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1 1 Fannie Lou Hamer on Winona: Trauma, Recovery, Memory Davis W. Houck Violence, or the threat of it, is critical to understanding the formation of a black identity through memory. It is the literal or figurative cut, after all, that is simultaneously the original injury and the inspiration for observation and witness. It may well be, however, that the story of the resulting scar tells us more about the nuances of racial memory. —Jonathan Scott Holloway, Jim Crow Wisdom P resident Lyndon B. Johnson had one helluva Mississippi problem. As his party’s convention neared its formal opening on Monday, August 24, 1964, the unelected president grappled with a matter so complex and intractable that the former master of the Senate contemplated the unthinkable: in an August 15 telephone conversation with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Roy Wilkins, Johnson mused about the possibility of resigning the presidency, moving back to Johnson City, Texas, and collecting his $50,000 annual pension. After encouraging Wilkins to reach out to other civil rights leaders for more ideas to help him with his Mississippi problem, the president confessed, “I don’t want this power. I don’t want all this. . . . I don’t have to do this.”1 Seconds later, almost as if he’d entered a wholly different conversation, Johnson was back in the policy arena, trying on another set of arguments with Wilkins, who tried gamely to recover from the interpersonal whiplash. Just what was it about Mississippi that had the nation’s leading political player, one whose DNA seemed hardwired for the minutiae of policy and the calculus of compromise, ready to concede defeat? If the convention agreed to seat the legally elected and all-white Mississippi delegation, Johnson feared losing northern black support that he deemed essential to defeating the Republican nominee, Barry SOCIAL CONTROVERSY AND PUBLIC ADDRESS IN THE 1960S AND EARLY 1970S 2 Goldwater. God only knew what kind of televisual chaos might erupt if the rabidly white supremacist delegates got on the floor. It wasn’t a secret that Johnson was hated by many Democrats in the Magnolia State. On the other hand, a group of mostly poor, black Mississippians who fancied themselves “Freedom Democrats” and whose legal challenge to represent the state was dubious at best, demanded to be seated. Those demands grew increasingly persuasive with the discovery of the bodies of Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney less than three weeks earlier.2 The president did the electoral math with several interlocutors. If he seated the Freedom Democrats, even in a symbolic show of solidarity with their aims, he’d risk losing at least fifteen states in a southern backlash. Couldn’t the Freedom Democrats see? He was their president. He’d maneuvered to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. He’d come down hard on Mississippi. Why couldn’t they just see these facts and let the politicians handle the quadrennial political theater? There were also some unpleasant “facts” about the leadership of the Freedom Democrats. To his soon-to-be vice presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson confessed in an August 20 phone conversation: Now just between us, and I don’t think I’d tell another man this, and I can’t, and if you ever indicate it I’ll have to put ya in jail, I read these reports every night. They’ve [FBI] got all kinds of taps around. Everything [Joseph] Rauh [Freedom Democrats’ legal counsel] says, and everything these other guys are doing, are of great concern to the government because the communists are in this thing deep. . . . We’ve got to put a stop to him [Rauh] quick because this thing is gonna get out of hand. I would say, out of the twenty-five top ones, twenty of ’em are communists. . . . [Martin Luther] King is completely owned and directed by ’em. Thanks to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s J. Edgar Hoover and his team of espionage specialists, President Johnson had round-the-clock surveillance on the Freedom Democrats—including the order in which they’d likely be speaking on live national television on August 22. The would-be Mississippi delegates faced off against each other that Saturday afternoon. Based on telephone conversations leading up to that dramatic confrontation , Johnson was willing to make only two concessions to the Freedom Democrats ahead of the convention. First, he agreed to seat them—preferably far away from the white Mississippi...


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