The 1965 Mississippi Congressional Challenge
On January 4, 1965, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenged the seating of representatives from Mississippi at the convening of the 89th Congress.
Back in June 1964, MFDP candidates ran in the Mississippi Democratic Primary election, but with few Blacks able to vote they were easily defeated. (In August, they also fought, unsuccessfully, for the right to be seated at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.) They then tried to get on the November ballot as Independents, but the state Board of Elections blocked them.
On December 4th, 1964, the MFDP filed an official notice with the House of Representatives that they were challenging the election in the three Mississippi Congressional districts where Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray ran on the Freedom Ballot. Under the rules, the challenged candidates had 30 days to respond, bringing the matter to January 4th, 1965, the opening day of the 89th Congress.
Half of the state’s population were denied the right to vote, and those few Blacks who did manage to register were prevented from freely participating in the electoral process, which in turn made the election fraudulent. Therefore, the House would 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 could 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 members of the MFDP believed that this was a good way to continue the momentum from Freedom Summer and bring the inequality of Mississippi politics to the national stage again. It would also serve as a way to gain support from Congress.
In order to unseat the Representatives, a defeated candidate had to challenge an election in the House. Hamer, Devine, and Gray ran for Congress in three of the state’s five Congressional districts, therefore, they were the perfect individuals to challenge the election of the white Mississippi delegates.
Challenge on January 4, 1965
In Washington, DC, it is illegal to carry signs or conduct a protest inside Capitol buildings, so MFDP members lined the underground tunnels that Representatives used to reach the House chamber.
Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael) reported:
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 dismissible.
As speaker of the House McCormick convened the session, Congressperson William Ryan (D-NY) stood to introduce a “fairness resolution” that would have blocked the seating of the five white men that were elected to the House from Mississippi. After being initially ignored, Ryan was allowed to speak. His resolution was defeated after a roll call vote by Rep. Edith Green (D-OR).
Even though the resolution was defeated, the vote was evidence that there were some in Congress that recognized the injustice that existed in Mississippi. The MFDP and challenged congresspeople had 40 days to compile evidence to support and defend their arguments. They compiled and submitted 600 pieces of evidence to Congress, contributing to the wider efforts to pressure for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This description is, with small adaptations, from the CRMvet archives.
Detailed description and primary documents from the MFDP and the Congressional Challenge at the CRMvet archives.
Free downloadable lesson for high school classrooms on the MFDP: “Sharecroppers Challenge U.S. Apartheid: The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.”