Mississippi Freedom delegate remembers turbulent 1964 in Atlantic City

Emma Sanders, one of only two surviving Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates, officially cast her 2016 delegate vote Tuesday — for Bernie Sanders.

Emma Sanders was late to the Mississippi delegation's breakfast Tuesday, almost skipped it altogether, the exhausting first night of the Democratic National Convention having taken its toll on the great-grandmother.

But when she finally arrived, she was in fine spirits, ready to talk about the momentous time in Atlantic City, when she was a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate.

It has been 52 years.

The 1964 convention in Boardwalk Hall was the last time the Democratic Party held its national gathering in the area, and the bad reviews that came out of Atlantic City were a punch to the gut for the resort.

But for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Atlantic City set off a chain of events that left it and the country changed forever.

Tuesday morning, Emma Sanders, one of only two surviving Freedom delegates, officially cast her 2016 delegate vote - for Bernie Sanders.

Unity has never been her main concern.

Back in 1964, the Freedom delegation, which protested the all-white, all-male Mississippi delegation, left defeated. They resisted intense pressure from President Lyndon B. Johnson and even some civil rights leaders to accept a compromise of two at-large delegate seats. On the somber and difficult bus ride home, Sanders recalled, they were confronted by Ku Klux Klan members at a rest stop.

"I'm not an emotional person," she said. "I've seen so much and done so much."

With the exception of 1968 in Chicago, when others maneuvered ahead of her to be on the newly constituted delegation, Emma Sanders has been a Mississippi Democratic Party delegate in every national convention since.

In 1966, she ran against John Bell Williams, a congressman from Mississippi's Fourth District, who later became governor. She lost, but, Sanders noted, the election "marked the first time black names had been on the ballot in Mississippi since Reconstruction."

Still, she said, the history is fading. Young people, she said, "don't know anything, and don't care. If they have a choice to register to vote or go get a lollipop, they'll get the lollipop."

Her husband blazed his own trail in the 1960s in Jackson, Miss. "He was the first black service-station owner, can you believe that?" she said. "They didn't let blacks have service stations. Now you're getting the picture."

In Atlantic City, members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sought to be seated in place of the state Democratic Party's delegation. They took their case before the credentials committee, where delegate Fannie Lou Hamer famously testified, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." Well-publicized picketing and sit-ins on the Boardwalk increased pressure.

But, Sanders recalled, the broadcast of the hearing - complete with crying members of the credentials committee - was cut short by an unrelated bulletin from President Johnson, who feared the controversy would upend his desire for party unity and cost him votes with white Southern Democrats.

"They had civil rights persons, Martin Luther King Jr. and others, they were there trying to persuade us to take the compromise," Sanders said. "We weren't going to be seated - we were going to be seated as at-large [without a vote]. What accomplishment would that have been?"

It had been a devastating summer: the bodies of three civil rights workers - James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman - had been discovered shortly before the state convention. They had been working for CORE, Congress of Racial Equality - the same organization, Emma Sanders noted, that Bernie Sanders volunteered for in college.

In Atlantic City, the Freedom delegates stayed at a tiny hotel, three or four to a bed, with more sleeping on the floor. But they managed to obtain passes to enter what was then called Convention Hall and took their places in the vacated seats of the delegation, most of whom had walked out rather than approve a compromise with the Freedom delegates. They were not permitted to stay.

Sanders recalled a fellow protester telling her at the time that the white woman she worked for in Mississippi had spoken about the convention being held in the same place as the Miss America Pageant. "You'll never get a chance to see it," the white woman taunted.

But there they were, inside Convention Hall. "You have to be careful what you say," the fellow protester told Sanders, as they sat in protest.

"She felt she would never get out of Greenwood. That was in the Delta."

At the breakfast Tuesday at the Philadelphia Marriott West, Sanders was accompanied by her grandson and fellow delegate Keelan Sanders. They listened as Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi's only black congressman and the delegation chair, said the legacy of Atlantic City - and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that followed - could be seen around the room.

Among Mississippi's delegates are several black state legislators, a county supervisor, and other elected officials.

"I think that is a by-product of 1964," said Thompson. Later on Tuesday, he announced his delegation's votes from the convention floor on behalf of "the blues, B.B. King, and Fannie Lou Hamer, who made this delegation look like the rainbow tonight because of her activity in Atlantic City in 1964."

"The Voting Rights Act allowed me and others to get elected," he said. "It opened up opportunities not just for people of color, but for women and other minorities."

Delegate Cindy Ayers-Elliott said her uncle and grandfather were Freedom delegates.

"I've heard stories all my life" of the civil rights movement, she said, "and it's one of the reasons I became a delegate."

 

She said Mississippi Democrats still struggle with a voter ID law they are seeking to eliminate. And they struggle with having a state flag that includes an image of the hated Confederate flag. Delegates were thrilled when city workers removed Mississippi flags from the state display on Broad Street; they've been unable to get their own legislature to change the flag.

Also traveling with the 2016 Mississippi delegation was Mamie Cunningham, 72, who was in Atlantic City in 1964.

"I remember that there was a lot of pressure put on Fannie Lou Hamer to accept the compromise," she said. When they left Atlantic City, "all of us were sort of shattered. I can't really describe it. The mood we had going in had really been dampened."

Cunningham, who like Emma Sanders is also a Bernie Sanders supporter, is a member of the Democratic National Committee's credentials committee this year.

"I'm on the same committee that refused to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party 52 years ago," Cunningham said. "I'm on that committee."

arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453@amysrosenberg