Steven A. Levine
Coordinator for Educational Programs
Mayor Robert F. Wagner and President Lyndon Baines Johnson
Last night as President Bill Clinton recounted President Eisenhower bringing in the National Guard to desegregate Little Rock High School in 1957, I was struck by the diversity of the delegates attending this year’s Democratic Convention and how much change has taken place in the last 50 years. The picture was quite different at the 1964 Democratic Convention when President Lyndon Johnson and Mayor Robert F. Wagner had a phone conversation about the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. (Click here to listen to the conversation.)
A controversy had broken out about who would be seated at the Convention: the white supremacist “regular” delegates of the Mississippi Democratic Party (MFDP) or the interracial Mississippi Freedom Democrats, who had been elected in parallel elections organized by civil rights activists that summer. Fannie Lou Hamer, an MFDP delegate and sharecropper, gave a riveting and powerful speech before the Credentials Committee of the Convention describing the violence and terror faced by African-Americans who challenged white supremacy in Mississippi. (Click here to listen to speech.)
President Lyndon Johnson had recently signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he opposed seating the MFDP delegates out of fear that other Southern delegations would walk out of the convention and support his Republican opponent Senator Barry Goldwater. He offered a compromise of two at large delegates to the MFDP and began locking down votes on the credentials committee for it. LBJ looked at the compromise as a political decision to keep the Southern delegations on board, while most of the MFDP delegation saw it as a moral issue which could not be compromised.
Johnson had called Wagner asking him to canvas the two New York delegates on the credentials committee on how they would vote. Wagner indicated that John English was sympathetic to the MFDP but movable, while the other, Joyce Austin an African-American woman who worked for him, was likely to support the MFDP. (Click here to listen to their phone conversation.) Wagner told LBJ he would ask Austin how she would vote, but he turned to Mary Burke Nicholas, an African-American urban planner who also worked for him, to get this information. In a LaGuardia and Wagner Archives oral history, she described what happened.
[H]e didn't know how Joyce was going to vote, and I remember he called me up to his suite and asked me if I could find out. He said he hadn't seen her, and he said, I want you to find out how she is going to vote, but I don't want her to know that I'm the one that's trying to find out. He said, I don't want to influence her vote in any way. If she knows I'm trying to find out, she may think I'm trying to influence her vote. I want her to vote her conscience, but I need to know which way she's going to vote so I can tell Johnson the count for the New York delegation. He said, that's a simple assignment that I'm giving you. I said, thanks a lot, Mr. Mayor. How am I going to do this? . . . So I finally decided to leave a note under her door that night, late that night, and ask her to join me for coffee the next morning on the way to convention hall. She did, she accepted and left a note under my door and said she'd be there . . . Of course, we finally got to the subject, and she said she was going to vote for the seating of Fannie Lou Hamer. We went on talking about other things and all, and I don't think she knows to this day what that was about, but I was able to report to the mayor, who told Lyndon Johnson, who wanted to know just for his head count of how the votes were going to go . . . He always knew how to go around and get the answer without upsetting the person or wanting the person to feel that he was trying to convince them to vote a certain way. If he wanted to convince them to vote a certain way, he would be usually a little more direct about it.
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