The Art & Ignominy of Compromise: M. L. King, Jr., and the MFDP

By Blackwell, Michael D. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Art & Ignominy of Compromise: M. L. King, Jr., and the MFDP


Blackwell, Michael D., The Western Journal of Black Studies


Introduction

Maintaining one's integrity in the midst of compromise is the challenge of the political enterprise. Many people are tested when they hold adamantly to a position and discover they cannot obtain all they want. Some would even sacrifice getting a modicum of their goal by opting for nothing as a way of saving face, showing devotion to their cause, or having the courage of their convictions--proving their commitment to their comrades. Such obduracy is understandable; however, whether the choice to refuse to compromise when little else is in the offing is constructive and effectuates the greater attainment of justice can be analyzed with regards to the decision made by leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the Democratic National Convention in 1964.

In addition, the role of movers and shakers in the Democratic Party and the involvement of Martin Luther King, Jr., an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, figure significantly in demonstrating the complexities of the political process. Furthermore, the developing contumely and contumacy of the young adults and youth among the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other burgeoning organizations helped to foster a bifurcation of reality (i.e., right vs. wrong; good vs. evil) while commanding respect for their assertiveness, stick-to-itiveness, and blatant obstinacy. These nuances or gradations in approaches put in sharper relief the ambiguities and ramifications of compromise.

Securing the right to vote for all citizens during the 1960s became a signature campaign of the major civil rights organizations. Denying people that right was likewise a chief objective of staunch segregationists, particularly in the South. Mississippi, characterized as the most racist state in the U.S. republic at the time, was the center of the struggle for the franchise. King described it as an environment similar to a "concentration camp" or a "police state" (Carson, 1998). Captivated by the possibilities of participating in the reshaping of U.S. history, many northern students and young people elected to venture to the Magnolia State to empower the black populace through access to the ballot box. King had talked about this critical component of the destiny of freedom, equality, and justice on the third anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas with his stirring refrain of "Give Us the Ballot." Earlier on the night that Byron de la Beckwith murdered the state field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, President John F. Kennedy gave his seminal speech on civil rights, in which he declares:

... it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal. ...If an American, because his skin is dark ...cannot vote for the public officials who represent him ...he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want (Carson et al., 1987, pp. 120-121).

But Kennedy was late in arriving at this basic insight about humanity. Many attribute to Pres. Lyndon Johnson a carrying of the baton of Kennedy's newfound civil rights agenda--capitalizing on the ongoing grief over his assassination. Historically, even Johnson was not the herald of civil rights advocacy in the executive branch of government and certainly not during his tenure on Capitol Hill. That pioneer during the 1950s was none other than Hubert Horatio Humphrey (Solberg, 2003)!

Johnson was outraged over the insistence of the leaders of the predominantly black MFDP delegation, especially after July 2 when he had signed into law the civil rights bill Kennedy had envisioned a year earlier. He wanted a smooth transition into a duly elected term in the White House--an administration he could call all his own! He expected his soon-to-be running mate, Humphrey, to handle the conflict with some measure that would be acceptable to all. …

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