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story | selected interviews | slideshow

Selected Interviews: Bob Moses

Question: You grew up in—

Bob Moses: Harlem, New York.

Q: You came to Mississippi in 1960?

BM: Right, first time here was in 1960. [SNCC founder] Ella Baker and [SNCC staff member] Jane Stembridge sent me to look for ... students to come to Atlanta for what was to be the first South Black Conference of SNCC [the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee]. And they didn't have names of people from the Deep South: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. So they were looking to see if there had been any sort of sit-in activity in those states, and if we could come up with some names. And Ella provided names of contacts. And of course the main contact for me and for the student movement turned out to be Amzie Moore ... in Cleveland, Mississippi.

Q: And you came—what time of year was it?

BM: That was the summer. I was working that summer. First I started out in Atlanta with SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] working as a volunteer, and then, of course the SNCC office was in the SCLC office, and Ella at that time was the executive director of SCLC and so she and Jane put this trip together.

Q: Why don't we fast forward to 1964 or '63 and talk about the discussions that took place about whether to do, and the thinking that went into, the '64 summer project. What's your memory of where the idea came from?

BM: I don't—I have a better memory of the search for where the idea came from. It's striking to me that no one during that time really cared where ideas came from because we were so focused on trying to problem-solve. So, in an effort to problem-solve, you are continually batting around different ideas and I don't, I can't recall anyone who had any idea about intellectual property rights, and who should claim ownership to any idea. That all came afterwards with people who were concerned for, I don't know, different reasons. So the very notion of thinking about whose idea something was really was quite foreign to the central thrust of what we were doing, which was problem-solving.

So, what did happen was that when [Mississippi NAACP Executive Director] Medgar [Evers] was assassinated in '63, and I think it was in June or in the late spring, it focused a lot of national attention on Mississippi and various individuals and groups were considering doing something. And one of the individuals who became focused on Mississippi was [political activist] Al—Al Lowenstein. And so it was the aftermath of Medgar's assassination that brought Al down. Another group that began to look at Mississippi was the National Council of Churches' Bob Spike and the whole ministry that he was in charge of. So both that institution, the National Council of Churches and Bob Spike's group within that; and the person, the persona of Al, came to play important roles in the unfolding events of that, in the year that followed Medgar's assassination. So I think one of the touchstones was simply Medgar's assassination—that really in retrospect led, put certain things in motion which made this Summer Project possible. Certainly Al's recruitment through his whole network of white students across the country, and then Spike's support through the National Council of Churches, were two critical ingredients in the whole idea of sort of having the country take a look at, first hand, Mississippi.

Q: So you did the Freedom Vote [a smaller-scale voter registration project] in '63?

BM: The Freedom Vote, yes, came about during that time in '63. And Al, who was now down here looking around, brought in the first group of white volunteers in that connection: some students from Stanford and some from Yale. And that of course opened up anew the discussion about whites from the North coming to work in the South, in the deep South, 'cause that was an old discussion—I say old, I mean SNCC is old, it's two years old, three years old. I mean a year in the movement was about five years of normal life, so it was old. So that brought open this discussion, and it went back and forth about whether we should have such an event in Mississippi.

Of course the other thing that happened was the march on Washington, the introduction of legislation and the intent to pass the legislation, which then became more than an intent when Kennedy was assassinated. And I think that's again another big, you know, picture here—the assassination of Kennedy in November of '63 changes the whole political landscape. And along with that assassination, in Mississippi you're getting a wave of terror. I mean you're getting bombings and church burnings all across the state. Mississippi's response to impending national legislation or national action right there: they're acting out before the fact.

And so then the other event for us was Louis Allen who was murdered now in January, early January '64. When Herbert Lee had gotten murdered back in '61 when we first started out, we really were not in position to make a concerted response. I mean the way we responded then was simply, 'Okay, so this is the deal,' and we individually have to make up our minds that we're here for the duration. So you had individual sort of steeling of yourselves, but you weren't in position to make a sort of organized response which could really respond to the event with a counter-event. But we were now, in '64, in position to do that. As it happened that tipped the scales in the whole debate about should we or shouldn't we.

Q: Meaning Louis's death?

BM: Louis's death, yeah. We were in the middle of that debate in Hattiesburg when we got the call that he had been gunned down on his front lawn.

Q: There was a staff meeting going on?

BM: In Hattiesburg, yes. It was—the part of the staff meeting was in conjunction with the demonstration, which was part of demonstrations organized with help of the National Council of Churches. [Lawrence] Guyot was in charge of the Hattiesburg project at that time, and the National Council of Churches was doing political work connected with the impending legislation, because they were working with key Republican Congressmen and changing their votes. Their strategy was to bring down people from these districts—ministers—to get them on the front line in Mississippi, and then to go back into their home districts, speak to their parishioners, and then organize lobbying efforts in Capitol Hill. So you have Mississippi, and it's ironic in one sense, here it's the National Council of Churches and they're in here now because of Medgar, and they're now responding to the impending legislation. And now Johnson is President, not Kennedy. And Johnson is a person who has this very keen sense of how you move Congress, and so part of the strategy in all of this is to use Spike and his group to do really a sort of rifle shooting of political—where the weak points are on the Republican side, so this all gets played out in Mississippi.

So, Fannie Lou Hamer and the rest of us have been marching around the Courthouse, some of us get arrested, and then we're out and we're sitting, talking, having a staff meeting, and of course the main topic of discussion is should we do this project. It's now getting late. It's January, and if you're gonna do it, you've got to decide. So in the middle of this discussion, we get this phone call about Louis Allen.

Q: What did you personally feel when that news came?

BM: Well it was like we had gone full circle. It was like, this was where we came in. I mean we came in in '61 working in Amite County. .... And that campaign in Amite ended in Herbert Lee's murder. And the one witness was Louis Allen, who was going to testify. And he had been through now a couple more years of just being brutalized around that, and so now he is gunned down. So it's like you're back where you started. Only this time, you're back where you started but you're in a different place. I mean, you've got this whole really national ferment now and you've got networks in place and you've got potential strategies lined up and you've got some sort of openings to look at in terms of how can we respond.

Q: Was there a lot of debate within the staff, a lot of controversy?

BM: The debate raged, and I guess it still rages. You know, it's one of the central issues around race in the country. So at that time the debate raged about whether this project, which was sort of moving along and gathering some strength in developing some leadership among young black people, should threaten that with an enormous influx of young college white students. It's not a debate that gets settled because of some rational argument, in which this person convinces some other people that—the issues really lie so much deeper in the emotional feeling dimension of people. It's not something—you know, so there was no settling it in that way. There was just deciding whether or not we were going to move, do this project or not do the project, and really you—either way, it was damned if you do, damned if you don't, that's all. But that was Mississippi.

Q: The histories that we've read and the people that we've talked to mostly ... agree with the assessment that you were one of the more influential people just in terms of, that ... if you took a strong position on something you were able to bring people along.

BM: Well, I think yeah, it came down to—it was my decision to move it. ... And what moved me was Louis's murder. That was it. So, after that I decided that what was important for us in Mississippi was to see if we could try to break the back of the state politically.

Q: And when you say that it was Louis's death that triggered it, could you say just a little something more about that, what your thinking was or what your feeling was?

BM: Well, I mean the idea is that you've come full circle. In other words, you've started out with this assassination, and really it's the brutalizing of a people. So these deaths are sort of the ultimate forms of that, and it's not just Herbert Lee and Louis Allen. There are others that you don't know about that come up later that you find out about. So, the question then of, Can you make a political response to this—is there some strategy that may actually work? In other words, Do you have an opening here to turn a corner? And even if you're not sure if you're going to turn it, is there some reasonable chance of turning a corner here? And so, the—I think the death coming as it did, when it did, sort of tipped the scales for me about our needing to try to see if we could turn this corner. Because of the see-sawing back and forth in the staff about whether to do this or not, then my jumping in on the side of let's do it, that I think tipped the decision within the staff.

Q: If we were to jump ahead to the training in Oxford, what do you remember about the training in Oxford?

BM: Well, of course the thing that happened in Oxford which really set the tone of that training was the murder of Goodman and Chaney and Schwerner. So that sort of really is the thing, that is, getting the announcement that they were missing, and understanding the circumstances, and so understanding that they were dead. That took the whole training and the summer to a different space I think, for those of us who were part of the organizing force and for those who had come to work with us, and so it really took it into a different emotional space and a different level of commitment. I think for people who weren't sure why they had come I think that forced them to begin to understand better why they had come and what was at stake.

Q: I gather there was some discussion at the time, in the public as well, whether it was in fact planned by the organizers of the summer that whites would be killed, that that been counted on.

BM: Counted on. I mean, what does that mean? So, I mean, you can count on Mississippi to behave like it had been behaving. I mean you could count on that. The thing which gave the summer its strength, which allowed for the summer to happen, was the existence of this small group of young black people who had in fact been living Mississippi and so no one could deny them their experience, so no one would accuse them of exploiting. Who could stand up and tell us that 'You're exploiting these kids?' No one. So I don't think people appreciate what that means. Because, believe me, if it had been possible in any way to discredit that so to stop it from happening, it would have been done, and it would have never happened. So what allowed it to happen was what the young people from Mississippi had done with their own lives in the state, and that's what counts. I mean, it isn't some fanciful notion that somebody might have said, 'Oh, we counted on this or we knew this was going to happen.' Who cares, you know? What counted was that you had a group of people who [had] ...what in [terms of] experience was ten or fifteen years—I mean that was what it was like working those three years—had had put in something which could not be denied and couldn't be sort of twisted away with any kind of fancy talk.

Q: How did it feel when you got the word about Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney?

BM: Well, it felt very serious. It felt like you had to make all of the volunteers understand what they are about to get into. That is, you can't whitewash this; you can't, you know, rose-color it in any way. You have to make them understand what you know about what happened and about what they are about to—because this is their last chance to get out. So you've got to put it out there as clearly and as deeply as possible, so that those that really do not want to get into this in the way in which they now have to, in the way in which it is now clear that they have to, can leave.

Q: What was your—what did you think about the white kids? How well do you think they did understand when they showed up there what they were getting into, and also how ready were they to go to Mississippi and behave in a way—

BM: Well, they turned out, surprising enough, to be ready. That is, when this deal went down, very few left. Some left, but very few left. So it turned out that they had within them, individually and collectively, some kind of moral toughness that they were able to call upon. And God knows they needed it, because it was not just the Mississippi government, it was also the issue that the space in the black community was really not a completely welcoming space. So there are some elements there which were welcoming them and bringing them in as family and so forth, but then there was this resentment also, so they had to figure out how to walk through that. And so I think what is to their everlasting credit is that they did.

Q: can you say more about the not welcoming space within the black community?

BM: Well this has to do with the idea that within the movement itself, the presence of the volunteers was deeply divisive, so that the notion that many of them brought with them that they would be welcomed into some band of fellowship of people who they were working with to work against this common enemy just turned out to be not real. That is, the whole sort of history and status and way of being of race in this country did not, could not allow that to actually take place. SNCC was the only place in the country which was actively trying to, as an institution going into the summer project, break down all the barriers of race. But those of us who were in it saw that it was trying to do that as some isolated element in the society. There wasn't any other place in the society where you could go and experience that. And so the idea that somehow you could do that and build your own little world in isolation, I mean we knew that you couldn't do that.

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