Susan Erenrich Mar 2018

The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: A Bottom-Up Leadership Model

By Susan J. Erenrich and Mike Miller

Susan J. ErenrichSusan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/executive director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series).  She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.

Mike MillerMike Miller was a leader in the pre-1960s birth of the student movement at UC Berkeley, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary from 1962-end of 1966, and director of a Saul Alinsky community organizing project. As Director of ORGANIZE Training Center, he has initiated organizing projects, led organizing workshops, mentored organizers, and consulted widely in the field. He taught community organizing at UC Berkeley and Stanford, among other universities. His books include The People Fight Back: Building a Tenant Union; A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco; People Power: The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky; and Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction; as well as numerous articles on labor and community organizing, politics, and related fields. For more information visit

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the third installment of The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner. This month my good friend, Mike Miller, is my guest columnist. He has written about an important juncture in U.S. history that has served as a model for bottom-up leadership for more than half a century. Picture this:

The year was 1964. Mississippi was the poorest state in the USA. Close to half the population was African American, but fewer than 5% were registered to vote. Most African Americans who managed to register were concentrated in Jackson or along the Gulf Coast, according to documents posted on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website. During this time period, African Americans were subjected to beatings, arrests, cross-burnings, shootings, bombings, lynchings, and assassinations for trying to exercise their unalienable rights, including the right to the ballot.

On February 9, 1964, during a Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) meeting, Bob Moses (Robert Parris Moses), one of the early Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers in the state, proposed a sophisticated new strategy to combat their disenfranchisement. They would create a new party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, otherwise known as the MFDP, and challenge the existing Democratic Party in Mississippi to represent the state at the party convention later that year (MFDP Challenge to the Democratic Convention). The MFDP was open to all regardless of if they were officially registered to vote. Everyone who joined could participate in the party and its actions and decision making. At the same time, efforts to register African Americans using the official state process continued, as did the state’s efforts to deny African Americans the vote. Although their challenge was not accepted, many, such as noted civil rights leader John Lewis, cite the event as a turning point in the fight for civil rights.

In the months leading up to the convention, human and civil rights movement organizers had engaged disenfranchised communities in an exciting voter registration campaign, culminating in a state-wide convention on August 6th at the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street in Jackson, Mississippi. Eight hundred elected delegates and one thousand enthusiastic supporters were on the scene. As Howard Zinn described the gathering: “It was a beautifully-organized, crowded, singing assembly of laborers, farmers, housewives, from the farthest corners of Mississippi, that made the political process seem healthy for the first time in the state's history. It was probably as close to a grass roots political convention as this country has ever seen” (Zinn, 1964).

Just like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), highlighted in last month’s column, the Civil Rights Movement was a singing movement. Julian Bond, who served as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Communication Director in 1964, penned the following liner notes for The Long Walk to Freedom Reunion Concert CD that I produced in 1997. Julian had served as the Master of Ceremonies during a live event that had taken place approximately one year earlier at the Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland. The historic gathering was captured, recorded, and shared with the public. Bond writes:

Almost everyone in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s sang. Not all were singers, but everyone sang. We sang in churches at mass meetings, on picket lines, in jails and prisons, and even when we were off duty — in Freedom Houses, in roadhouses and after-hours bars, in hamburger stands, and in our cars. Some sang alone, but most in groups of three or more — frequently gospel and spirituals from the church, popular songs from the radio and always, the Freedom Songs that came from each of these sources.

The Movement taught us the Freedom Songs; some we wrote ourselves, and in turn, the Freedom Songs made the Movement.

The Movement was, above all, a singing movement, not at all unusual for a movement that was made by Southern Black people.

Like all Southerners, Black Southerners are storytellers, and these songs told stories. They told of people bound in jail and of determined eyes kept on a distant and elusive prize, and of people holding on. Some sang of the Movement’s dark side — murder and mayhem. Some were meant to evoke laughter. Some literally rocked the church. All were meant to instill courage and stiffen determination. In their descriptions, these songs served as musical newspapers, reporting the day’s events to an evening crowd.

Some served as inspirational hymns. Their song leaders were Movement cheerleaders, summoning spirit and celebrating victories small and large. And they allowed a fearful and frightened people, squeezed together in a tiny church encircled by hostile policemen or walking slowly toward a county courthouse surrounded by dead Confederate statues and live Confederate sympathizers, to overcome fear and fright. You can often say in song words you can’t — or shouldn’t — say in speech, and these songs give permission for bold thought, which give sanction to bold action.

It has been almost 40 years since I first heard “We Shall Overcome” or “I’m Gonna Sit At The Welcome Table” or “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.” But when the people we used to call the band of brothers and sisters and the circle of trust get together—and get together we continually do—we cannot gather without song. Song meant everything to us then. Songs and singing bound us together in shared experience, as chains could never have done. Voices raised together in struggle mean everything to me—to us—then and still mean everything now.

As you listen, you’ll find you can’t resist—open your ears, mouth and heart, throw your head back, close your eyes, and SING!
(Bond, 1997)

For our March 2018 Corner, we are going to take another walk down memory lane and learn from these noteworthy movers and shakers who blazed trails for the rest of us. I hope you enjoy Mike Miller’s piece along with the Wasn’t That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation radio broadcast that accompanies this month’s column.


Bond, J. (1997). The Long Walk to Freedom Reunion Concert [CD liner notes]. Revolt In! Records.

MFDP. (n.d.). MFDP Challenge to the Democratic Convention. Retrieved from

MFDP. (n.d.). Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) Founded (April). Retrieved from

Zinn, Howard (1964/2013) SNCC: The New Abolitionists - A Detailed History of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Fifty + Years Later: Lessons for Today

By Mike Miller


From mid-1962 to the end of 1966, I was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) (“Snick” was its shorthand name). During the summer and early fall of 1963, a year before the big Mississippi Summer Project, I was in Greenwood and, for a shorter period of time, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

SNCC was about building people power so that it could take political power. I was part of the Freedom Vote, in which Black Mississippians demonstrated by voting in a “parallel election”, 83,000 strong, that they wanted to vote — a Constitutional right systematically denied them. That vote laid the basis for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), the vehicle created by a joint effort of the state NAACP, Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and SNCC, to put voting rights and racial justice on the national agenda of the Democratic Party by dramatically challenging its national convention to refuse seating the racist “regulars” as delegates, and then in early 1965, at the opening of Congress, to challenge the House of Representatives to refuse seating the “elected” racists. Both challenges were rejected.

SNCC also tried to organize economic power: The Mississippi Freedom Labor Union (MFLU) organized plantation tractor drivers and others, and took over an abandoned military base in the Delta as part of its protest against firing and eviction. There was also the Poor People’s Project (PPP), a vehicle through which local craftspeople marketed their products to sympathetic buyers in the north. Later, Movement veterans assisted local Black farmers in their efforts to win seats on Department of Agriculture local boards that determined crop allotments.

Underlying the alphabet soup was what we knew as “The Movement”, the energy, ideas, and people who held it all together. It was a singing movement: spirituals with freedom movement lyrics, and songs newly created for The Movement by its singers and song writers to lift and hold high spirits. In SNCC itself, a number of full time workers with musical gifts began singing and creating music together. They became The Freedom Singers. They sang across the country to raise funds for The Movement and they sang in the intense week-long SNCC staff meetings, at moments of deep division among us, to bring our focus back to the larger struggle in which we were engaged, and to remind us that we were sisters and brothers in that struggle. Those early Freedom Singers included Bernice Johnson Reagon, who went on to organize Sweet Honey in the Rock and become an internationally recognized cultural worker.

It was a theater movement: initially in skits whose Black characters were a fearful uninvolved local resident, a SNCC organizer, a “local person” active in The Movement, and a white plantation “boss man” and/or sheriff. Under the direction of SNCC organizer John O’Neal, these characters, all local people playing the roles, acted out overcoming fear and standing up to The Man. Lines were improvised around a core script. These skits were the highlight of mass meetings. Based on them, John built the Free Southern Theater.

Most of my time on the SNCC staff was spent as its representative in the San Francisco Bay Area: fundraising, recruiting volunteers, putting pressure on the Justice Department to enforce the law and Congress to pass better laws, and educating northerners about what was going on in the south. Our office published what became a national monthly newspaper, The Movement, in whose pages articles reported on and analyzed Deep South civil rights/black power struggles, organizing California farm workers, anti-urban renewal fights, and much more. In 1965, in its pages I wrote, “The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: ‘Race Has Kept Us Both in Poverty’.” I revisited the subject in “The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: 50 Years Later a Time for Evaluation”, published in Social Policy in 2014.

This is an update on the update. In it, indented and in italics to distinguish them, are excerpts from the 1965 article to give a flavor of those times.

{{Excerpt From 1965 Article}}

To Rally Against Fear

Beginning in 1961, Negro citizens increasingly sought to register to vote. For SNCC, two basic problems had to be faced. First, the overwhelming fear based on the experience of beatings, killings, home bombings, evictions and firings that confront Negroes who seek their constitutional rights in the State; second, more subtle, and more difficult to work with, was the feeling shared by many Negroes in the State that politics wasn't their business. The phrase commonly used was, "politics is white folks business"... For two years, first one at a time, then in tens, then in hundreds, Negroes went to county courthouses seeking to register to vote. In some cases, they were not even allowed to fill out the application form that precedes registration. In most cases, they were told they failed to successfully complete the application. Two questions were generally used to flunk the applicant: (1) interpret the following section (chosen from 383 sections of the Mississippi State Constitution) of the Constitution; (2) interpret the duties and obligations of citizenship under a constitutional form of government. Whether the applicant passed or failed was determined by the registrar of voters, usually a member of the White Citizens Council.


The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was a logical extension of the concept of freedom votes and freedom candidates. That the new Party be a Democratic Party was a matter of some discussion in the State. Following the November, 1963 freedom election success, another state-wide meeting of civil rights activists in Mississippi, held April 2, 1964, discussed the future.

Their decision was to create a parallel Democratic Party -- one that would, in every respect, comply with the rules and regulations set down by the Mississippi State Constitution for the conduct of political parties, and that would be Democratic because it was in the Democratic Party that significant decisions about the lives of the people in the State were made. However, the MFDP was independent in the sense that it owed no patronage or appointments to the National or State Party. This double character of the Freedom Democratic Party, at once inside and outside the system, is a major source of its national strength and the fear that it later caused the "pros" of the National Democratic Party.

Underlying the Atlantic City Convention challenge were three basic considerations. A special MFDP report named them as "(1) the long history of systematic and studied exclusion of Negro citizens from equal participation in the political processes of the state ... ; (2) the conclusive demonstration by the Mississippi Democratic Party of its lack of loyalty to the National Democratic Party in the past ... ; (3) the intransigent and fanatical determination of the State's political power structure to maintain the status-quo, .. " At its founding meeting, the MFDP stated, "We are not allowed to function effectively in Mississippi's traditional Democratic Party; therefore, we must find another way to align ourselves with the National Democratic Party." So that such an alignment could be established, the MFDP began organizing meetings throughout the State to send delegates to the Atlantic City Democratic Convention.


The Congressional Challenge is based simply on the idea that the Congressmen of Mississippi have been illegally elected and should, therefore, not sit in the House of Representatives. On the opening day of Congress, acting in close contact with the MFDP, but using a different legal basis for the Challenge, Congressman William Fitz Ryan of New York introduced a "Fairness Resolution" which stated that in all due fairness to the challenging MFDP candidates and in recognition of the discriminatory practices of the Mississippi Democrats, the Mississippi Congressional delegation should not be seated and the contestants, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, Mrs. Victoria Gray, and Mrs. Annie Devine, should be given floor privileges through the session of the House so that should their challenge be successful, and should they later be named Congresswomen, they would have the opportunity of knowing the history of the session of Congress.

Again the Freedom Democrats stirred the nation -- and rocked the political boat. Working through ad hoc committees in many Congressional districts, through Friends of SNCC groups, CORE chapters, some NAACP branches, ACLU and ADA chapters, and other organizations, the FDP was able to build a movement that led, finally, to 150 votes in support of the Challenge. While the final result is impressive, it was not enough to win. Equally impressive was the way in which the' coalition backing the challenge was built. Many of the national organizations that were to finally back the FDP's challenge only did so after they began to receive pressure from their own members at home. The final January 4th grouping that was around FDP was built from the bottom up, beginning first with maverick chapters, branches and locals of national organizations that only after questions from below began to move.

{{End Excerpt}}

After Defeats

The Convention and Congressional defeats expressed the power of the Dixiecrats — Southern racist Democrats whose political roots were in the Confederacy — in both the Democratic Party, where the south provided necessary votes for presidential candidate victories and were sometimes necessary for a presidential candidate’s nomination to run, and in Congress, where seniority rules made them chairmen of key committees in both the House and Senate. In those days, liberals in the north pursued a “realignment” strategy to get northern liberal Republicans (they then existed) to join the Democratic Party, and southern racist Democrats to join the Republican Party. Their idea was that there then would be a clear election choice for voters between liberals and conservatives. It was, however, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” that implemented at least part of realignment: the massive switch by southern white Democrat politicians and voters from their historic party to the Republican Party.

MFDP returned to Mississippi and campaigned for the national Democratic Party ticket. Despite its loyalty to the Democrats, the newly-elected President Johnson began funneling poverty program funds into the state through organizations that were integrated into the national party structure. As voting became safer in the state after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the campaign to create an alternative to the MFDP grew as well; the Mississippi Democratic Conference (MDC) was its name. By the 1968 national convention, a new delegate body represented the state — most of it neither MFDP nor segregationist "Regulars". These were the "Loyalists," a quarter of whose delegates were MFDP.

A more visionary Democratic Party leadership might have changed the direction of the nation if it had seated the MFDP at the party convention instead of making a take-it-or-leave-it offer of two seats at large as honorary delegates, and if it had refused to seat the Dixiecrat racists in Congress. In so doing, it would have declared unequivocal war on the old guard Dixiecrats. Having crossed that Rubicon, the Democrats might have gone on to pass serious full employment legislation. Other things might have followed to move the Party in a more liberal direction. Instead, “Moderation” (and the Vietnam war) triumphed.

But my interest is less in what the Democrats might, or should, have done. It is more what "we" could have done that might have been a more effective way to pursue the goals of political, social, cultural, and economic liberation. In what follows, I pose questions. Some of my answers are confident; others are tentative. The questions SNCC faced then remain, and face us today if we are going to figure out how to turn the country (and world) around.

Should COFO have launched MFDP, or was there a better way to break the wall of Mississippi racism and achieve real power?

The emphasis on the right to vote led inevitably to questions: "Who would we vote for if we could vote?" "Do we want to be part of the regular Mississippi Democratic Party?" "Why not form our own party?"

Was SNCC's work too skewed toward electoral politics? Even given the electoral emphasis, could political power be achieved in a form other than a political party? I will return to this question below.

There is a deeper set of questions related to the timing of electorally focused action. Had we then known what we were soon to learn, we might have wanted greater depth of organization throughout the black population of the state before directly engaging in politics.

In Holmes County SNCC/MFDP left a strong legacy. An independent black politics emerged within the framework of the Democratic Party as early as 1965/66. SNCC's on-the-ground organizing presence in Holmes paved the way for what MFDP accomplished there. Holmes County had the largest percentage of independent black farmers in the Delta. Because of its rolling hills, there were no vast plantations that carried on a de facto slavery long after slavery had been made unconstitutional. The community SNCC had to work with was, therefore, an easier one to organize for independence. Indeed, the black farmers were already organizing themselves before SNCC even arrived. But Holmes was the exception to the rule.

As the next five years unfolded, it turned out that SNCC built the road and the MFDP car that initially drove on it, but someone else's car completed the drive. In the four-seater, MFDP had only a single back seat. With passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the presence in the state of Federal "examiners" to register people to vote, a whole new set of players entered the electoral arena. The more cautious people, including most of the church leadership and many of the people in the pews, now became engaged in voting. They were the base for the reformed Democrats who got support from the national Democratic Party by various means including Poverty Program patronage. In this new Mississippi Democratic Party constellation, the one that represented Mississippi at the 1968 national convention, MFDP people had one quarter of the seats. Others occupied the remaining seats.

There was a complication for SNCC. For the most part, SNCC's organizing bypassed the churches. Pastors who became involved were a distinct minority of the black clergy. Historically, the three major leadership groups in the Mississippi black community were teachers; preachers; and independent black business - farmers and professional people. SNCC focused on the 80+% of the black population who were day laborers, domestics, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, the unemployed, those on welfare, and other low-income people and mavericks from the leadership groups for whom civil rights included addressing poverty. It was, in effect, dealing with both class and race in its organizing work. Race, of course, was a unifying factor. But dealing with class meant also raising economic issues and the question of “qualifications” — i.e. overcoming the deference toward one's "betters" often found in a setting like Mississippi. SNCC lacked the tools to fully overcome this organizing challenge. But the challenge was made more difficult by the immediate focus on electoral politics.

Should MFDP have accepted the two-seat “compromise”?

There was a time when I hardly entertained the question. Indeed, I was probably quite arrogant about it. All SNCC people at the time thought the offer was insulting at best. But over the years, I've had second thoughts. I come to the same conclusion — the offer wasn't enough. But I have some additional observations.

It is important to note that “compromise” isn’t what was going on. President Lyndon Johnson said we’re offering two seats and Aaron Henry and Rev. Edwin King are the people who will occupy them. This was a unilateral dictate, not the result of a negotiation. What if MFDP had said, “the number of seats is negotiable, but our delegation is going to name who fills them.”

At the time, SNCC juxtaposed its "moral" position to the "pragmatic" politics of wheeling and dealing. But that's what politics is: wheeling and dealing. Indeed, when there is a rough equality among the parties, there's nothing the matter with wheeling and dealing when properly understood. Different groups have different interests and points of view. Politics is the means by which they make agreements so that we can all live together. That entails compromise. Nothing wrong with that. The alternative is war. Compromise becomes wrong when there are vast economic inequalities that distort the negotiating process, or when there are whole groups of people excluded because of their race, religion, gender, economic status, or some other characteristic of their identity.

Having decided to play in the electoral arena, there are rules by which that game is played. To change those rules required power that the SNCC/MFDP alliance did not have. Lacking that power, the criteria for making the decision should not have been an abstract moral one, but an organizational one. Namely, will a accepting a compromise contribute more than a rejection to strengthening our work so that we can more effectively pursue our moral ends? That remains a very good question. What the evidence points to is that it was Johnson, not the MFDP, that was unwilling to negotiate. For example, a compromise that divided the seating equally between the racists and the integrationists (MFDP invited white participation in it) would have been unacceptable to the regulars: they would have walked out.

After The Convention

{{Excerpt From 1965 Article}}


…Just as the FDP raises fundamental questions and issues, so does it also function in a way that is frightening to the manners of polite society. The FDP is genuinely a party of the grass-roots people in Mississippi. They participate in and run the Party. Sharecroppers and domestics, laborers and unemployed, they make up and control the destiny of their Party. Because this kind of participation has become so alien to American political thinking (the Town Meeting was alright then, but after all ... ), many Doubting Thomases have questioned its existence. Generally, they advance a conspiracy theory regarding the FDP. It is, they say, manipulated from someplace else - - most frequently it is alleged that SNCC manipulates the FDP. And the more SNCC staff pulls out of Mississippi to begin work in other places where the movement has not yet begun to take hold, the more sinister is SNCC's control over the MFDP.

The two qualities of MFDP – its rank and file participation and its ability and desire to raise basic issues and questions - - are related. It is, after all, those who are hungry. ill-housed and ill-clothed, those who are denied the right to vote and who are beaten and abused by local police who are most likely to raise questions of poverty and civil rights. And because they have nothing to lose, having nothing to begin with, they are also least likely to "sell out". Thus their participation in and control of the MFDP is intrinsic to its ability to remain a voice of honesty, dealing with central issues, refusing to substitute rhetorical gains for substantive victories. And it is here, in this area, that the day to day politics of the MFDP is fought out. For some time, it was argued that the Mississippi movement ought to be guided by a national Board of Directors that would include representatives of the major liberal and civil rights organizations in the Country. It was always SNCC's position – and others came to share it -- that such an idea was a direct violation of the spirit of “one man, one-vote”. SNCC workers took the position that people who lived and worked in the State of Mississippi would have to be the ones who made the decisions. This did not mean that everyone had to automatically accept these decisions; it did, however, mean that control of decision making would have to be in the hands of the people of the State.

This decision has now been accepted -- in part because it is a reality, and, in part because some have come to see the merit of the view.

There tends to be a correlation between social status in the Negro community and the militancy advocated for the movement and the issues to be raised. The moderates tend to be the people with more status in the community -- whether this be the status of money or education or position. The moderates also tend to be the traditional leaders (or non-leaders) of the community, and this relates to the whole question of qualifications and who can participate in politics. There is now a new leadership in the State, built around people like Mrs. Hamer. Some of the people of status in the Negro community have joined with this new leadership in raising basic questions. Most have not.

The issue is particularly painful as the voting bill nears passage. Even on its face, the bill has serious inadequacies. In particular, it offers no protection against economic harassment against Negroes who seek to vote, nor is it clear why this bill will be any more forcefully executed than the many good laws already on the books. It is clear, however, that some Negroes are going to register to vote - - and that this number may, in some cases, be a key bloc vote able to carry primary elections or even general elections one way or the other. So basic questions are raised. Will Negroes continue to support the MFDP and its present positions?

Will Negroes support white "moderates" when they run against blatant racists?

Whatever the future for MFDP, it constitutes, in the eyes of many, the most exciting political event of the post World War II era. Whether, the MFDP will be able to maintain itself as a movement of the poor or whether it is only the first in the development of new movements at the grass roots level that are soon to join in the development of a program that addresses' itself to the basic problems of the society can only, at this point, be a question.

{{End Excerpt}}

MFDP became a target for the national leadership of the Democratic Party who sought, with whatever means were at their disposal, to bypass MFDP's principal leadership. State NAACP Chair Aaron Henry abandoned MFDP, and became a key figure in the emerging new Democratic Party formation within Mississippi. Unfortunately, the remaining MFDP leadership lacked the depth of base at home to force the Democrat Party Establishment to deal with it as the voice of Black Mississippians. Lawrence Guyot, Victoria Jackson Gray, and Annie Devine continued working in movement politics, but after 1968 Fannie Lou Hamer withdrew to her home in Ruleville where she started a pig farm cooperative and otherwise engaged in local non-electoral work. Guyot, a brilliant tactician, did the best that could be done by a leader who didn't have many resources at his disposal. Too often, deference to more middle-class leadership combined with patronage combined with doubts about SNCC's militant rhetoric provided openings at the base to the new political configuration that MFDP leaders could not overcome. They thus had to find a path between cooptation and isolation. They couldn't find it because by this time it didn’t exist. Though they were part of the 1968 delegation that was seated, they were a distinct minority, and their fortunes as a statewide party (there remained pockets of strength in some counties) declined precipitously afterward.

The SNCC/MFDP legacy remains in the state, expressed in the 2013 election of Jackson's mayor, Chokwe Lumumba — who tragically died in February 2014 before he could put his agenda for reform in place. In 2017, that victory was repeated with the election of his son, Chokwe Lumumba, Jr., who promises that his city will become “the most radical on the planet.” He described himself as a "Fannie Lou Hamer Democrat." It is also expressed in the persistence of various local organizations and organizing that carry on the SNCC tradition.

Question: What lessons are there for today when we think about the relationship between community organizing and electoral politics?

In those days, SNCC people, myself included, thought that we organized while Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) mobilized. It is an important distinction. Indeed, it continues to play itself out in the multiple revolutions taking place around the world — Egypt being the clearest recent example of a direct action mobilization, and Syriza in Greece being an example of an electoral one.

Our formulation of the issue was too one-dimensional. We ignored the fact that SCLC often mobilized through deeply rooted local organizations, namely through the black churches. As former Mississippian Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown said, "The Black church is the only institution we own lock, stock and barrel." While SNCC organized many church people, particularly the women of the churches, and while pastors were often pushed from within by their own members to endorse SNCC's work, most of these pastors were never wholeheartedly in "The Movement." When an alternative opened, they moved toward it — and often took most of their congregation with them.

SNCC, on the other hand, was deeply influenced by Ella Baker, who was suspicious of the kind of strong leadership exercised by most Black pastors. She had a lifetime of experience in dealing with it. As she put it, "strong people don't need strong leaders." She saw organization as key to developing strong people. But building strong organization outside the framework of the Black church proved to be a difficult proposition. Indeed, often the strong people around whom Baker imagined organization being built were, themselves, reluctant to see others develop. Amzie Moore, one of the Delta's most courageous Black strong people and one of Bob Moses' first contacts in the state, was himself rather controlling within his own turf in Bolivar County.

The organizing versus mobilizing discussion doesn't go away. But framing it simply in these terms is a mistake: It is not simply mobilization versus organization. Rather, the questions should be: whether organization is the vehicle through which mobilization takes place, whether organization is built or strengthened during a period of mobilization, and what kind of organization are we talking about to begin with?

Sometimes mobilizations are close to spontaneous: An outrage takes place and thousands of people express their anger by taking to the streets. For example, see the film Detroit for a portrayal of race riot/insurrection post-Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, or take the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965. Sometimes a relatively small activist or cadre organization mobilizes large numbers of people in response to a crisis; when the mobilization is over, the same relatively small organization remains — with possibly a few additional recruits.

There is an additional combination of organizing and mobilizing, and it is not alien to the American experience. The organization of industrial workers in the 1930s is the best example. In city after city across the United States, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) built strong union locals in the context of dramatic mobilizations of workers and confrontations with their employers. These locals, and the internationals of which they were a part, reached deeply into the lives of their members, and extended that reach to their families and the communities in which they lived — making an impact on politics and community life. The best of them pursued a program of “black and white, unite and fight” and implemented it.

In Chicago’s Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), with Saul Alinsky and Joe Meegan the principal organizers, a mass-based community organization brought the packinghouse workers union together with Catholic parishes and other neighborhood groups to create the people power to force the Big Six meat packing companies to recognize the union and negotiate a contract with it, and to win a number of additional important benefits for its neighborhood from the city’s political machine.

A Different Strategy for These Times?

Two propositions:

  • Political parties tend to be run by politicians who have a deep interest in controlling them. Thus “member-run political parties” tends to be a contradiction in terms. International experience in democracies confirms this.
  • Politicians tend to have an interest in moving up to higher offices. Thus they have in mind two constituencies — the one that elected them and the one that they hope will elect them. Further, their eyes are focused not only on voters, but on who will pay for election campaigns.

What if COFO, instead of sponsoring a new political party, had sponsored a new statewide, non-partisan, dues-paying membership, multi-issue organization with chapters in cities, towns, and rural areas throughout the state? What if this organization had demanded of the Democratic Party that it refuse seats to the “regulars”, but not demanded seats for itself, leaving to politicians the formation of a statewide party that it would hold accountable — in the same way that in the country today money power holds both Republicans and Democrats accountable to it? What if this new organization adopted a platform, widely publicized it, informed the electorate where candidates for office stood on that platform, then registered and turned out voters in a coming election? And, after the election, what if this people power organization continued to hold elected officials accountable to implement their election campaign promises?

What if, in addition to its electoral activities, there was a strategically balanced program that included:

  • Direct negotiations, backed up with "Main Street" boycotts, with local employers (over hiring and respectful service issues), and with local governments (over police treatment, city services — black topping roads, street lights, drainage, etc, — voter registration, public accommodations, and school desegregation)?
  • Self-help and mutual aid, done through buying clubs, producer and consumer cooperatives, support groups of various kinds, and other means that, on their face, appear more conservative because they don't involve direct confrontation with the powers-that-be?
  • Workplace organization, with the possibility of national and international boycotts to place pressure on producers of products bearing a "made in Mississippi" label?
  • Large delegations lobbying politicians on issues of concern, and letting the electorate know how the politicians were responding with an eye toward creating good and/or bad records for them come the next election? And, the same kind of lobbying in relation to various governmental agencies whose programs are supposed to serve the people, but don’t?
  • Continuing internal cultural, educational, and social programs that created and deepened a small “d” democratic life in the people power organization?

I think it is in these directions that today’s people power builders need to look. If they fail to do so, they risk the fate of SNCC/MFDP: creating roads and vehicles to ride on them that don’t reach their liberation destination because, before they can, someone else takes them over.