(1935 - )
Palo Alto, California - April 24, 1964
Bob Moses was a soft-spoken civil rights organizer from Harlem who worked some of the most dangerous terrain in the Jim Crow South: the vast plantation territory of the Mississippi Delta. Moses was a central figure in organizing the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign, which recruited hundreds of student volunteers from northern colleges to conduct an ambitious black voter registration drive in Mississippi. Moses was also deeply involved in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's (MFDP) challenge to the all-white Mississippi state delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. In a movement brimming with charismatic leaders and powerful orators, Moses was a self-effacing grassroots organizer who sought to empower and learn from the everyday people with whom he worked.
Moses was the son of a janitor and lived in a housing project. His parents encouraged academic achievement in their three children. Moses tested into a New York public high school for gifted students, then attended Hamilton College in upstate New York on a scholarship. Moses was studying philosophy and mathematical logic at Harvard University when his mother died and he had to quit his doctoral program to care for his ailing father. In 1959, Moses was teaching at an elite private school in the Bronx when news reports of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South "woke" him to the urgency of the civil rights movement in the South.1
In the summer of 1960, Moses signed on to travel the South as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In Cleveland, Mississippi he met and was influenced by Amzie Moore, head of the local NAACP. Moore encouraged Moses to enlist college students to come to Mississippi and help the voting rights movement. The following summer Moses completed his teaching contract in New York and returned to Mississippi to devote himself to SNCC and the movement full time.
Mississippi was regarded as the most racially repressive state in the South. It had the lowest black voter participation in the region — 5 percent. Whites in Mississippi used poll taxes, voter literacy tests, intimidation and violence to prevent all but a few determined African American citizens from exercising their right to vote.2 Moses began organizing a voter registration drive with local activists in McComb, Mississippi in July, 1961. White backlash soon followed. Moses and his colleagues were jailed, white men beat up Moses in a town square, and a local organizer working with Moses was murdered. Still, Moses and the movement went on.
Veteran activist Tom Hayden says a key to Moses's success as an organizer was his hunger to learn from local people. "Bob listened," Hayden wrote in The Nation. "When people asked him what to do, he asked them what they thought. At mass meetings, he usually sat in the 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."3
Several Mississippi civil rights groups decided to unite in one coalition -- the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) — and Moses was selected to head the effort. In 1963, COFO launched a "freedom vote," a mock gubernatorial election to prove that blacks would vote if given the opportunity. Some 80,000 blacks symbolically voted for Aaron Henry, a black pharmacy owner, and his running mate Ed King, a white chaplain from Tougaloo College. The freedom vote helped set the stage for Freedom Summer the following year.
Bob Moses gave this address on the plans for Freedom Summer at Stanford University's Cubberly Auditorium on April 24, 1964. Wearing his black-framed glasses and speaking in a reedy, composed voice, Moses methodically outlined the Mississippi movement's history and ambitions. One listener described Moses as possessing an "almost Zen presence" as he talked, with the "rhythms of a man crossing a stream, hopping from rock to rock."4 Moses described the violence civil rights organizers encountered in Mississippi, and he was candid about the initial opposition of his local staff to bringing in white volunteers from outside. These comments foreshadowed the danger and discord students would experience during Freedom Summer.
Moses spoke at Stanford for more than an hour, then met with students interested in going to Mississippi. He later said that bringing in the mostly white young volunteers to the Deep South would help get the civil rights story out to the rest of the country. "Bring the nation's children, and the parents will have to focus on Mississippi," Moses wrote.5
The Freedom Summer campaign met with violence at the outset. Three student workers — black Mississippian James Chaney and white New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — were lynched by Klansmen in Neshoba County shortly after midnight on June 21, 1964. But only a few volunteers retreated, and the work continued. Over the course of the summer, more than a thousand activists were jailed, dozens of black churches and homes were burned and scores of volunteers were injured. They included a Stanford student who was beaten and urinated on in Marks, Mississippi.
Freedom Summer was a turning point for the Mississippi movement, the nation, and many of the young people who took part. "The Negro community has really taken care of us," 21-year-old Stanford student Ilene Stralitz told a reporter. "They've left us with a feeling of humility. I've never felt like this before."6
Freedom Summer climaxed at the national Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City in August, 1964. Moses and others organized the MFDP to challenge the Mississippi Democratic Party's all-white representation of the state. The national party leadership blocked the effort. The MFDP failed to unseat the white delegates. But powerful speeches by MFDP leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer drew national attention to the repressive political situation in the South.
After the convention — and several grueling years working in Mississippi -- Moses was dispirited and disillusioned. "We weren't just up against the Klan, or a mob of ignorant whites," he later wrote, "but political arrangements and expediencies that went all the way to Washington, D.C."7 Moses was uneasy with the messianic adulation he inspired among some student volunteers. They marveled at his calm, gentle, self-possessed leadership, but Moses was not the type to seek a following. He also faced increasing threats on his life. He withdrew from the Mississippi movement and started using his middle name, Parris, as his last name.
Moses was a pacifist, and to avoid getting drafted in the Vietnam War he fled to Canada, then to a small village in Tanzania, where he and his wife lived for nearly a decade with their four children.
Moses returned to the United States in 1977 under President Jimmy Carter's amnesty program for draft resisters. Moses and his family settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he completed his Ph.D. in mathematics at Harvard. In 1980, Moses was selected as a MacArthur Fellow and launched a new initiative, the Algebra Project, a mathematics literacy program aimed at low-income students and children of color.
Historian John Dittmer writes that Bob Moses's journey from the streets of Harlem to the dirt roads of Mississippi is "part of the folklore of the black freedom struggle."8 His work as a field organizer nurturing the leadership of local people contributed to making the Mississippi movement, in Dittmer's view, "the strongest and most far-reaching [civil rights campaign] in the South."9
When we first went to Mississippi, we didn't know what we could do. And we went there more or less with the attitude to try and find out what was possible, that is to see what could be done. We didn't have any resources, really, and we weren't sure how we should go about it or what it was that we should do. The first, I guess, real sense of what we had to do came with some of the contact that we had, particularly, with rural farmers. Because perhaps for the first time, certainly, in my life, I met some people who seemed extremely simple in their conception of life, but very direct in terms of what they wanted and what they needed, and in terms of certain elemental ideas about justice and feelings about people.
And if we have any anchor at all, I mean if there's any base from which we operate, if there's any reason why we don't really go crazy, why we don't have more real problems than we do have, if there's any reason why we can skip around from the bottom of Mississippi to the top of the skyscrapers in Manhattan, and still maintain some kind of internal sense of balance, I think a lot of it has to do with those people. And the fact that they have their own sense of balance, which is somehow independent of what goes on around the country because they're not affected by it. Most of them, they don't have telephones, they don't have newspapers, they have very little contact with the outside world. They do have radios, they do have television, so they have some contact. But yet, in many ways, they've managed to maintain something which is fundamental, and which gives, I think, many a worker real strength when he's working down in the rural areas of Mississippi.
Now part of the problems our country is in is caused by the fact there is no work for these people on these farms any more. So many, many, many of them are leaving those small farms and leaving for small cities in the South and then into the large urban areas of the North.
And certainly, when I left New York City to go to Mississippi, I had no idea of what would happen to Harlem, say. I wasn't teaching in Harlem. I wasn't qualified to teach in Harlem. I was qualified to teach in a fancy prep school. But the public school systems of our country are such that, while you might be qualified to teach in the fancy prep schools of the country, you're not qualified to teach in some of the public schools of the country. So, I wasn't really a part of what was going on in Harlem. I knew that there were tremendous problems there. And that there was not, on the horizon anywhere, an inkling of where the solutions would come from, or even if anybody was seriously thinking about them and doing something about them. But there was, in the South, with the kids who were acting in the sit-in movement, some idea that somebody was doing something about some key problem in the state, in the country. And it was in direct response to that challenge, that the kids, the sit-in people gave, that myself and other people began to move down South.
Now, when we first got into Mississippi, we were really on our own and very much alone. I just will recount one very short instance. I took two people down to Liberty to register about four weeks or more after I'd been working in that county. I met with a group of white people who proceeded to attack us. And they singled myself out, and my head was tattooed to several stitches. The justice department's reaction to that was, they didn't really have a clear-cut case because we were walking through the streets on our way to the courthouse. The news of that never got out around the country, and in many ways that's just as well. What we really realized, and what was brought home to us is, for the time being, we were out there fighting by ourselves. There was no help, either from the federal government in any real sense. The FBI agent who came around to do the investigation, although we called him that same night, showed up two weeks later for the first time. And then proceeded to try and convince me that I really hadn't been beaten but had fell. And he tried to convince me that I fell three times, and that the wounds in three different places were from those three different falls. And his concern, and really the concern that we've had time and time again since then, from southern FBI agents was, at that time, to try and picture, color the story to the tune of … their concern so that the picture that went back to Washington was one which would, in any case, favor them.
Now, we operated that way for about a year, in 1961 through 1962, more or less on our own. Really a small band of people, four or five people. But we did discover several things. That it was possible to pick up, in the Negro community, young people and get them to work. It was possible to find, in almost every community in which you worked, one or two people who would be willing to take a stand, who would be willing to identify with you, who would provide some kind of foothold in that community and allow you a chance to work and organize. It was possible to move around the state and begin to get the feeling, within the state, of the dimensions of the problem — just how immense the problem was, just how deep it was rooted, just how long a struggle it would be, just how limited we were in our resources.
Now, along about 1962, in the summer, we began to get the first bit of help from the outside. And it came in the form of political help. It was, at that time, that President Kennedy and the people in the White House decided to push voter registration and to help with the drive with the court cases of the justice department, in terms of much-needed funds, which were to be used for people to help in organizing voter registration drives. So there began to develop a small fund of money, based really out of New York City, which was available for people to work in voter registration in the South. So, whereas, up to then we were really living catch as catch can, day-by-day. In many cases, off the community, depending on whether we were able to find friends and people who would house us and feed us.
From the summer of 1962, on through the summer of 1963, we began to get a little more support. And it was during that time that we began to develop what became known as the Council of Federated Organizations. And really began to see that it was possible in Mississippi to locate in isolated rural communities, and in some towns, groups of people who could be put in touch with each other, who would be able to work with each other, who might form the basis for some kind of organization within the state. And might form the basis, ultimately, for some kind of political organization to tackle Mississippi's establishment. Because by that time it was clear that the problems in Mississippi …were to be focused on political problems. That what we had to do was, somehow, begin to tackle the political establishment in Mississippi — that the white Citizen's Councils, the governor, the state legislature, the judiciary, were all part of one, monolithic system. And that in order to find any kind of gaps in it, we were going to have to hit right at its heart.
Well now, that phase in there was marked by several types of incidents. And probably for us, and for the workers, and still for the workers, the acts of what we call symbolic terror figure most sharply in coloring all of the work. Because for us, Mississippi…deals in symbolic acts of terror, of killing. You can roll off the names. On 1956, Mr. Lee in Belzoni who was shot and killed. The year after, in that same city, it was Gus Courts who was shot and run out of the city. 1960, it was a man on Brookhaven's courthouse lawn who was shot and killed. 1961, it was Herbert Lee in Amite County who was shot and killed. In 1963, it was Medgar Evers in Jackson who was shot and killed. In 1964, it was Louis Allen, and three people in Wilkinson County, and just recently another person in Wilkinson County — all shot and killed. Always the same type of people were found — they'd been shot by white people. Only in Medgar Evers case was an indictment brought and an actual trial.
This kind of act of terror forces several very deep questions for the people who are working there, because they have to, in some sense or another, come to grips with this. Workers who are working in Natchez, in Macomb, in Amite County, who have to ride those roads by themselves, who have already been shot at once, who maybe every time a headlight flashes up behind them, when they're riding at night, wonder if this is another time when somebody might take another shot at them. They have to come to grips with themselves about some kind of internal balance about that problem of violence.
All of that had to happen in that year between, say, 1961-'62, and on into '63. But while that was happening, what kept people going, and what still keeps people going, was that you were able to reach and make contact with the Negro farmers [and] with the people in the cities. You were able to actually grab a hold of them. There was some feeling that you had hit some rock bottom that you had some base that you could work with, and that you could build on, and as long as you had that, then maybe there was hope of making some real changes someday.
Now, in 1963, after the summer and after the March on Washington, the Aaron Henry campaign issued in - for us in Mississippi - a new dimension. It wasn't a dimension devoid of problems. There were real, very tough problems, with the sudden appearance of numbers of students from Stanford, and from Yale. But what they meant, more than anything else, was some type of involvement of the rest of the country on a different scale, with a different kind of personal commitment, and with a different possibility for organizing and working within the state.
And it's the summer project which is the sequel to that, and which is…now being focused in a different way. The Aaron Henry campaign…was…a big spontaneous thing, and all of a sudden people rushed in. And they were there for a week or two, and then they vanished. The feeling of a lot of the kids who came down, perhaps — I'm not sure what their feelings were, but a lot of them probably were drawn up in a great big outburst of excitement on a campus, and [made] a very quick decision to move down…into something which, maybe, they really hadn't anticipated and couldn't have anticipated.
This time, what's at stake is something deeper. It's a question of whether, in this country, we can find people who are committed. Who know, who care, who are willing to sacrifice. Who are willing to say that they want to do their share. Who are willing and able, perhaps, to look on this as…the country's business, not just as [the] Negro's problem. Who are willing to look on this, not as something…that just has to be done in Mississippi, but something that will be carried back, and will have to be done in places all across this country, if we're really going to get at the bottom of some of these problems.
While this development was going on in Mississippi, there's been a parallel development across the country. Because, when we first returned to New York City after being down and working in Mississippi for four or five or six months, it was hard to tell anybody what you were doing. They really didn't know and they couldn't understand what was going on. But after a year — and then finally after Birmingham — the country was alive. There was some movement in the country, there was some focus on the problem. The problem had, all of a sudden, become a national problem.
Now, it's the emergence of this civil rights problem as a national problem which is causing a lot of concern and a lot of anxiety — and rightly so — in different places up North. The questions that we think faces the country are questions which…are much deeper than civil rights. They're questions which go very much to the bottom of mankind, and of people. They're questions which have repercussions in terms of our whole international affairs and relations. They're questions which go to the very root of our society. What kind of society will we be, what kind of a people will we be?
It just happens that the civil rights question is at the spearhead of all of these. All the questions about automation, all the questions about our schools, all the questions about our cities — what kind of cities will we have? — all of these find their focus in the public eye in terms of some kind of civil rights demonstration or another. At a construction site, a school boycott, a rent strike, a stall-in. They're all gaining national focus and beginning to bring to the attention of the American people a wider cross-section of problems. The problem is whether we will be able to really find solutions, whether we will be able — if we find these solutions — to take the steps that might be necessary, in terms of the structure of our politics and economics, to carry them through. If we're willing to take those steps, whether those steps can be carried through peacefully, and with some kind of minimum amount of real frustrations for millions of people.
There's an article in the Atlantic Monthly, this month. It pinpoints nine people who control Congress: Sen. Russell, Sen. Eastland, Rep. Vincent, Rep. Mills, and I think there are three other senators, and two congressmen. To a man, they come from the South. They point out…that California does not have any senator who is the head of any major committee in the Senate. And they don't have [one] because they have a two-party system. Because they send Republicans this time, and maybe they change over and send Democrats next time. But on the other hand, in the South, where you still have a one-party system, by and large, and you send the same people back every time, these people gain control. Now, the situation in this country is that the people who have control in Congress and are really at loggerheads with the rest of the country, in terms of blocking legislation which is vitally needed. [They] can't be reached in terms of their political base. I mean, we've tried.
We've tried voter registration in Eastland's state. There are voter registration drives going on in Arkansas, in Georgia, and Alabama, in Virginia with Sen. Byrd. But these people have a political base which is — for the moment — secure, and which we can't reach. The feeling that we have is that the vital changes which are needed cannot be gotten unless there is some political change. In Mississippi, you have to have political changes to get any real change in that state. In this country, we're going to have to have political changes to get any real change across the board. The question is whether the American people are willing to listen to that, willing to try and understand what it means, and willing to try and do what they have to do in order to change it?
Because if they don't, then we are in serious trouble. And we will be in serious trouble. The trouble will primarily be focused around civil rights. The blame will go to dissident and extremist elements within the civil rights movement, who take to arms, who blow up bridges, who arm themselves, who create acts of terror, just like the acts of terror which are going on in Mississippi — which nobody knows about, and which people all over the country can't know about, because the news media won't tell them. But when the Negroes take to acts of terror, they will know about it, and the country will know about it.
But the preconditions for those things already exist. They exist within the cities, they will erupt within cities. There's no question about it. They will erupt unless some mechanism is found in this country to deal with those problems. There just isn't such a mechanism. When Kennedy tried to get an urban affairs bill through the House, through the Senate, he couldn't do it. The people who were stopping him were exactly those same people that the Atlantic article names. They are Republicans connected with Dixiecrats. Those people have been blocking effective legislation in the Congress which would be able to deal with some of the serious problems we have in our cities. And it's not until the country begins to come to grips with it that you're going to begin to get any kind of solutions.
Seventy percent of the Negro youth in Philadelphia are unemployed. [They] do not have jobs, may not get jobs because there aren't jobs for them. It's a fantastic figure. It affects white people when they organize gangs, and start hitting, and shooting, and fighting each other, and then maybe turn their violence into the streets and attack property which belongs to white people. And then the reaction of the white people, or the country, is…to turn on them to ask, why is it that Negroes do such and such? To call upon Negro leaders for control, for moderation, to find some solution about juvenile delinquency. But the fact remains that economy of this country does not produce jobs for these people, that we don't have jobs for them, and that until they get jobs there's going to be trouble.
And the trouble is there because the pattern for demonstrations has already been established. And it's been established around the right to eat at a lunch counter and it will most certainly, inevitably, pick up and be [about] the right for jobs, and other, more basic things. The stall-ins in New York, I think, have been completely misunderstood all over the country. I've been thinking more and more about those. The whole idea of New York City spending millions of dollars — the city spent $30 million, Ford spent millions of dollars, U.S. Steel spent millions of dollars, all private industry [is] spending millions of dollars to build a fair to show people how they will live in the year 2000, with beautiful glass buildings and moving sidewalks, when people in that city are having rent strikes because there are rats are running up and down their walls. [It] is fantastic, when you really think of it. I mean, the deep irony of that really hasn't reached out across the country. All everyone was concerned with was, "Don't mess up our World's Fair." Whose World's Fair?
The connection between the real significance of that stall-in, and what the people were trying to do, I don't think [that] ever got across to the country. Because the principle around which you desegregated the lunch counters was, you went in, sat in at those lunch counters and said to the whole town, "Either you serve me or nobody gets served." Now, that was the effective principle behind sit-ins at lunch counters. Either you serve me or nobody gets served. … Now, in effect, the people who were leading the stall-ins were saying to New York City, "Either you pay attention to our very real, trying problems or nobody, nobody can function in this city, we're going to tie you up."
And they had already tried to address the problems individually. You had rent strikes. Right now, they're in the process of deciding whether the blocks where Jesse Gray was organizing rent strikes should be an area for urban renewal. Now, that's one way to get rid of Jesse Gray, I guess. Just clean them out, and put some new public housing in place. We've had school boycotts — they've tried…focusing on the schools and drawing the kids out. It raised an awful ruckus. It split the civil rights leadership. It sent New York City into a tipsy, and rightly so, because there are no solutions to that, independent of other solutions. We've had problems…about housing. But all those things are so inextricably tied together, that it's impossible to find solutions to them separately. It's impossible to find solutions to problems of the schools without finding solutions to problems of jobs and housing.
But who's available to deal with them? Nobody. There isn't any agency in our city, in our state, in our federal government. There isn't any agency available to deal with those three problems conceived as a unit: housing and jobs and schools. And to try and get an overall plan to attack them. There will probably be more stall-ins, there will be more attempts at tying up cities. And there will have to be until there comes, in the country, some sense of really what's happening, and coming to grips with those problems.
Now, the South poses a different problem for the country. But the problems, they're so intertwined. In the Delta area of Mississippi, the people who work the plantations are facing the fact that, every year, there are 10 percent fewer jobs for them. In probably five years…the automation of the plantation will be completed. The labor market on the plantation will be very well stabilized and at a very low point. And the people who come off those plantations will be unemployed and unemployable in our society. They will be permanently unemployed because, first, they don't have the skills. And there isn't anywhere, in our whole country, a system for teaching them how to read and write. Because, that was nobody's problem who had power, who had resources, who had money, who could tackle that problem.
It's only since we've been down in Mississippi, and since the civil rights movement has begun in the last few years, that you've begun to get some concerted effort with very minimum resources. We got a grant — an anonymous grant, mind you — of $80,000 to tackle the problem of literacy at a fundamental, bedrock level. And the person who gave it had to give it anonymously because the problem of literacy in the Delta, and in Mississippi, in the deep South, is a political problem. Because, if you teach people how to read and write, then they're going to begin to want to govern themselves. And they're going to begin to want to govern themselves in an area where they form the predominance of the population, over a more articulate, economically controlling white group. And that's the political problem in our country. The congressmen, the senators from those districts aren't interested in sponsoring literacy problems. So there are no bills in Congress. We don't have a bill that has ever been introduced in Congress to deal with the problems of literacy for Negroes in the South. They're not interested.
But where are those people going to go? The people, when they leave the Delta, are going to go to the cities in the North. They're going to go to Chicago, they're going to go to St. Louis and Detroit. They're going to come to California, and Los Angeles, and San Francisco. They're here already. And these are the basis for many of the problems of the cities around the country. But…there's nobody, no government agency, no private agency, who's able to look at that problem and have some kind of authority or business to deal with it.
Now, our feeling is, that we have to be able to attack some of the specific structures which are visible, which we can see, which we may be able to move at. Certainly, the people who are in Congress from the South who don't belong there are such structures and part of that structure. And they need to be removed from office. And, certainly, the whole country will be better off and better equipped to deal with these problems if they are. This does not beg the question of whether there will be Republicans or Democrats, or what will happen in terms of the political structure that would evolve. Nobody knows. And the question should not be raised in terms of people who are afraid of what the political structure will be like if we get rid of those Dixiecrats. The problem is to get rid of them and begin to work on whatever evolves.
For our part, this summer we're going to go to the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City and challenge the regular Mississippi delegation. We're going to ask the national Democratic Party that they unseat that delegation, that they seat our people in its place, and that they make a real structural change, or the beginning of a structural change within their party.
Our basis for doing that are threefold, or fourfold. We're carrying on within the state what we call a "Freedom Registration." Some of the people who have come down this summer, who are interested in politics, will be working on that. We're setting up our own registrars in every one of the 82 counties. They have deputy registrars, we have our own forms. We're challenging the whole basis of the registration in Mississippi. We don't have any questions which will make people interpret some section of the Constitution. We're making it as simple as we possibly can. We want to register upwards of 300,000 to 400,000 Negroes around the state of Mississippi. To dispel, at least, once and for all, the argument that the reason Negroes don't register is because they're apathetic. Because there are these 400,000 people to be registered. But for one thing, people don't even know that they're there. And if they are, or if they do know, they say, "Well, if so many people are not registering, part of the reason, and probably a large part of the reason, must be their apathy."
With the freedom registration, we also have freedom candidates. We have three people who are running for Congress. One from the 2nd Congressional District, one from the Third, and one from the Fifth. And then a person who's running against Sen. Stennis. They have all filed, met all the qualifications, and their names should appear on the Democratic primary June 2. The idea is to begin to develop again, within the people, the Negro people and some white people in the state, a different conception of their politics, and to begin to see if we can evolve a political organization in Mississippi.
We also are going to attend the precinct meetings that the regular Democratic delegates will be holding around the state. We figure that many of our people will be thrown out of these meetings because they're segregated. And we're going to use this as part of the documentation as [to] why that delegation should not be seated. We also are going to elect our own delegates, paralleling their procedures right from the start. Precinct meetings, county conventions, district caucuses, the state convention. A total of 68 delegates representing 24 votes, two whole votes and 22 half votes. We're going to send them to Atlantic City. We're going to ask that they be seated. We're going to demand that they be seated. There most certainly will be demonstrations at Atlantic City. It seems inconceivable that the groups in New York City, and Boston, and Philadelphia, which have been growing out of the rent strikes and the school boycotts, will not focus on the Democratic Party to get some kind of justice about their grievances out of our party.
Now, for many of us, this will be a real turning point in terms of whether it will be possible to get anything out of the political structures that is meaningful in this country. I mean, we're trying to work as closely, and as assiduously, and as hard as we can within the political structures of this country. Trying to see if they will bend, if they have any flexibility, if they give at some point, if they can really accommodate themselves to the demands of the people. The problem, up to this point, is that they haven't bent. They haven't given. They haven't been able to come up with real solutions. Everything has been patchwork. And every time you put a patch on here, pressure mounts [there], and something explodes. And you put a patch on it there, and the pressure mounts here, and something else explodes.
The questions that people keep asking are, "How long this can go on? How long are Negroes going to maintain nonviolence? How long are they going to work in this fashion?" And the answer is, I don't know. I really don't know. The problem now is that the call has really gone out to the rest of the country - not to Negroes now. The challenge, now, is to the rest of the country. In the same way, really, that the challenge in the South is to white people in the South. There's a sit-in at a lunch counter downtown. The question is, how will the white people respond? See, what will they focus on? Will they focus on the fact that the Negroes shouldn't be down there? And some of them are unruly? And some of them approach violence? And some of them do this, and some of them do that? Or, will they… focus on their just grievances, and say, "Okay, this is what we've got to do. We've got to move over here and begin to accommodate them." That kind of call is going out across the country now.
And, already, the initial response is fearful, because the initial response is not in terms of re-examination of the country and its structures, and how they can be changed, how they have to move and accommodate. But, focusing [instead] on the bad elements and using that as an excuse. And it seems to me, if you evaluate what's going on in San Francisco with regard to the initiative, as I understand it, in these last few days, it's the fact that…the first thing that most people want to focus on is not the initiative, but they want to focus on the demonstrations and say, "See, that's the reason why we've got to have the initiative." And that's the same kind of thing which the southerners did when the sit-ins first started. It's exactly the same thing they did. They focused on the demonstrators and said, "Look at that, people trying to take over our cities. That's the reason we've got to strengthen our laws, add to the police force, protect our citizens and our homes." I mean, that's exactly what their reaction was.
Theodore White wrote an article in Life magazine shortly after Kennedy was assassinated. And he was describing the civil rights groups and picking out different facets of them. And…he singled out SNCC in particular, who were going to challenge the Democrats at their convention, and were going to say to them, "If we can't sit at the table with you, then we'll just chop off the legs and everybody sit on the floor." And he was saying that this was dangerous, because he's essentially a man who looks for solutions, who tries to find ways out of impasses, who looks for the meaning between the extremes. But the problem is, what are the real solutions? The danger is that the…avenues which might be real solutions will simply be branded as acts of extremism, in exactly the same sense in which the first acts of the sit-ins, geared to small southern towns, were branded that way by southern politicians.
Well, I'd like to say just a little about the summer project, more concretely. And I'd like to do it in terms of some of the history of how as it evolved, and some of the problems which happened in the state as the conception of the summer project came about. The staff in Mississippi were violently opposed to the summer project when it was first announced. They were opposed to an invasion of white people coming in to do good, and to work for a summer, and to essentially run projects, they thought, without having any experience and basis for doing that. And we spent half of November, and all of December and January, and on into the very beginning of March, in very heated, tough discussions about what the summer project could be, what it couldn't be, what kind of hopes it held out for people in Mississippi and the country, and what it didn't, what were its limits, what were the things that really might happen…that would be significant?
And it was out of those discussions that we reached a very uneasy…but at least tentative agreement among the majority of the staff, to go ahead with concrete, specific programs. And to try and channel people who were coming down into very specific jobs and tasks. And it was out of that agreement that the idea and conception of freedom schools [came about], and doing something to try and break hold, the psychological holds that Negroes have evolved and the concept of working in the community centers, and the concept of working in the white communities, the concept of trying to provide some cultural dimension to the program, and the concept to try to buttress and further the legal work group.
Now, on other hand, the people in Mississippi did not have the reaction of the staff at all. The farmers, and the people who live and work there, welcomed the whole idea. Because they feel that anybody who comes down to help is good. They need all the help they can get. [They feel] that they're isolated, that they're alone, that they have no real tools, that they face an overwhelming enemy, that any kind of help that they can get is welcome. So…it was this more than anything else that swayed a lot of us. Because…in many cases the instincts of the people, and particularly some of the rural farmers about these things are truer, deeper, less cluttered, and less bothered by personal problems, and things like that, than the instincts of…the staff and the people who are working. It was with this kind of background that we went into the project. And more and more as we've gotten into it, we've come to [the] consideration that the [volunteers] who come down should be under some very well established controls. That they should have some idea of some very significant things that they can do. But very limited [activities], and perhaps significant because they're limited. And that some of the things that we would try to do would not be some of the things that we first envisioned doing.
For instance, in the Freedom Schools we have one track, which is basically just a set of questions which is devised to draw out of the Negro youngsters some ideas about themselves and the lives they lead. Questions [we] might ask them: is their house painted? Does it have indoor toilets? Do they have pictures on their walls? How many kids live in a room? What are their schools like? Do they have libraries? What kind of teaching facilities do they have? Do they have laboratories? Questions which take them cross-town into white people's homes, and try to get them to imagine what the homes are like over there, what the schools are [like]. Questions which take them inside into their own minds, which try and get at attitudes which they have about themselves, that they have about white people. Questions which can be handled by people who have some sensitivity to other people, who have some concern about them, who are not so interested in projecting themselves, but are able to try and reach out and really cross what is a really very wide gap, between white people from middle-class backgrounds in the North, and Negro youngsters who've grown up in slums, rural or urban, in the South. So that one of the things we hoped to do was, working across the summer, if we touched in 20 Freedom Schools 1,000 kids, and began to draw some things like that out of them, then we felt that we'd have another layer, another stage, another base that we would have to operate from and on.
On the question of voting, we decided that we would like to try to establish, across the summer, the right to picket at the courthouses in the downtown urban areas. We had a picket line at Hattiesburg which started January 22, when some fifty ministers from the National Council of Churches came in and joined a lot of our staff, and young people. And which went every day from nine to five and on Saturdays from 9-12, all through the month of March and on into the month of April. There were many significant things that came out of that picket line. For one thing, there was no violent white reaction, even though 50 miles away, the Ku Klux Klan was burning crosses at 15 farmhouses, and shooting five Negroes. In Hattiesburg, no one was bothering the picket line. And even though the police, the first day, marched out in a platoon of 25, and stood up and down the streets and barricaded them, by the end of the week they were down to one or two policemen, in shifts, serving as observers.
And, the fact was, that white people of Hattiesburg were not that upset about a picket line at their courthouse. Their attitudes about the rights of Negroes to vote did not reach that far…that they were willing to form mobs in the street and conduct some kind of violence. So, the whole focus of the people who were really stopping voter registration could be narrowed. It was something that many people thought already, but this corroborated it. I mean, the political establishment in Mississippi are the people who are really holding on and not letting Negroes vote. If the white people were able or freer, had more elbow room, were able to move, had more dimensions themselves to move in, then it might be possible for Negroes to vote.
We want to do this if we can in city after city around the state. Now, we've already met obstacles to that. The state legislature, about a week and a half ago, passed a bill making it illegal to picket any public building. The governor signed it into law. And the next day, they arrested the whole picket line in Hattiesburg. And 44 people are now out on $1,000 property bonds, each from Hattiesburg. But they're determined to start the picket line up again. And we're determined to gain that right this summer. Now in many cases, in many ways, it's a very limited right. But it's crucial in Mississippi. Because if we gain the right to picket in integrated picket lines, then labor unions will gain the right to picket in integrated picket lines in Mississippi. And, possibly, the trade unions and UAW and the Teamsters and the labor unions will move into Mississippi and begin to organize working people. And if they move in, then they just might begin to [bring] in behind them a whole host of other organizations, in terms of beginning to meet and get to working people in Mississippi. And that would be a bridgehead for the whole deep South, if that were established.
If it's possible this summer to have interracial teams living and working in Mississippi in the Negro communities, it might change the whole conception around the country of how it might be possible to get at some of these problems in the deep South. The federal government cannot have a real, domestic Peace Corps. It's possible for our country to organize youth all over the country, to give them elaborate training, to spend millions and millions of dollars. Very worthwhile to train them and send them abroad to work in under-developed countries all across the world. It would be impossible for them to mount anywhere near that kind of program in this country. They could not send segregated teams into the South. The country wouldn't have it. They couldn't send integrated teams into the South — they couldn't guarantee their protection. They couldn't guarantee their protection.
The federal government of this country can send people to Africa, and get guarantees from the states that they go to in Africa that they will have protection, and that their lives will be safe. They couldn't get it from Alabama, and they couldn't get it from Mississippi. They couldn't get it from Louisiana. They couldn't mount a domestic Peace Corps in this country. The country doesn't have available, yet, the tools to really get at this problem. It just doesn't have them. We don't even know how to put money, intelligently, into a state like Mississippi. The Ford Foundation, I bet, wouldn't know how to put $10 million into Mississippi without buttressing the system that already exists. I mean, how would they do it? How would you put money into the educational system in Mississippi without reinforcing what already exists there? We don't even have the beginnings of solutions.
One thing that might happen out of this summer, which could be very significant, would be some idea of how people could go about beginning to make some break-in in the situation down there in the deep South. Professor Wasserstrom… who spoke this afternoon…he was talking not about the whole South, he was talking about the black belt South. The towns that he was describing are the towns which lie in that arc which spans all the way down from the eastern seaboard of Maryland, moves all the way down through southside Virginia, into South Carolina and into part of North Carolina, sweeps through southwest Georgia into middle Alabama, spills all over Mississippi and then goes into northern Louisiana and southeastern Arkansas. And the town that he was describing is found through all those areas, which are the black belt of this country. Country known because of the deep, rich, black soil. And the black people who form the predominance of the population in all those areas. And we don't know what to do with that section of the country. It's a tiger — the federal government is afraid we have it by the tail. They don't know what to do with it because it raises the question of Negroes getting the vote and having political control.
You watch how carefully, just how carefully they're treating Tuskegee, where Professor Wasserstrom is at. Macon County in Alabama, where not only do the Negroes have the majority of they population, they are, in every way, in terms of the standards we use around the country to judge people, superior to the white population. Because of the institutions there, because of the VA institution, and the school, and everything. And yet, we've been pussyfooting for years, trying very carefully there to give them the votes, stage by stage, so that there isn't the sudden emergence of a Negro county where the Negroes grab political power.
Now if that's the situation in a county like that in Macon County, wherever it is, where Negroes have the majority and also have the education, and are in every way qualified to run that county and that town, then you can imagine how it is in the counties where they don't have the education, where they've been deprived the education, where they, in many cases, can't read and write.
The question comes up all the time about nonviolence and what it means. And they're really deep, moral problems, which are connected, already, with the summer project. I realized one type of problem two-and-a-half years ago when we first went down to Amite County because Herbert Lee was killed that summer. Was killed just as surely because we went in there to organize, as rain comes because of clouds. If we hadn't gone in there, he wouldn't have been killed. The action which was started in that county wouldn't have happened. The chain of events leading up to his death wouldn't have happened. So, in some sense, if you're concerned about people and concerned about these kind of questions, you have to dig into yourself to find out, in what sense do you share responsibility? What does it mean to be involved in that kind of action which might precipitate that kind of death?
And I'm just posing that question now. I mean, Camus poses it on a historical scale, in terms of whether people shall be victims or executioners. Whether those people who are enslaved, in order to get their freedom, have to become executioners and participate in acts of terror and death, and in what sense they do participate in it. And it takes place on a very small scale down South, in terms of that kind of activity which we carry on. And perhaps one justification is that you are no less exposed than they are. So that at least you share that kind of exposure with them. But then, that's not equally so. The people who are currently working in Amite and Wilkinson and Pike Counties are more exposed than anybody. The people who've been working in Jackson, organizing the office, which had to be done, are not as exposed as they are. And certainly, the people who go down to Mississippi this summer…That whole question about what will happen rests very heavy, because nobody really knows what might happen. And we're back in that same kind of dilemma. Which can be put very nicely in terms of victims and executioners and philosophically, but when you come to deal with it personally, it still rests very heavy.