Excerpt from The Making of Black Revolutionaries
by James Forman
“Bob Moses wrote, in a field report from McComb:
On Tuesday, August 29, 1961, we made our third attempt at registration in Amite County. I accompanied two people down to the registrar’s office...we were to meet Alfred Knox on the courthouse lawn. However, Knox as not there and we had to walk through town looking for him. We found him at the east end of town, by the post office, and were walking back to the registrar’s office when we were approached by three young white men.
They came up, stopped, and the fellow who was in the lead asked me what I was trying to do? Before I could answer he began to beat - hit at me. I covered my head and I was kneeling on the ground with my head covered and he was beating me for I don’t know how long.
He finally stopped and I got up and walked over to the registrar’s office, to the sheriff’s office, and asked the sheriff if he couldn’t swear out a warrant against him. He said that the couldn’t since I wasn’t sure whether or not he had an instrument that he was using to do the beating...
The registrar had left. So we came back to Steptoe’s where I had the wounds cleaned. (My shirt was very bloody and I figured that if we went back in the courthouse we would probably frighten everybody, so we went to Steptoe’s) Then we went over to McComb where the doctor had to take nine stitches in three different places in the scalp.
Two days later we went back to press charges. The State of Mississippi had to prosecute, and that day they had a very quick six-man Justice of the Peace jury. Dawson and Knox and myself all testified, but the white defendant was found innocent and the case was dismissed.
...It was Mississippi, that’s all-for some, just to say the name of the state is to tell the whole story.
It Mississippi: The state which had led the Southern drive to take back from black people the vote and other civil rights won during Reconstruction, the state which had reduced the number of registered black voters from 190,000 in 1890 to 8,600 in 1892, through a combination of new laws, tricks, and murder. It was Mississippi, with a larger proportion of blacks than any other state and the lowest proportion -only 5 percent-of eligible blacks registered to vote. It was Mississippi, birthplace of the White Citizens’ Council - a white-collar version of the Ku Klux Klan. It was Mississippi, where years of terror, economic intimidation, and a total, grinding, day-in,day-out white racism had created a black population numb with fear and hopelessness-yet still able from time to time to produce individuals in whom the spirit of rebellion lived.
It was to Mississippi that Bob Moses...While in Atlanta (working in the SNCC office) Moses had been sent out to get people from Deep South areas to attend a full SNCC meeting in the fall of 1961. On that field trip,
he talked with Amzie Moore of Cleveland, Mississippi, one of those individuals who had survived and defied tyranny. Amzie Moore felt that a campaign to register black voters would break the isolation of black Mississippians... He convinced Moses of this, and together they laid plans for a voter registration drive to begin that summer.
But, when Moses had returned to Cleveland, he found it impossible to get the project going-no location, no equipment, no funds became available. Meanwhile, however, a man named C.C. Bryant-head of the NAACP chapter in Pike County, where McComb is located- had learned of the proposed registration project and written to Moses, inviting him to come to McComb to start a similar project. Amzie Moore and Moses traveled to McComb and found that it had better facilities. It was decided to make the experiment in that town.
McComb was Mississippi, no doubt about it: A village sitting
down there in the southwestern part of the state, Klan country, with a
long history of violence and oppression. In Pike County, two hundred of about eight thousand eligible blacks were registered in 1960; in nearby Amite, out of nearly five thousand eligible blacks, there was exactly one registered. And in Walthall County, out of three thousand blacks over twenty one, none was registered.
...On August 6 or 7, 1961, Moses, John Hardy and Reggie Robinson opened SNCC’s first voter registration school in Mississippi. The school operated in a two-story, combination cinder block and paintless wood structure which housed a grocery store on the street level and a Masonic meeting hall above it. It was located in Burglundtown, the black section of McComb. There, from 9:00am to 9:00pm, people could learn to fill out the intentionally difficult voter registration form. This meant having people read and interpret different sections of the Mississippi Constitution and describe the duties and obligations of a citizen.
...Around the middle of August, John Hardy and two other SNCC workers went into Walthall to start voter registration activities. They also made the first attempt to take people down to the courthouse in Liberty-the seat of Amite County to register. This is Bob Mose’s report on that experience:
I (Moses) accompanied three people down to Liberty in a first registration attempt there. One was a very old man and two middle-aged ladies. We left early the morning of August 15th. It was a Tuesday. We arrived at the courthouse about 10am.The registrar came out. I waited by the side-waiting for either the farmer or one of the two ladies to say something to the registrar. He asked what they wanted; what were they here for, in very rough kind of voice. They didn’t say anything; they were literally paralyzed with fear. So, after awhile, I spoke up and said that they would like to try and register to vote. So, he asked, “Who are you and what do you have to do with them? Are you here to register?” I told him who I was and that we were conducting a school in McComb, and that these people had attended the school and they wanted an opportunity to register. “Well”, he said, “they will have to wait because there is somebody else filling out the form.” Well, there was a young white lady with her husband and she was completing the forms. When she finished, our people started to register-one at a time.
In the meantime, a procession of people began moving in and out of the office-the sheriff, a couple of his deputies, people from the Tax Office and Driver’s License Office-looking, staring, moving back out, muttering. A highway patrolman finally came in and sat down in the office and we stayed that way in sort of uneasy tension all morning.
The first person who filled out the form took a long time to do it, and it was noontime before he finished. When we came back after lunch, I was not permitted to stay in the office, but had to leave and sit on the front porch-which I did. We finished the whole process about four-thirty. All of the three people had had a chance to fill out the form.This was a victory because they had been down several times before and had not had a chance even to fill out the forms.
On the way home we were followed by the highway patrolman who had spent the day in the Registrar’s Office. He tailed us for about ten miles very closely, twenty or twenty-five feet behind us, all the way back to McComb. At one point we pulled over and he passed us and circled around and came back. We pulled off was he was passing us in the opposite direction and he turned around and followed us again. Finally, he blew us down and I got out and asked what the trouble was. The people in the car, by that time, were very, very frightened. He asked me who I was, what my business was, and told me I was interfering in what he was doing. I said, “I simply wanted to find out what the problem was and what we were being stopped for” He told me to get back into the car, and as I did so, I jotted his name down. He then opened the car door and pushed me and said, “Get in the car, Nigger,” and slammed the door after me. He then told us to follow him in the car, and took us over to McComb where I was placed under arrest.
They called up the County Prosecuting Attorney, and he came down. He and the patrolman then sat down and opened the law books to find a charge. They charged me with interfering with an officer in the process of arresting somebody. When they found out that the only person arrested was myself, they changed the charge to interfering with an officer in the discharge of his duties.”
Moses was found guilty and received a ninety-day jail sentence. It was suspended, probably because in jail he had telephoned the Justice Department (collect, and the call was accepted), told an official there that he was being intimidated simply because of trying to help people register...
...Finally they got help from E.W. Steptoe, a local NAACP president who lived in the sourthern part of Pike County and who had already helped the voter registration workers-feeding them when they had not money for food. Steptoe made plans to set up a school near his farm, and Bob Moses, together with a local worker, went to live there for a week. ...
On August 22, four more blacks went into Liberty to register and this time there was no trouble at all. People felt encouraged and another group planned to go on August 29. This was the day that Bob Moses was viciously beaten.
A first attempt at registration was made in Walthall County on August 30, and again two well-qualified applicants, included a senior political science major were found “unsatisfactory”. ...Travis Britt was the target of a new white attack when he again went to the registrar’s office. He reported:
...This conversation was interrupted by another white man who approached Bob Moses and started preaching to him-how he should be ashamed coming down here from New York stirring up trouble, causing poor innocent people to lose their jobs and homes, and how Bob was lower than dirt on the ground for doing such a thing. Bob asked why the people should lose their homes just because they wanted to register and vote. ...
...On September 7, John Hardy accompanied two persons to the registrar’s office over in Walthall County. The registrar refused the people the right to register. Said Hardy:
I entered the office to ask, “Why?” The registrar, John Woods,had seem me on one other occasion-the 30th. After telling him my name, he came out-very insultingly and boisterously-questioning my motives and reasons for being in Mississippi, and said I had no right to mess in the “Nigger’s” business , and why didn’t I go back where I came from. He reached in his drawer and ordered me out at gunpoint. As I turned to leave,he struck me over the head with the pistol.
I staggered out into the street and walked about a block. I decided to go to the Sheriff’s office to report the assault and, possible, make charges. But this was not necessary, because the sheriff found me. He told me to come with him or he would beat me “within an inch of your life”. After being put in jail (the charge was resisting arrest and inciting a riot- and later disorderly conduct) about 7:30 that night, after being interrogated at length by a city attorney,and later by the district attorney, I was taken to Magnolia Jail for “your own protection”.
...John Hardy was scheduled to be tried in Walthall and Bob Moses went with him. It was announced that the Justice Department had obtained a sty from Judge Reeves in Alabama and that the trial would be held over. As Moses and Hardy tried to leave, the white mob that had gathered grabbed John by the shirt-sleeves and threatened to kill him. They finally got out to their car, at which point a door of the vehicle stuck. A local policeman warned them that he couldn’t hold the whites back any longer. The door finally opened and they got away.
Meanwhile, the three high-school students, including sixteen-year-old Brenda Travis, were still in jail with five thousand dollars bail on each for sitting in. ...
...On September 25, Herbert Lee was killed, Herbert Lee of Liberty, black, age fifty-two, father of ten children, active in the NAACP and then in the voter registration project, was killed with a .38 pistol by Eugene Hurst, white, a state representative.
Hurst was never arrested, booked, or charged. A coroner’s inquest ruled that the killing was in self-defense and he walked out free forever.
On October 31, a dozen high school students, along with Moses, Chuck McDew and Bob Zellner were sentenced to four months in jail each. It was during this jail term that Moses wrote a moving letter which would become well known in the movement:
November 1, 1961
I am writing this note from the drunk tank of the county jail in Magnolia, Mississippi. Twelve of us are here, sprawled out along the concrete bunker:
...Later on Hollis will lead out with a clear tenor into a freedom song. Talbert and Lewis will supply jokes, and McDew will discourse on the history of the black man and the Jew. McDew, a black by birth, a jew by choice, and a revolutionary by necessity, has taken the deep hates and loves of America, and the world, reserved for those who dare to stand in a strong sun and cast a sharp shadow.
In the words of Judge Brumfield, who sentenced us, we are “cold calculators” who design to disrupt the racial harmony (harmonious since 1619) of McComb into racial strife and rioting; we, he said, are the leaders who are causing young children to be led like sheep to the pen to be slaughtered (in a legal manner). “Robert,” he was addressing me, “haven’t some of the people from your school been able to go down and register without violence here in Pike County?” I thought to myself that Southerners are exposed the most, when they boast.
It’s mealtime now: we have rice and gravy in a flat pan,dry bread and a “big town cake”; we lack eating and drinking utensils. Water comes from a faucet and goes into a hole.
This is Mississippi, the middle of the iceberg. Hollis leading off with his tenor, “Michael row the boat ashore, Alleluia; Christian brothers don’t be slow, Alleluia: Mississippi next to go, Alleluia.” This is a tremor in the middle of the iceberg-from a stone that the builders rejected.
James Forman describes time spent in jail after being part of a group arrested at the Greenwood courthouse for bringing people to register to vote:
April 2, 1963: We have been in jail one week today. Our morale is good.
...The inner cell in which we are “contained” is approximately 15’ x 12’....We are also improving our minds....We have occasional classes. Moses gave us an excellent math lecture the other day....We are always haveing discussions. ..We have had several stimulting conversations on Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience and Nkrumah’s thoughts on Positive Action....
My personal opinion as to the significance of our staying in jail follows: I am convinced that all the people connected with SNCC are busily engaged in protesting our unjust imprisonment. ...Our imprisonment serves to dramatize to the nation and to the world that the black man does not even have the right to try to be an American citizen in some parts of our so-called democracy. Our jail-without-bail may also serve to remind others in the movement of the need for some of us to stay in jail to dramatize the situation.
Upon their release from jail, Moses indicated some broad outlines of how voter registration activity should continue in Mississippi:
We have at least five forces working in Greenwood. You have the civil rights organizations that are working on this voting program and you have the Justice Department. You have the local Negro community, the local white community, and then you have the state-wide se-up of the Citizens’ Council and the political machinery. What is going on essentially is that you are fighting psychologically for the minds of the Negro people. They are being bombarded on the one hand by the local white community and the state political machinery, and on the other hand by the civil rights organizations and by the work of the Justice Department and the local FBI, such as that is .
At this point, it is not clear which way they are going to go It’s not clear whether the mass of the Negroes are going to make that decision which might jeopardize their jobs and mean considerable amount of discomfort to their families and go down to register. Or rather will we get just a small percentage. Now, we have had over five to six hundred people going down, and for us that’s a big number-that’s a big breakthrough. But there are thirteen thousand Negroes of voting age in LeFlore County. And what you need is not five hundred but five thousand going down, and whether we will reach that kind of figure depends to a large extent on what takes place in the next few weeks...
Now most of these people cannot read and write, and it forced us to make another policy decision. Our position, which we outlined to the Justice Department and which we are psychologically trying to sell to the Negro community...is that: 1) white people who are illiterate do vote in almost every county in Mississippi; 2)most of these Negroes have not had the opportunity to get a decent education, so they have been denied equal protection under the laws and...the strenuous literacy test should not apply to them; 3) the country owes them either the right to vote as a literate or the right to learn how to read and write now. It cannot take the position that the illiterate cannot vote and still have these people, who have been denied an education and who express a desire to read and write, left illiterate;...
The final thing, I think, that happens is that you get young people to get out and work. The whole question of the possibility of change in Mississippi depends upon finding the agents to produce that change. Every place in which we have worked in Mississippi, we picked up young people and began to build a nucleus of people who were spreading out across the state to work...
To my mind, it’s still not clear that we haven’t won any victories and it’s still not clear if there will be a victory. It’s still not clear to my mind, even on the voting issue, that the Negroes will gain the vote rapidly enough. The squeeze is always the automation of the cotton crops, the inability of the Negro with his poor education to adapt to new technology, and the unwillingness of the white people to train them, and the programs of the Citizens’ Council to move them (out of state). And if these programs are successful,a nd if they are moved out before gaining the right to vote and you lose the population balance which you have now, then I think we will have lost.
The country is in effect asking all white people in the Delta to do something which they don’t ask of any white people any place.. And that is to allow Negroes to vote in an area there they are educationally inferior but yet outnumber the white people and hence constitute a serious political threat. Because in every other area in the country, the Negro votes are ghettoized, the Negroes elect their leader but they don’t elect leaders to preside over what we would call a numerically inferior but educationally superior white elite. I don’t for one minute think that the country is in a position or is willing to push this down the throats of white people in the Delta, and it will have to be pushed down their throats because they are determined not to have it done.
And really the issue is: not only do you gain the right to vote, but you begin to change all of the other educational values at the same time so that you are able to present a different kind of situation...I think that we are in danger of fighting for some things which some of the black bourgeoisie will reap the benefit of.
...In February of 1965 at at SNCC staff meeting, Bob Moses announced that he was changing his name to Bob Parri-his middle name.
Although he did not explain at length his reasons for the change, it seemed clear enought that at least one of his reasons was the desire to unload the burden of charisma and influence which he had acquired as Bob Moses, and to assert a new direction for himself.