PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself with Robert Moses. Bob Moses joins us again in the studio. Thanks for joining us.
BOB MOSES, EDUCATOR AND CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Yeah.
JAY: Bob Moses is an educator and civil rights activist. During the 1960s he was a field secretary for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as well as one of the main organizers of the Mississippi Freedom Summer project that helped register black voters in the Deep South. He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. From ’69 to ’75 he worked as a teacher in Tanzania. ‘Ninety-two, he received the MacArthur Fellowship, which he used to develop the Algebra Project, an organization aimed at improving math education in poor communities. He’s the author of Radical Equations: Civil Rights for Mississippi to the Algebra Project.
Thanks for joining us.
JAY: So we’re going to pick up the story in the early ’60s. You’re one of the main organizers of the Freedom Summer project, which was a big drive to register voters in the Deep South. How do you get to there?
MOSES: Right. So, actually, one of the main ways in which we get to Freedom Summer is when Medgar is assassinated. So Medgar is assassinated on June 11, 1963, and several things shift because of his assassination. One is Allard Lowenstein, who was dean of freshmen at Yale, had been dean of freshman at Stanford and was a kind of Democratic operative, right, in the Humphrey wing of the Democratic Party, right, he comes down into the state to check out what’s going on in Mississippi because of Medgar, right?
The other person who moves is Robert Spike. So Spike is the outreach coordinator for the National Council of Churches, and he decides that the National Council of Churches has now got to get involved in the civil rights movement. So he actually comes up to me at the March on Washington and says that he’s decided to put his resources into Mississippi because it’s the only place where he can say he’s working with all of the civil rights organizations, right, because we have this COFO banner–NAACP, SCLC, CORE, and SNCC are all working together under COFO.
And then the other thing that happens is, after Medgar’s assassination, the young people try to march. Right?
JAY: Where was this?
MOSES: This is in Jackson at the funeral, right? And so after the funeral, they are marching down the main street of Jackson, Capitol Street. And there’s this phalanx of police officers, alright, with their guns drawn, right? And there’s this dramatic moment. John Doar steps out into the street, right, and asks the young people to stop. Right?
So it’s clear to us, the SNCC field secretaries, that we need a different direction about what we’re doing. And so we turned our attention away from the voter registration, per se, and begin to pick up the process of running candidates for office. So after the March on Washington, we all–we go up to the March on Washington, right, and during the summer we’re having some workshops in the Delta, but we’re also getting ready to have candidates run for office.
JAY: So instead of just registering where people would have to vote for more or less establishment candidates, you start organizing your own candidates.
MOSES: Well, yes. Nobody’s getting registered to vote, right? I mean,–
JAY: You just can’t get it done.
MOSES: [crosstalk] people down. Nobody’s actually getting registered. Right? And we’re not thinking that we’re going to actually get anybody elected, but we’re thinking that we’re going to raise the consciousness of people to understand that they are actually one day going to participate and elect people.
JAY: Well, what are examples of things that were preventing you from registering people?
MOSES: Well, you have to go back to the layers of opposition, ’cause Mississippi is–I mean, one of the things that distinguishes the movement in the Mississippi theater of the civil rights movement is that it’s acting against the whole state, and there’s statewide organized opposition, right, which goes from the highway patrolmen who arrest you to vigilantes who attack you, to murder, right? There, you know, Medgar’s not the only one who was gunned down, right?
So, anyway, in the fall of 1963, we actually run Aaron Henry and Ed King (Ed King is a white minister at Tougaloo who was from Pittsburgh, Mississippi) for governor and lieutenant governor in a parallel process and run what we call a “freedom vote”, right? So people can go and register with us, right, and vote for other candidates.
JAY: It’s kind of a mock vote to show what would happen if people actually could vote.
MOSES: If people actually could vote, right? But it’s also a consciousness-raising issue, right, to get people in the mindset that one day they are actually going to run candidates and elect people, right?
So when we do that, then we get white students come down. Allard Lowenstein brings students from Yale and Stanford down, and the National Council of Churches brings 50 ministers from across the Midwest. We have a “Freedom Day” in Hattiesburg. We have the first integrated picket line. It starts in December and it runs right into the summer, right? But what allows it to happen is this national attention, right, these ministers coming down from all over the Midwest.
JAY: Now, there’s a debate going on at this time about direct action versus registration, also direct action versus running candidates.
MOSES: That debate, actually, the issue of direct action versus voter registration, had been settled way back–I’m saying way back. I mean, one of the issues is that time is, like, collapsed. So, I mean, I think of this period of time as, like, every year is five years, right? So way back in the fall of 1961, the issue of whether we’re going to do voter registration or direct action had been settled around the McComb walkout, right? In the summer of 1961, all the action is in a three-county area in the southwest part of Mississippi, right? And it’s there–I mean, the first time we take people down to register in Amite County, the Highway Patrol arrests me. Right? I had been told, if I get arrested, call collect, call D.C., call John Doar in D.C. And so I did. I said, can I make a call? And I lucked out. Doar was in his office. He accepted the call.
That was is a seminal moment, ’cause what people were now aware of was that we weren’t just isolated working here. We had a direct line into Washington, D.C., to the Justice Department, right? So the newspaper the next day tried to call collect, right? And so it became big headlines, right? So this was important for black people, right, that they weren’t doing this just out there, right, that there was some hookup now to the federal government on this really isolated work going down, taking people down to register, right?
But then the next time we went down, after that happened, E. W. Steptoe called C. C. Bryant where I was staying in McComb and said, well, can you send some of the SNCC people out into Amite? And so I went out to Amite and began working there. And the next time we went down, I was beaten, right? So this is–you’re working your way through the levels of opposition, right?
JAY: There’s been some debate whether the Kennedy administration did what it could have, that some of the history tries to suggest that the Kennedy administration was very active in defending and helping the civil rights movement at this time.
MOSES: Well, here’s the thing people need to understand. What actually enabled us to do the work we did was the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Now, there you’re dealing with Eisenhower, who was president, and LBJ, who was the Senate majority leader from Texas. Right? So they get together and pass the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction, right? And people say, oh, this is a toothless bill. Actually, Jackie Robinson fires off a telegram to Eisenhower, right, protesting this toothless bill.
But that bill didn’t anticipate SNCC. So that bill was for, you know, Tuskegee professors who qualified under anybody’s standard, right? But it said in there that you can’t, you know, interfere with these people when they’re trying to register, and you also can’t interfere with people who are trying to help them, right? So the Freedom Rides, remember, penetrated the sit-in movement into Mississippi, and the Freedom Riders, when they got out of jail at Parchman, were looking to do direct action, right? And they actually–Marion Barry comes down to McComb, right, and organizes the young people that we’d been working on voter registration, right, organizes them to do sit-ins. They sit in. Brenda Travis, who’s a 16-year-old high school student, when she’s arrested, they send her off to juvenile detention, right? And so the students, when school opens, decide they’re going to walk out and protest this, right? And so we have this big, you know, the first kind of mass demonstration in the Deep South, right, a hundred and eighteen high school students marching out.
JAY: What year are we in?
MOSES: We’re in ’61, right? And after that happens, we’re arrested. We’re spending our time in jail, about 18 of us in jail, right? And on the 39th day, we get our bail. Otherwise we’re in jail for couple of years, right? So there’s no legal recourse. You don’t have people who are able to put up their property for bonds, right, to get people out of jail.
So at that point, SNCC, I think, the direct action people in SNCC, agreed that we’re not going to be able to do–they were faced with whether they wanted to do the Nelson Mandela, meaning if they’re going to do direct action, then they’ve got to do the Mandela, they’ve got to [crosstalk]
JAY: You mean go to jail for a long time.
MOSES: –and stay in jail for a long time. Right. So that didn’t happen, right?
JAY: Okay. We’re going to continue our discussion with Bob Moses on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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