Bob Moses

Bob Moses

Late one night in October 1961, I flew from Atlanta to Jackson, Mississippi, with Bob Moses.

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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.

Among the stalwart black sharecroppers he met, Bob began to evolve a new model of how things work. In the orthodox model, institutions are supposed to represent and defend organized constituencies. But along the way they became frozen in the iceberg themselves. The people they were supposed to represent were frozen too, by fear of white violence. Frozen by feelings that they didn’t count in the big picture of things, and above all by feelings that they were unqualified to participate in government. Democracy was meaningless when so many people were frozen psychologically.

So Bob listened. When people asked him what to do, he asked what they thought. At mass meetings, he usually sat in back. In group discussions, he mostly spoke last. He slept on floors, wore sharecroppers’ overalls, shared the risks, took the blows, went to jail, dug in deeply. Gradually the ice melted, the rock of hope was revealed. People were empowered for the first time.

Radicals of that era advocated a strategy they called “political realignment,” which meant the fashioning of a liberal Democratic Party by breaking the connection with the party’s racist Dixiecrat wing. The notion had seeped into Bob’s thinking too, with the difference that he really meant to make it happen. Not through the endlessness of gradualism, but by boiling the iceberg. Not because it was some ideological dream, but because black people needed leverage against the structure of fear.

So Bob continued trying to educate the Justice Department to the necessity of breaking the link with segregation. But the results never led to a breakthrough. For example, the Kennedys were persuaded to encourage foundation funding for voter registration drives as an alternative to radical direct action, but they wouldn’t replace segregationist judges or protect civil rights workers on the frontlines. Louis Allen was found murdered in Amite County while the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was holding a strategy meeting on what to do next. It was plain that the movement couldn’t protect those it encouraged to stand up. Bob knew that getting the Justice Department on the phone, or bringing national figures like Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory and Bob Dylan to Mississippi, was at least partial protection against the reign of terror. His budding idea was to force the nation, at least north of the Mason-Dixon line, to share the terror and finally take a stand on Mississippi. The same June night that President Kennedy made a personal civil rights appeal on national television, a sniper killed NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers in front of his family in Jackson.

Not long after, JFK himself was killed, and the whole country suddenly felt more like Mississippi. But in the same month as the Kennedy assassination, 90,000 Mississippi blacks shed their fears to cast a “freedom vote,” mocking their exclusion. They set up their own voting booths outside the frozen walls. It was an underground vote, like an underground railroad, demonstrating that some freedom was in the air. The project Bob built was becoming an alternative structure, exposing and chipping away at the iceberg. In spring and summer of 1964 came the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Mississippi Summer. The new party would challenge the credentials of the state’s official delegation at the National Democratic Convention, while hundreds of Northern, mostly white volunteers would enter Mississippi to work in “freedom schools” and registration projects.

While the 1964 Summer Project participants were training in nonviolence before leaving for Mississippi, word came on June 21 that three civil rights workers had “disappeared” in Neshoba County: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Bob had the burden of breaking the news. No one backed down. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told the President that the missing activists might have staged their disappearance to inflame the situation, or perhaps that “these three may have gotten rather fresh” with the locals.

In Mississippi that summer, there were thirty bombings, thirty-five church burnings, thirty-five people shot and eighty beaten up. But the Freedom Democrats continued moving toward the goal of sending an alternative, legal, racially open delegation to challenge the official Dixiecrats at the convention. It was the most significant model of participatory democracy built in the 1960s. The project was the brightest alternative to the war, violence and repression that were building just beyond our knowledge. If the cause of the Freedom Democrats had been taken up by the Democratic Party, the rhetoric of political realignment would have turned into reality, and the War on Poverty would have become the priority instead of war in Vietnam.

It was not to be.

On August 2, the US government fabricated an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin (“a very delicate subject,” said Pentagon chief Robert McNamara), thus starting the Vietnam War. While LBJ prepared the subsequent Congressional war resolution on August 4, the FBI found three brutalized bodies in a Neshoba County dam site. During an August 9 memorial service at the burned-out Mt. Zion Church, Bob Moses questioned how the United States could fight for freedom in Vietnam but not in Mississippi. On August 20, LBJ declared an official War on Poverty with a $947 million appropriation while also signing a military augmentation fifty times greater.

While the Freedom Democratic Party buses headed for Atlantic City, where the convention was held along a garish boardwalk, LBJ plotted to employ the party’s leading liberals to undermine the FDP challenge. Hubert Humphrey, the hero of the 1948 civil rights debate, was dispatched to stop these Mississippi black people from taking the promise too seriously. The Humphrey plan encountered trouble as rank-and-file Democratic delegates from Northern states were moved by eloquent testimony from sharecroppers like Fannie Lou Hamer. Humphrey lectured the arriving Freedom delegation that LBJ “will not allow that illiterate woman to speak from the floor of the convention.” Walter Reuther, leader of the United Auto Workers, was flown by private jet to help quell the Freedom challenge. He did so in the hope that Johnson would nominate Humphrey as Vice President. “We can reduce the opposition to this to a microscopic fraction so they’ll be completely unimportant,” he pledged.

The Humphrey compromise failed to meet the test of either participatory democracy or political realignment. It boiled down to offering two delegate-at-large seats to the Freedom Democrats while seating the official segregationist party and promising to reform the process four years later. “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats,” said Hamer. We came to bring our morality to politics, not politics to our morality, said Bob. Humphrey, “having used all the heartstrings I had” (as he forlornly explained to the President), broke down and cried. At one point LBJ stole off to bed in the afternoon and privately threatened for twenty-four hours to quit the presidency. Only days after the convention, LBJ’s National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said the President would have to send “substantial armed forces” to Vietnam, yet Johnson had already pledged “no wider war.”

The possibility of transformation was gone. In hindsight, if Johnson had conceded a meaningful voice to the Freedom Democrats, he still would have defeated Barry Goldwater that November. Dixiecrats like Senator John Stennis, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, would have lost their leverage on Vietnam. But Johnson heeded the pleas of those like Representative Carl Vinson, who told the President, “We just cannot take any more civil rights advocates now.”

How consciously we may never know, but Johnson was heading for the war that would prove disastrous for himself, the Democratic Party and the country. One year later, when Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act after the bloodshed at the Selma bridge, it was already too late. The fires that began in Watts the summer after Freedom Summer would blaze through hundreds of Northern ghettos in the next three years.

Bob was deeply wounded by the betrayal. He had, after all, followed the rules, registered voters, built a local and state party organization, made a thorough legal case to the credentials committee, all the while putting lives at risk. It was a remarkable organizational achievement, turning “the stones the builders rejected” into polished gems of community leadership. Beyond anyone’s expectation, he outorganized Lyndon Johnson, who, conceding that the convention delegates would support the Freedom Democrats, simply made sure no floor vote happened.

But the battle was lost. Bob told me it might take fifty years before it could happen again. After a while he dropped his burdensome last name, becoming Bob Parris. He took part in the earliest anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, traveled to Africa, escaped a draft order, taught school under asylum in Tanzania.

Bob ultimately returned to the Harvard area with a MacArthur Fellowship. In the 1980s he began the Algebra Project, modeled on the early freedom schools, using participatory techniques to help black youth avoid disfranchisement in the computer age, as their parents had experienced in the industrial age. The last time I saw him was in the 1990s, on another flight to Mississippi, for a reunion of the 1964 volunteers, where I was deeply moved to sit on the floor and listen to so many of the movement’s grown-up children, including Bob’s, take part in freedom circle discussions of their own.

Bob would deny credit for these 1960s organizing achievements, and rightly so, since they depended on thousands of self-determined community people and organizers. But Bob was the catalyst and the example. He helped the country to look in the mirror and confront itself. If the country sought to escape what it saw, there was nothing Bob felt he could do. His 1964 prediction–that the country would unravel if it failed to heed the Freedom Democrats’ challenge–was accurate: Voting rights without political power would accelerate the displacement of Southern blacks to Northern cities, where they would join the growing class of the new unemployables, form gangs and initiate a cycle of violence.

Some say Bob was more a mystic than an organizer. If so, he was the most practical mystic I ever met. He was an organizer of organizers who organized people to free themselves of organizers. The legacy of Freedom Summer led directly to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement through the leadership of Mario Savio, who was a SNCC volunteer in McComb. It continued in the draft resistance, the 1967 Vietnam Summer, echoing all the way to labor’s Solidarity Summers, still ongoing. Others say Bob’s style was too decentralized, too anarchistic, that he and SNCC should have built lasting institutions. But the hard truth is that even well-meaning institutions wear out the spirit and become accommodated to the status quo. Of course, we need them, but no institution ever aroused the degraded poor through a membership application. Only a prophetic organizer can do such work, as seen in the base communities of liberation theology, the underground efforts of antisweatshop organizers, the dangerous struggles of women against fundamentalism and the brave souls slowing rainforest destruction today. “Maybe you did come only to boil and bubble and burst out of sight and sound,” Bob himself once said. That seems enough for one life.

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