Late one night in October 1961, I flew from Atlanta to Jackson, Mississippi, with Bob Moses. We didn’t sit together during the silent one-hour flight, nor did we make eye contact at the empty airport. Not that it wasn’t legal. You simply wouldn’t take the chance.
The next day, with my late friend Paul Potter of the National Student Association, I rented a car and drove two hours south from Jackson to McComb, a fiercely segregated town of 12,000. We had arranged to meet Moses by pulling up to a gas station parking lot with our lights out, changing cars, lying low in the back seats and finally being smuggled into a basement room with blankets covering all the windows. There we discussed the voter registration drive and freedom school opening in town.
This was shortly after the Freedom Rides had shaken Mississippi and the Deep South, exposing the violence that awaited any who challenged the segregated status quo. Today, when early civil rights workers are widely honored, it is well to remember the national mood in those days. At the time, Attorney General Robert Kennedy wondered aloud if the Freedom Riders “have the best interest of the country at heart,” since they were providing “good propaganda for America’s enemies.” The New York Times editorialized that “nonviolence that deliberately provokes violence is a logical contradiction.” A Gallup poll that summer had revealed that 63 percent of Americans opposed the Freedom Rides.
Of course, patience was in the eye of the beholder. It had been 100 years since the beginning of the Civil War, eighty years since the imposition of Jim Crow laws and thirteen years since Democratic Party liberals like Hubert Humphrey had adopted a civil rights platform. And still people were being killed for registering to vote. As recently as a month before our trip, a farmer named Herbert Lee had been shot in broad daylight by a white Mississippi elected official. A witness to Lee’s murder, Louis Allen, became a marked man; he was killed two years later.
Bob Moses took Herbert Lee’s death personally. Lee had drawn venomous racist attention by driving Bob around the back roads looking for volunteers. Bob himself had been badly beaten on the head and face by the son-in-law of the man who shot Herbert Lee. Beatings of other civil rights workers became routine.
The institutions of liberalism seemed powerless to act. Officials of Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, on Moses’s invitation, clandestinely visited Mississippi sharecroppers to see for themselves. They urged Moses to leave Mississippi because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, protect the voter registration effort. Institutions like the black churches and the NAACP lacked the independent strength for such campaigns. To organize for the most elementary rights to live, one had to learn the solitude of expecting to die.
People like Bob learned about organizing inside what they called “the iceberg.” Bob was raised in the North, attended Hamilton College and Harvard graduate school in the 1950s, visited Zen centers in Japan and was teaching at Horace Mann school in New York when the sit-ins and Freedom Rides began in 1960. After a volunteer stint at Martin Luther King Jr.’s New York office, he traveled south to join a three-member civil rights office in Atlanta. Then he took an exploratory bus trip through the Black Belt, finally being drawn to rural Mississippi.