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Listen Back To A 1993 Interview With The Late Civil Rights Pioneer Bob Moses


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement, Bob Moses. He died Sunday at the age of 86. The quiet-spoken, self-effacing activist helped lead the effort in Mississippi to organize and register rural Black residents to vote. In 1960, after watching news footage of lunch counter sit-ins in the South, he left his job teaching math in New York City to help in the civil rights movement.

When he arrived in Mississippi, he was one of only a few activists there. He joined the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And in 1964, he helped organize Freedom Summer, which recruited college students - mostly white students from the North - to come down to Mississippi to help in the effort to register African Americans to vote and to bring the country's attention to Mississippi's entrenched white supremacy. Here he is at a news conference announcing the program.


BOB MOSES: We hope to send into Mississippi this summer upwards of 1,000 teachers, ministers, lawyers and students from all around the country who will engage in what we're calling freedom schools, community center programs, voter registration activity, research work, work in the white communities, and in general, a program designed to open up Mississippi to the country.

BIANCULLI: Bob Moses and others faced brutal violence, relentless intimidation and death threats. Three of the young activists - Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman - were murdered by white racists. Later in his career, Moses, who had a master's degree in philosophy from Harvard, founded the Algebra Project to teach math literacy to urban and rural communities. He considered it an extension of his civil rights work. Terry spoke with Bob Moses in 1993.


TERRY GROSS: How much of an issue was voting when you started in Mississippi? Was there already a popular movement to get...

MOSES: There wasn't, no. What had happened in Mississippi through the '50s was a really strong repression. Mississippi was sort of South Africa. And following the Supreme Court decision, the government of the state was really taken over by the racist organizations. So the White Citizens' Councils, which were the respectable face of the Klan, really took over the state government. Ross Barnett was the governor. And he was really the tool of those groups. And so you had a really state organized repression. And they really assassinated the NAACP leadership that they could. And so by the time we got there in 1960, '61, there was a handful of leaders left. Medgar Evers was the state representative for the NAACP. And he was sort of operating a one-man shop there with a few leaders strung out across the state. And they were struggling to hold on.

GROSS: What was the Supreme Court decision that you referred to?

MOSES: 1954, the Supreme Court decision around school desegregation. So that - you see; Mississippi just decided, well, they're not going to integrate the schools here. And the one - the people who might try are the NAACP leadership with court cases. So they began killing off some of that leadership. It was in Belzoni, and Gus Courts there also in Belzoni. There was a whole string of them that went down during the '50s.

GROSS: So you were operating in a climate of repression and intimidation and violence.

MOSES: Right. Right.

GROSS: What would you use - what would you do to convince people that it was worth the risk to try to register?

MOSES: Well, I think people's backs were up against the wall. So there was a consensus that we all ought to try to register. And then not that we all - well, that it should be done. And then the question was, well, who are the people who are ready to step out? Now, one of the things was our accompanying them to the registration office. So in those areas where people felt more at home going down there if we accompanied them, we did. And that's - the registration office became the scene of little battles. In Walthall County, the sheriff pistol-whipped John Hardy when he brought some people in. And then, in Amite County, they had some guys who came and jumped on me when I accompanied some people down to register in Liberty.

GROSS: When you accompanied people to register to vote and you got into the registrar's office, what were the typical obstacles that you'd face?

MOSES: Well, the delaying tactics. So they would take one person at a time. And, you know, they would just drag it out. And then the people had to fill out some section of the Constitution and interpret it. So they would give them some very difficult passage to read and to write about. And so - and then there would be some intimidations. Usually, you would have law enforcement officers and highway patrolmen, you know, sort of walking in and out. And so it would be a sort of intimidating atmosphere a lot of times. Then you would also have ordinary citizens coming in. And sometimes, they would talk to people, you know, to try to intimidate them.

GROSS: What would you do to make it clear that you couldn't be intimidated, and especially when people are trying to intimidate others through...

MOSES: Well, mostly, we just kept coming back.

GROSS: Yeah. Right. Right.

MOSES: I mean, that - I mean, I guess that was the bottom line, that is that, OK, whatever you do. You know, we - you knock us down. And we get back up. And we come back. So that was basically it.

GROSS: You were more educated, I'm sure, than the authorities who were standing in your way in Mississippi. Did you ever use that as a credential to intimidate them?

MOSES: I didn't do a lot of talking, of course. And this is one of the issues, you know, because the - one of the first things is to let you know that you are not to talk, right? And I didn't really push that. And, I think, here, you're dealing with real personality, you know, dimensions, because I just - in my own way of reacting, I tended to sort of go into myself and find in myself some kind of core, which then I tried to project.

GROSS: That's the kind of thing that's sometimes interpreted as a sign of weakness.

MOSES: I don't know. It depends, I guess. There's a way of sort of projecting how you feel in terms of confidence in just stillness, you know, so that you're not rattled.

GROSS: But you said that the thing was not to talk. Why?

MOSES: Well, they - because, the talking - the first thing about talking is whether you're going to say, sir.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

MOSES: So that's the first line of the battle. So as soon as you open your mouth, then they're going to want to say, you know, sir, you know? What did you say? Did you - you know, they want you to say sir to them. So you can hardly get a conversation off the ground.

GROSS: Were there tremendous acts of courage that you witnessed in Mississippi?

MOSES: Yeah, I think there were a lot of acts of courage. And some of them, you know, were small in one sense. There were a group of ladies when we were in jail in McComb who took it upon themselves to deliver food to us every day. They cooked it themselves, and they delivered it. And about 16 of us there in jail. And, of course, in doing that, they were branded, right? So - and later, one of them had her house bombed. So there were a lot of those kind of things happening.

And then, of course, there - people were murdered. Louis Allen witnessed a murder. And Herbert Lee, who was one of the farmers working with us, got gunned down at the cotton gin there in Liberty, the same place where I had gotten beaten. And Louis Allen saw it. And so the issue of testifying before the justice of peace, the jury that they pulled together there and of giving his testimony to the federal government - and the Justice Department saying, well, there's no way we can give you any protection. And because of that, he suffered - you know, he got his jaw broken by one of the policemen down there. They put him in and out of jail over a couple years. And finally, they killed him. They drove up onto his front lawn one day and just, you know, blasted him away.

And he sort of lived that, really, on his own for over a couple of years 'cause Herbert Lee was killed in '61, and Louis Allen was shot down in the beginning of '64. And it was really his death which really turned the corner about having the Mississippi Freedom Summer. It's like we had come full circle. And we weren't able to do anything in response to Herbert Lee's murder, but we were in position to do something when Louis Allen was gunned down.

GROSS: When people were murdered in Mississippi, people in the civil rights movement from Mississippi or people from outside who'd come down to work there like Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, was it a personal crisis for you, too?

MOSES: Yeah. And Herbert Lee was the first person that we were working with very closely who was murdered. And that was in the first summer when we went down. And I guess the only way in which we could sort of live through it was to say, well, we're going to live our lives and go through the same kind of danger that led to his being murdered. And so we're not asking other people to do what we are not also daily doing. And that's how, from my point of view, I got through it.

BIANCULLI: Bob Moses speaking to Terry Gross in 1993. The pioneer civil rights activist died last Sunday at age 86. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews two new solo albums by two tenor saxophonist recorded during the COVID quarantine. This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.