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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Hodding Carter, April 1, 1974. Interview A-0100. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Blacks struggling to organize politically in Mississippi

Carter discusses the political myth that black voters will vote only once, whether in a primary or general election. He also addresses the conflict between ideology and political execution among black politicians.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Hodding Carter, April 1, 1974. Interview A-0100. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

You see, as a matter of ideological faith, by the Freedom Democrat folks, by the Delta ministry people that you can't run on the Democratic party process because it's too confusing to the black voter to have to vote then and then maybe have to vote again in the general election. You can only get them out once, and therefore get them—
JACK BASS:
And I've heard that. Is that a myth, or is that reality?
HODDING CARTER:
It's been tested both ways and there is convincing argument, evidence, for both propositions. You know, that they are right and that they are wrong.
JACK BASS:
We've been told that it's a one shot deal. If there are three elections, two primaries and a general, that you can only count on once.
HODDING CARTER:
Well, all I know is that here the woman who is the city councilman now, you know, ran twice in one year. And her vote got bigger after her first defeat. It was bigger when she ran again and won. Which runs directly counter to the notion, particularly because the notion is based on this: that with each defeat the blacks grow more discouraged and less likely to vote. And so here's Helen—
JACK BASS:
I thought the hypothesis was based on interest. That you could only get them interested once, and that was all.
HODDING CARTER:
But you know, in some ways that's also an argument from thin resources and limited personnel. How much you can work up a cadre to go out and work the second time, more than the people. As I say, right here in Greenville, this woman ran in a special election, January or February of last year, this year, for city council. And got let's say 2,500 votes and got whipped in a special. Ran again in a general when that particular seat came up, or when a seat came up here this fall, last fall— unknown —and won. Got more votes out the second time, having just been crushed in the special election. Just really crushed. Which to me just proves the opposite, that running early helps you do a lot of things. In Charlie's case—God damn it, he might have had some appreciable effect on any number of things, including the election of other black office holders, that is to say state legislators, if he had gone in the Democratic primary. Where there was a run-off possibility, you know, and therefore something worth dealing with which was votes.
JACK BASS:
The thing that got to me was the idea of calling for a boycott in the second primary when you had two moderate candidates. Am I correct in assuming that blacks really had a chance to elect a governor?
HODDING CARTER:
Why of course.
JACK BASS:
And they would have been in a position to really wield some power, right?
HODDING CARTER:
It was a ridiculous thing, too, And Charlie Sullivan was running around handing out $10,000 packets wherever he could. And they were calling up loyalists and saying "Please take our money. If you'll just take—". You know. They understood there was a vote out there that meant something. And Charlie just thought, willingly piss it away. I don't know.
JACK BASS:
Was it a big ego trip, or what?
HODDING CARTER:
Read Jason's book. Jason Berry, Amazing Grace with Evers Campaign in Mississippi. Don't believe any of the facts in it because a lot of them are wrong. Just as a matter of fact. But he was a white guy who was in the campaign and he does all the rationalizations, you know, for what, the various points. I have difficulty with some of these discussions because at the time they were matters of really passionate concern to me. I was all involved and cared and screamed and yelled. They were decided, and now I just sit here and—
JACK BASS:
My reaction to black politics in Mississippi is that it reminds me of the Republican party in Louisiana. They're so hung up on ideology that they can't get around to winning elections.
HODDING CARTER:
I mean this just as much as I mean anything. The problem is almost entirely a hang, over from the freedom summer, from the Freedom Democratic Party, from the notion of politics as cause. You know, politics as sweeping ideology, unknown . The whole SNCC bit. . . and you know, for me to say that to any one of my friends and associates who holds that belief is not perceived by them as a criticism. You know. They say "You're damn right. The hell with politics as winning elections. We're in for politics as forming a vision around which people can coalesce so that someday they'll bring about the kind of society we need."
JACK BASS:
But you're saying that next year it may start coalescing?
HODDING CARTER:
I think it's very probable that you've got. . . because you do have these black professional guys, you know, who are thinking about the process and what you can win within the limits and means of the process. And you do have all over the state minor black political office holders who have discovered that it's nicer to win an election than to win an issue, anyway and who would like to see some other people win. And are willing to make deals. I mean, you know, how the governor's pet coon—what's his name, the lawyer over here—
JACK BASS:
Cleave?
HODDING CARTER:
Well Cleave, you know, has been used to a point that it is too bad. But what Cleave is proving, however, to a lot of people is that, you know, if you'll work with the various political forms, there are things that you can get done. And it is pointless not to do it. But Cleave is not buying himself any tickets into the future.