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The Mondale Lectures: Atlantic City Revisited
by Dan Olson
February 11, 2000
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Blacks trying to end segregation in Mississippi carried their cause to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. They demanded that their mostly black delegation replace Mississippi's all-white group at the Atlantic City, New Jersey gathering. The 36-year-old man given the job of helping broker a compromise was then-Minnesota attorney general Walter Mondale. Today in Minneapolis, Mondale recounted the confrontation. He invited to the event several of those who bitterly opposed the compromise.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale speaks about the groundbreaking events that took place in Atlantic City in the summer of '64. Listen(30:15)

Lawrence T. Guyot, Jr. was a field organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi in 1964 when he was elected chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. He was selected to be among the challenge delegation to Atlantic City, but was arrested on charges related to a demonstration eight months earlier. Listen (8:25)

Governor William Winter forged a biracial coalition that healed the rifts in the Demoratic Party left over from the 1964 and 1968 elections. Listen (9:30)

THERE WAS NONE of the anger at Mondale's lecture that he says filled the meeting rooms at Atlantic City in 1964. Mondale says President Lyndon Johnson saw the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's demand to replace the all-white delegation from their state as a threat to his bid for the presidency.
Mondale: He was afraid that seating the Freedom Democrats would incite a walkout of southern and border states and hand the election to Barry Goldwater. The confrontation made headlines because the challenge mounted by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was broadcast on national television.
Hamer: My name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer.
Hamer's accounts of Mississippi blacks being beaten, arrested, and killed for trying to register to vote shocked people. Many Americans were unaware of Mississippi's laws which forced separation of the races.
Hamer: Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives been threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?
Hamer and her fellow Freedom Party members won support at Atlantic City from national party delegates who were ready to vote to seat them. Freedom Party founder Lawrence Guyout Jr. says that set off some hardball lobbying of delegates from supporters of Lyndon Johnson.
Guyout: A delegate from California was called and told, "Look, your husband can be a federal judge, just stop voting for the Freedom Democratic Party."
The politicking taking place in hotel rooms away from the convention floor was also bare-knuckled. The Reverend Edwin King, a white minister and a founder of the Freedom Democratic Party remembers the meeting with Hubert Humphrey, United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King Jr., and a handful of others. King says Humphrey described Fannie Lou Hamer as an unacceptable spokeswoman for black people.
King: And then Mr. Humphrey said, "Look at her the way she dresses, her grammar, this is not the kind of person white America needs to see representing black people."
King says Humphrey's words may have been his own, President Johnson's or possibly even the view of other blacks concerned about the momentum of the civil rights movement. He recalls when Martin Luther King Jr. said he favored seating the Mississippi Freedom Party, union president Walter Reuther turned in King's direction.
King: And then to Martin almost wagging his finger in Martin Luther King's face, he said, "Remember who pays for you."
Reuther, King says, was referring to union money donated to pay the bail of jailed civil rights workers.

After four days of talks, Walter Mondale says, the compromise offered the Mississippi Freedom Party was two at-large delegates who they would not be allowed to choose and a promise the Democrats would not accept segregated delegations at future conventions. The compromise was rejected by both sides.

Fannie Lou Hammer shouted, "We didn't come all this way for no two seats!" And the all-white Mississippi delegation walked out. Bitterness deepened when it was learned Johnson had more than two dozen FBI agents and paid informants tailing the Freedom Party throughout the convention. Four years later, Mondale says, the Democrats had changed the rules.
Mondale: Whites-only delegations were no longer welcome at our conventions. In 1968, an integrated delegation came from Mississippi, which included Ed King, Lawrence Guyout and Fannie Lou Hamer.
Mondale says the civil rights advocates of that era are heroes who held the country together when things were about to fall apart. He says it's tempting to think the victories were inevitable.
Mondale: But none of it was pre-ordained, all of it was very hard to come by. So when you hear people say that citizens can't do anything, that it is foolish to become involved, that nobody listens, please tell them to take a hard look at American history, and while you're at it, take a look at Fannie Lou Hamer as well.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, speaking in Minneapolis at the first in a series of lectures about his 50 years in public life.