George McGovern dead at 90: Liberal senator helped open up Democratic party to African-Americans

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The late Senator George McGovern is far too often ridiculed for his landslide presidential defeat forty years ago. But he was in some ways an unsung hero of the civil rights movement.

While he hailed from the lily-white Plains state of South Dakota, his politics were progressive, even radical, by his era’s standards. His rise also coincided with a sea change from within the Democratic party.

He played a central role in reforming the Democratic party’s nomination and convention process, which helped open the party up dramatically to African-Americans, creating a constituency that would eventually support Barack Obama’s ascendency to the White House.

Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, as African-Americans increasingly joined the Democratic party, they found themselves stymied or segregated at convention time. This injustice culminated with civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer‘s legendary protest at the 1964 convention and the infamous “police riot” outside the 1968 DNC in Chicago.

The violent confrontation between Chicago police and anti-war protestors shocked Americans nationwide and may have contributed significantly to the Democrats’ defeat that November. The consensus among progressives was that had the party made efforts to be more inclusive, disaster could have been averted.

Clearly, the party needed to make some changes, and Sen. George McGovern was tapped to head a commission to open up the party’s nomination process in 1969.

McGovern’s report, entitled “A Mandate for Change,” revolutionized the Democratic primary process. It established proportion allocation of delegates from primaries instead of winner-take-all contests which allowed future long shots like himself and Jimmy Carter a better chance to compete for the nomination against establishment candidates.

Even more importantly, the McGovern plan put a quota system in place for future conventions which required “a certain number of males, females, blacks and people under 30.”

It also said that, “State parties overcome the effects of past discrimination by affirmative steps to encourage minority group participation.”

According Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland, “It was an attempt to honor the spirit of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats disenfranchised at the 1964 convention — at the fact that in 1968 the number of black delegates, at 5.5 percent, was a fraction of their representation of in the Democratic Party as a whole (Mississippi and Georgia’s regular delegations didn’t include a single one).”

While some old school, prejudiced Democrats chafed at McGovern’s changes, the new guard saw these moves as vital to the party’s survival.

“I think it saved the Democratic party,” said ex-presidential candidate and former Senator Gary Hart in the documentary One Bright Shining Moment.

By 1972, what was once a machine rigged by often racially-insensitive power brokers had become what Gloria Steinem once called “a convention that actually looked like the country.”

That same year, McGovern captured the Democratic nomination through a grassroots campaign largely made possible by a coalition of youth, minorities and anti-war activists, some of the same voters who helped Barack Obama become the party standard bearer in 2008.

On the convention floor that year in Miami, McGovern helped cement the changing of the guard when he denied credentials to the polarizing Democratic boss, then-Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and instead welcomed a delegation led by a young Reverend Jesse Jackson to represent the state of Illinois.

Despite his invaluable contribution to the democratic process (not to mention his high-flying heroics in World War II), McGovern will probably always be remembered as the presidential candidate who crashed and burned so emphatically on Election Day in 1972.

That said, we now know that President Richard Nixon deliberately sabotaged the campaigns of his Democratic competitors and the Watergate break-in at the Democratic headquarters, which occurred late in the campaign, was not exposed as a White House endeavor it was until after the election.

McGovern, who was ailing for some time, has passed away at age 90 but his legacy lives on in a party now best known for its multicultural base instead of its segregationist past.

Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard