Gussie Thompson and the Fight for Representation
by Carl Fisher, PCP
The Democratic Party has a deep and complicated history with Black Americans. As a political party, we should be well aware of our failures just as much as we are of our success. The quest for a more perfect union is deeply interwoven in the fabric of our party. The meaning of that ‘more perfect union’ has evolved over the last two hundred years as we have evolved as a people and nation. We are still struggling to make sense of past injustices as we work to learn to prevent future ones. No matter what we do, we will be imperfect, but that is what makes striving for a more perfect union such important work. To honor and celebrate Black History Month I wanted to raise the profile of a Black Democrat you probably have never heard of before. Here is the incomplete story of Gussie Thompson and how her life intersected with the work of our party during the 1960s.
Gussie, born Gustava, came to Oregon as many did due to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies to combat the Great Depression and the efforts to win World War II. The post-war population explosion of Portland changed the city forever. You can read a much more detailed history of Blacks in Oregon here.
Her husband was an electrical engineer for the Bonneville Power Administration which brought them to Oregon in 1950. The BPA and the dam were one of the earliest projects Roosevelt and the New Deal built here in Oregon. Gussie’s background was teaching in Chicago before coming to Oregon.
She was active in a bunch of community and civic groups during the ’50s and ’60s. A past president of the Richmond School PTA, the November-Tuesday Club, The Lewis and Clark Mothers’ Club, and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church Women’s Guild. She was a founder and first Vice President of the Portland Council of Negro Women. She was Secretary of the Portland chapter of the NAACP. Her contributions were numerous to many local community organizations. Even the Democratic Party benefited from Gussie.
Gussie volunteered for numerous campaigns during her time in Portland. She was most proud to have volunteered for Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956. Richard Neuberger’s historic senate campaign in 1954 and Wayne Morse’s 1956 senate campaign (his first as a Democrat) and Edith Green’s congressional campaign in 1958. There were countless local candidates and issues she campaigned for between all the larger ones. What many modern-day Democrats would be most interested to know was Gussie’s role as a candidate for office at a time when most politics were dominated by white men.
There had been very few Black candidates in the Democratic Party of Oregon, let alone any Oregon political party by the 1960s. Oliver Smith, the founder of the Advocate Register, a Black-owned and operated newspaper in Portland is regarded as the first Black candidate nominated for the legislature in Oregon. He first ran in the 1944 primary, but lost. He ran and won the nomination in 1946, and then ran in subsequent primaries in the ’50s and ’60s. Between 1944 and 1950 there were at least six Black candidates for the legislature in Portland, all but one were Democrats. In 1966, Smith stated, “I’ll be running as long as a ballot is printed.”
I cannot definitively say that Gussie was the first Black woman to seek a legislative seat in Oregon (that will require more research, I believe she is), but she was one of the earliest we know of from Oregon. She ran at least three times between 1960 and 1964 in Democratic primaries for the legislature. In her 1964 campaign, she was even recommended by The Oregonian over one of the current incumbents they found lacking in substance. She never got past the primary.
By 1966 she had her fill of office seeking. In an interview with the Associated Press, she explained “I will not run again. It is too expensive for me. I only spent about $200 but when it is your own money that is quite a bit.” In today’s dollars, that is about $1,600.
During this time she worked in the Oregon legislature. She started in the mailroom during one session and after several became the Senate Chief Clerk of Bills and Mailing. She managed the staff that distributed the bills, resolutions, and mail in the State Senate. Before the internet, when a citizen was interested in a particular bill during the session they would contact the legislature and a staff person would have to send a copy of the bill to the citizen. Some Oregonians signed up to receive every single bill that passed during the session. These would be mailed out to Oregonians throughout the session. Legislation would often be printed all night so that Gussie and her staff could distribute them the next day. The Clerk of Bills of each chamber would have to have a good understanding of the legislation each session. If a citizen or lobbyist came in asking for ‘the dairy bill’. The Clerk would need to know how many bills regarding the dairy industry there were to help the requestor find the bill they were looking for.
You can imagine how a job like this would motivate someone to run for the legislature. Hearing the debates in committee meetings, getting to meet lobbyists and citizen activists passionate about issues, and watching the maneuvering on the floor all probably contributed to her desire to seek a seat to represent her community in Salem. It was during this time that she was appointed by Governor Robert Holmes to the Welfare Commission of the State of Oregon. A significant appointment for a future political candidate.
Her involvement with the Democratic party did not stop at running for the legislature. She was elected several times as Vice-Chair of the Multnomah County Democrats during the early 1960s. She served under Frank Roberts, a communications professor at Vanport College, known today as Portland State University. Gussie was also elected Chair of several Democratic clubs in Portland during her time as an activist. She was a candidate for delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1960. She said, “I believe in enforcement of our Constitution and the rights of the individual for life, liberty, justice, and equality in this great land of ours.”
While she did not secure enough votes to be a delegate to nominate John F. Kennedy, just four years later she would be in Atlantic City as a member of the Oregon Delegation to hear President Lyndon Johnson accept nomination for President just after he had signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I am fairly certain that she is the first Black woman to be a member of an Oregon delegation to a Democratic National Convention. She may even be the first Black Oregonian to serve in a Democratic delegation to a national convention (more research is needed to verify this).
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had finally broken the fault lines that had existed for decades within the party. The Democratic Party, even in 1964 was still being influenced by the southern wing. Just four years earlier they had fought hard against adopting a strong civil rights platform (as they had every convention since 1948). This year the southern forces had suffered their biggest defeat, the actual fulfillment of that plank from 1960. Gussie Thompson got to see firsthand the struggle for change within the national party. The biggest fight of the 1964 Convention was the credentials report concerning the Mississippi Freedom Delegation. Which delegation from Mississippi should be seated was the subject of a hotly contested and nationally televised committee meeting. The convention could either seat the all-white delegation sent by the Mississippi Democratic Party (that also used every trick in the voter suppression book to prevent Blacks from voting) or the Freedom Delegation that followed the Democratic party’s own rules. You can read more about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and their struggle for equality in representation here.
Oregon Congresswoman Edith Green served on the Credentials Committee, and like everyone else there in the room that day got to hear from a long list of speakers that included Martin Luther King Jr. The most compelling of the testimony came from Fannie Lou Hamer. I would encourage anyone that has never heard Fannie’s speech to listen.
“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Gussie backed Green’s proposal of fighting for a seating plan more agreeable to the Mississippi Freedom delegation and the Oregon delegation voted 19-0 to back her. Green’s plan was to seat only delegates that pledged full support to the Democratic ticket in the fall election. This would force the hand of the racist delegates from the south. Green and many were prepared to have this fight on the floor the first night of the convention. Something the party establishment and President Johnson did not want to see happen. Gussie told Oregon Journal reporter Doug McKean she supported Green “100 percent” explaining that “it’s time for the Democratic Party to stand on its feet. There is no excuse for seating the regular Mississippi delegation. If they walk out, let them. The rest of the world would have more respect for us.”
Ultimately Johnson and the party establishment got what they wanted, a nomination by acclamation with no floor fights about race. Both Green and Gussie were disappointed. Gussie said she was not “happy” but saw “it as a step forward”. She spoke of her fear for the Freedom delegates once they returned home. “THEY WILL PUT THESE PEOPLE IN THE RIVER, there will still be intimidation.” She was also concerned about Edith Green’s safety should she choose to continue supporting the Freedom delegates and go support them after the convention. Green’s life “would not be worth a plugged nickel” if she were to visit the state. Gussie had gotten calls and wires from friends in the south asking her to warn Green away from visiting.
The 1964 Democratic Convention would continue on without the Freedom delegates. The party would never be the same after these events. Having delegates sign the pledge to support the party turned out effective in forcing the hands of southern white delegates from Mississippi and Alabama. They walked out of the convention instead of pledging support to Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. Many had come to the convention already openly supporting Republican nominee Barry Goldwater. By the 1968 Democratic Convention, the party was requiring that delegations be fully integrated, which led to some historic credentials fights that year. These then led to the reforms in the McGovern-Fraser Commission that led to the massive changes of 1972 and reforms that continue to impact our party today.
Gussie Thompson was an Oregonian that lived this history. John Lewis, in his book Walking with the Wind, reflected on the delegate fight. “We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep, and found the door slammed in our face.” And for what exactly? So that party fears of losing the south might be put at ease for one more election? Instead of standing with John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Edith Green, Wayne Morse, Monroe Sweetland, and Gussie Thompson the party caved and got nothing for it. Lyndon Johnson would go on to win every state in the country except for Arizona, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. The state of Georgia got a lot of attention in 2020. Joe Biden was the first Northern Democrat to win the state since 1960. We are still struggling to deal with many of the problems from all those decades ago. Our work for a more perfect union goes on.
I said at the beginning of this article that this was the incomplete story of Gussie Thompson. Gussie died in 1969 from cancer. She may have well lived into the 1990s and seen the ups and downs of our progress had cancer not taken her from her family and community. The grassroots like Gussie Thompson deserve a moment of reflection from us for their contributions to our party. It is easy to recall John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer. Books, films, and lectures are all made about their contributions. For the grassroots activists like Gussie Thompson, we can only hope to get a brief glimpse into their work to make our party and community a better place.
Want to learn More?
Black History in Oregon
- Timeline of Oregon Racial, Immigration, and Education History
- Oregon Experience: Vanport
- Oregon’s Black Pioneers
- Searching for York
- The Logger’s Daughter
- Jazz Town
- An Integrated Party -American Experience
- Newsreel about 1964 DNC in Atlantic City
- 1964: The Fight for a Right Documentary
- Fannie Lou Hamer Documentary