We recently spoke with UPK author Lisa Anderson Todd about her newest book, For a Voice and the Vote: My Journey with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. For a glimpse into her experience, check out our following Q&A.
UPK: Your involvement in this story doesn’t begin with your book, For a Voice and the Vote. You were present for many of the events that summer. Why have you chosen now to circle back to document this period in your life?
LAT: The summer of 1964 was a significant time in my life, but something that I did not reflect on as I focused on my legal career. I collected the books written about the Mississippi Summer Project, but did not take the time to read and evaluate them as they might pertain to my own experience. In retirement I decided to devote myself to learning more about the Mississippi civil rights movement, particularly what happened to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. I didn’t understand why or how the MFDP, having done all that was required to be an accredited delegation and entitled to represent all the citizens of Mississippi—black and white—was rejected by the Democratic Party. I wanted to reflect, satisfy my own curiosity, and provide a record of these important historical events from my position as a participant-observer.
UPK: What drew you, back in 1964, to volunteer for the Mississippi Summer Project?
LAT: In 1963, the summer before, I had spent time in Mississippi at a World Council of Churches work camp doing maintenance work for Tougaloo College and learning about the civil rights movement. I had not been active in the movement in college and now was seeing and hearing how black people were living as second class citizens in a segregated society. My experience made me decide to become a civil rights worker and to do what I could to help them gain their constitutional rights. My desire coincided with the plans for inviting as many as 1,000 college-age volunteers to spend the summer of 1964 working on voter registration, teaching in Freedom Schools, and helping in community centers.
UPK: As described by you, the summer of 1964 was a highly combustible and often scary situation for volunteers. Can you give us a sense of what it was like on the ground both for those involved locally and for outsiders like yourself who came in to volunteer?
LAT: The local people took real risks to participate in the civil rights movement: to attend mass meetings, to attempt to register to vote, to participate in demonstrations, or just to associate with the students encouraging local participation. They lost their jobs, lost credit needed to run a business or grow their crops, were arrested and beaten, had their homes shot into or firebombed, and were harassed with threatening phone calls. Outsiders could be arrested for disturbing the peace or traffic violations that did not occur. They were subject to harassment, called “communist,” and told to go back home. We found protection in the black community as we joined forces in the nonviolent struggle for freedom, equality, and justice.
UPK: After a summer spent rallying and registering voters in Mississippi, what was the mood like among those who made their way to Atlantic City for the Democratic Party Convention? Afterwards?
LAT: We were excited that finally we would draw the attention of the Democratic Party and the rest of the country to all that had happened in Mississippi during the summer. Publicity about the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner and the activities of the predominantly white volunteers in Mississippi had made the country more aware of the plight of disenfranchised Mississippi blacks. We were optimistic that the Democratic Party would seat the MFDP in lieu of the discriminatory, all-white official delegation. At the least we believed that there would be a reasonable compromise that would recognize the efforts of the MFDP. When the leadership of the Democratic Party—without negotiations with the delegation—made the final decision to give the MFDP two seats with at-large votes, we were disappointed and disillusioned.
UPK: In this book, you build upon your own experience with a vast amount of research including taped conversations from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library that have only recently become available. What was it like to go back and reconstruct the events and impacts of the MFDP’s efforts in 1964?
LAT: It was difficult to remember what happened fifty years ago, and I knew what I could remember might not be accurate, but I wanted to reconstruct the events as best I could. I was fortunate that I kept a detailed diary during the summer of 1963 that reflected how I learned about the Mississippi civil rights movement and that my parents saved the letters I sent them during the summer of 1964. I supplemented this information with accounts of the summer from books and internet sources. This was a new and interesting process for me.
Oral interviews of principals involved with the MFDP Convention Challenge and the LBJ tapes provided me my first information of what had been going on behind the scenes in Atlantic City. We heard at the time that LBJ pressured delegates to change their votes so there would not be a floor fight, but I did not know why he was so adamantly opposed to seating the MFDP and how he managed to obtain the result he wanted. The chronology of events over the five hectic days in Atlantic City has been confused in some accounts. With the facts I was able to find in primary sources, I have tried to set the record straight. The political strength of the MFDP is apparent from the efforts the Democratic Party leadership had to take to prevent the MFDP from winning public favor and obtaining a floor vote that would disrupt the Convention and reveal the split within the Democratic Party.
UPK: You say at one point in the introduction that you often caught yourself saying, “I never knew that.” Were there revelations in this book writing process that stood out or changed how you understood that summer? Did anything you learn change your understanding of your own experience?
LAT: One surprise was that many in SNCC opposed white volunteers coming, including Charlie Cobb, a leader of the opposition who was a project director in the Greenville area where I was assigned. I did not know about this opposition or the reasons for it, but can understand now how resentful the local black leadership could be of white volunteers.
UPK: Now, some fifty years removed from the events of that summer, what is the most important thing to remember about the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party?
LAT: The dispossessed, grassroots, poor, black underclass of Mississippi found their voice as they sought the right to vote. Their efforts began long before the Mississippi Summer Project, when stalwart individuals registered to vote and began to organize politically, but even with student assistance and encouragement in the early 1960s, the process proved to be slow. The formation of a new open political party—the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party—attracted national attention. What is most important to remember is that it was the courageous actions of many local people who were willing to take risks to join and organize the MFDP. It is now time to recognize the role of the MFDP played in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.