Agriculture Stabilization & Conservation Service (ASCS) Elections (Links)
1. Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972
2. Black Protest: 350 Years of History, Documents, and Analyses
3. My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South
4. Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi
5. Walking With the Wind
6. In Struggle, SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960's
7. The Making of Black Revolutionaries
8. Julian Bond: Black Rebel
9. Ready for Revolution: The Life & Struggles of Stokely Carmichael ..., Ekwueme Michael Thelwell
10. Papers of Mike Miller ~ Univ. Southern Mississippi
11. The Mississippi Movement & the MFDP (CRMVets discussion)
12. Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, SNCC women
13. River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC
14. "Final Report ... With Respect to Intelligence Activities" Vol 3. U.S. Senate.
15. The Quest for Peace and Justice, Martin Luther King
16. Dr. King, the Farmers Will Tell You..., Don Jelinek
17. Local People: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, John Dittmer.
18. Carry It On: the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama