by Randall Auxier
“The adults here will back the young folks but will never initiate a program strong enough to do what needs to be done”
— Robert Moses to Jane Stembridge, summer 1960.
Civil-rights icon Robert Parris Moses is quiet. He studies a room, the movements and exchanges of the people, but he keeps his conclusions to himself. Still, there is a fire in the eye. To be looked at by Bob Moses is to be looked through. You feel that all you have done and all you will do is on open display.
And there is a presence. It is hard to know how far back this presence might go. Was Moses this intense, this personally powerful, when he was eight or nine? Surely not… we suppose. But if he was just an ordinary kid, was it some nascent power that made the man or was it the man’s life and amazing achievements that now conspire to create the presence? One wonders, indeed, one must wonder, because the presence is beyond uncommon, it is singular. A person would have to be altogether numb not to notice it.
The talent nestled in the mind and soul of the child was recognized early. It’s a goodly subway ride from Harlem to East Fifteenth Street in Lower Manhattan, but Moses came to know it well. He was admitted by competitive examination to the highly selective Stuyvesant High School, a school with a powerful reputation for science and math. Stuyvesant has produced four Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, and in the case of Moses, at least one MacArthur Fellow as well. The path forward led to Hamilton College. During his matriculation there, Moses encountered some social-justice Quakers. Serving in their international service projects, he lived for a time in Belgium, France, Germany, and Japan during the summers. The quiet path probably suited his temper. He majored in philosophy and excelled, leading him to graduate school at Harvard.
At Harvard, Moses studied with the great mathematical logician and philosopher of science W.V.O. Quine, whose groundbreaking work in set theory and ontology were shaping the entire philosophical agenda in the English-speaking world. Completing the master’s in 1957, Moses’s progress toward a doctorate was interrupted by the death of his mother and a subsequent debilitating mental breakdown by his father. He took a position teaching math at Horace Mann High School in New York to stay near his family. Moses also took a position as the private tutor of Frankie Lyman, the young lead singer of the Teenagers (remember “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”?) during his musical tours, and this took Moses across the country by bus, where he got a sense of the restlessness of the cities. Something was afoot in America; a transformation had begun.
Finally, Rustin sent Moses to Ella Baker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Baker, who was transitioning from the SCLC to a new organization she helped to found, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, convinced Moses, as she convinced many others, that decentralized, grassroots activism is what creates strong movements: “instead of having… a leader-centered group, you have a group-centered leadership,” she said. This is what Bob Moses was waiting to hear. Baker was a force of nature, and a force of culture, too. She saw voter registration as the fulcrum for lasting change and convinced Moses of that as well. After some frustrating months in the tiny SNCC office in Atlanta, she sent Moses to Mississippi, “with no timetable or agenda other than the radical notion that blacks in the state should be able to vote,” as he put it.Thus, in 1960, a twenty-five-year-old Bob Moses went to Mississippi to do things that nearly got him killed many times over. Among other things he chaired a congressional campaign for a black candidate (the first since Reconstruction ended), he called meetings, he knocked on doors, and he drew out what had been covered, as Amzie Moore, his elder mentor put it. And for his trouble, Moses was repeatedly beaten, jailed, and shot at. The fate of Medgar Evers easily could have been that of Moses. But somehow he kept coming back.
During the summers of 1960 and 1961, and finally following his permanent relocation to the Delta, a plan began to develop. Moses will say it wasn’t his plan in any important sense, and adds that it doesn’t matter whose idea it was. Everyone else involved says it was Bob’s plan and that it does matter to everyone but him. This is indeed the one subject on which Moses can never be trusted- the topic of what credit he should be given for changing this country.
In a letter to John Doar of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (yes, that’s the Willem Dafoe character in Mississippi Burning) in July 1961, Moses informed the U.S. government of the plan, and of the inadequacy of Federal law to protect voter registration. We now call his plan Freedom Summer. It involved a massive registration drive, the holding of Freedom Votes for those who had been denied registration, and the formation of a Freedom Party to represent those people.
Organizers on the ground in the Mississippi Delta came to believe that in an area of twenty-five counties (two congressional districts), they could make a push and change the political landscape. “They” (which is to say Moses) conceived the idea of recruiting college students, mainly from the North, to flood the area, organized, ready, and determined to educate potential black voters to pass the ridiculous tests regarding details of the Mississippi constitution, and shepherding them through the registration process.
I am guessing that by this point, the presence was fully in evidence. Part of that mystique comes from how Moses does not tell his story. He listens to your story. He sets aside all the earnest efforts of those who desperately want to know the sources of his strength, courage, and judgment. Rather, he insists, then and now, that you find your own. It turned out to be an effective pedagogy in Ohio.On June 20, 1964, 250 volunteers left Ohio to prepare the way in Mississippi. The next day, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, who were already in Meridian, went missing. Their families were presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom this past week in recognition
To the volunteers still in Ohio, Moses explained that the dangers were very real. During that summer, eighty of those volunteers were beaten and four died. His plan wasn’t for the faint of heart. Fortunately, the volunteers were not easily deterred, but it is easy to forget that they got to return to their comfortable lives after the summer ended, while those brave enough to register to vote had committed themselves to years of endless struggle in their native environs, most of them with no means of leaving. That is a different kind of courage.During the course of 1964, Moses organized the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which, led by Moses himself, famously sought to be seated at the nominating convention in August in Atlantic City. All in all, Moses had realistic ideas about how quickly things would change- not very quickly- but his steadfast insistence upon the grassroots ideas of Ella Baker, his low-key but relentless pressure upon local officials, his persuasion of one voter at a time to step forward and take the rightful franchise. These became hallmarks of SNCC during the next few important years.
It is hard to know what victory means. By 1965 there was a Voting Rights Act that made Mississippi’s practices illegal. The Democrats revised their seating rules for conventions. Mike Espy won the congressional seat in Mississippi’s second district in 1987. Is that victory? Most people would say so. But things got complicated, as they do when successes began to pile up. By 1966, Moses had done what he could do for Mississippi and for the United States. Wherever he turned he was under pressure to step into roles that would look like traditional leadership, roles- and a view of social relations- he rejected without qualification. Wherever people came to rely on him rather than upon themselves, he pulled back. Indeed, he still does. He needed to rethink his worldview. He moved to Africa. We have had fifty winters of discontent since the summer Bob Moses changed the country. I will talk about some of them in the next post.