The Democratic National Convention in Denver has been soaring, stressful, emotional. The Clintons have rocked the house and taken great steps in uniting the Party. Joe Biden (and his mom) has reminded us that little boys in working class Catholic neighborhoods can be whatever they want to be in America. The faithful of the Democratic Party have converged and discussed organizing in new and grander ways. The faith isn’t new its just that the faithful are more active.
The opening worship service was interesting and special to me. I know many can claim that the usual has taken place – meetings where people carry the party line, discuss winning and don’t really speak truth to power. I don’t think these people attended the worship service. I don’t think they saw a major Party allow clergy speak their minds; their callings be it abortion or the death penalty. That service was non-scripted and ordained by the Democratic Party. It should be applauded.
Does ‘justice rain down like mighty waters’ at a contemporary political party convention? Or do sound bites and message simply clop the networks and cable news channels like a corporation meeting to promote and market a product?
Through all of the flair, glare and bright lights the historic implications of what is happening this week is very real and being felt here in Denver and, I think, across the nation. I’m a Mississippian, a white Mississippian and a Democrat. I grew up in a town once segregated – once polarized and depressed with the darkest attributes of racial strife and indignation. My faith has helped me find the better angels in my life and, hopefully, seek to share and showcase those better angels to others.
This history of my state and its impact on the whole nation is bearing heavily on me this morning. Today, my mind, my soul is thinking about two Democratic conventions: the one today in Denver and one that took place 44 years ago in Atlantic City. And, I am asking a question asked in 1964 by a woman, an African American sharecropper who asked the Democratic structure “Is this America?”
In 1964 the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) arrived at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City with the goal of unseating the “regular Democrats” and representing their fellow Democrats from Mississippi.
The Freedom Democrats were civil rights pioneers attempting to engage the political process and give African Americans equal participation in our nation’s democratic system. They wanted to vote. They wanted to participate. They wanted their voice to be heard.
The regular Democrats were the establishment. They were all white and were seeking to maintain the status quo, which was maintaining their control of the political process in Mississippi.
The Freedom Democrats stood for an America where everyone had a place at the table. The regular Democrats stood for an America where the > white establishment had a place at the table while African Americans stood to the side taking what scraps were tossed to them.
Fannie Lou Hamer led the Mississippi Freedom Democrats. She was impoverished; a sharecropper with hands calloused from the back breaking work of hand picking cotton. She couldn’t read. And she had lived a life with no say about her own choices. Speaking before the DNC credentials committee Ms. Hamer proclaimed “Is this America?”
Ms. Hamer is also famous for telling America “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” The Freedom Democrats were denied official recognition but the MFDP kept up their agitation within the Convention. The MFDP delegates borrowed passes from sympathetic northern delegates and took the seats vacated by the “regular” Mississippi delegates (most had left), only to be removed by the national Party. When they returned the next day to find that convention organizers had removed the empty seats that had been there yesterday, the MFDP stayed to sing freedom songs.
This week, 2008, 44 years later the Democratic Party at their national convention in Denver, CO has nominated Senator Barack Obama as their candidate for President of the United States.
The diverse Mississippi delegation of black and white, the heirs of the Freedom Democrats of 1964, many with direct connections with many who were their in 1964, cast their votes for this historic candidate.
Let’s not forget the true nature of this historic week. Let’s not forget the African Americans back in Mississippi who once couldn’t vote, who lived under Jim Crow and on Thursday night will watch a black man accept the nomination of the Democratic Party to lead this oldest active political party on the planet, to be their candidate for President of the United States. What will go through their minds?
Fannie Lou Hamer was right to ask in 1964 “Is this America?”
As I sit in my hotel room here in Denver, in 2008, I would love to be able to tell Ms Hamer Yes ma’am it is. Yes ma’am this is America, it’s your America. Yes ma’am, because of your determination 44 years ago in just a few hours a black man will stand on one of the globe’s largest stages and demonstrate to us that this is indeed the America we hope for.
Burns Strider is former Senior Advisor and Director of Faith Outreach for U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, former advisor to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and currently a founder and partner of The Eleison Group.