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The Children Bob Moses Led
By William Heath
In those days I believed that America could be made safe for democracy, from the grassroots up, with just a little help from me and my friends. And so I served as a summer soldier to fight for civil rights. We were neophytes who thought that we could redeem our nation by holding hands and singing freedom songs. But when you toe the asphalt, stick out your thumb, and become a hitchhiker of history, currents beyond your control sweep you to destinations not of your devising. By the time I left the Movement, the world had not changed much, but at least I had not sat on the sidelines with the lip-service liberals; rather I had become my own contemporary and acted on my ideals. I had gone in search of America, and myself. What I found was Mississippi.
During the summer of 1963 I worked at a tennis camp in the Adirondacks for Jewish kids from Long Island. "We're from Great Neck," they used to chant, "couldn't be prouder. If you don't believe us, we'll buy you out!" Each cabin counselor was a college tennis player, and we spent long afternoons shouting "Racquet back; eye on the ball!" to our awkward pupils. They practiced hard, whether to satisfy their own dreams of athletic prowess or to please their parents, but only a few displayed the skills to excel.
The boy I remember best was a manic perfectionist who sometimes flipped out when he failed. Mostly he was quiet and kept to himself, speaking in soft monosyllables and rarely smiling. Asked to make his bed or to police the grounds for inspection, he did it impeccably: a dime bounced on his taut sheets and all the gum wrappers were gone. He used to sit on the front steps of the cabin strumming the same folk tune by the hour, until some web-footed demon in his fingers slipped up. I found his guitar, back broken, left for dead in the weeds. Once, during a softball game, when a pitch caught the inside corner of the plate and I called him out on strikes, he whirled, white-eyed, and swung for my skull.
Palm Sunday (our name for parents' weekend) came in mid-July that year. The moms and dads pontooned up to the dock in their own seaplanes or parked swank machines on the outfield grass. The rule was no tipping. (Ten spots changed hands on the sly, a small offering to redeem a boy's second serve or forgive his faults.) That evening at the intracamp basketball game, the parents protected themselves from the splinters in the bleachers by sitting on foxes and mink, on Scottish tweed, ready to praise the least sign of grace in their ungainly offspring. As referee, my job was to spot infractions. "Two shots," I shouted, "in the act," raising two fingers and pointing out the culprit, my camper. When I turned toward the foul line, he suddenly pounced on my back and clamped my throat with a merciless grip, which I unpried, smiling, while the parents smiled back: boys will be boys. At the bench he wept and pleaded, "I didn't do it! I didn't do it!" He left the next day. I said good-bye to the family: his mother, face salvaged by plastic surgery, her bouffant living a peroxide life of its own; the father, pudgy and puzzled; and the son, grinning. I watched them walk down to the dock; their plane skimmed the lake, gathering speed, and
ascended into heaven.
I couldn't help identifying with that boy who wanted to be perfect. I didn't have his fits of violence, but I fell into moody brooding and self-pity when life didn't meet my expectations. I wanted to be a top tennis player, but I had only made the Hiram team as a sophomore, and the moves I brought to the game were better suited to basketball: I had quick hands, covered a lot of court, and my best stroke was a kind of walk-on-air leaping lunge that resembled a fallaway jump shot more than an overhead smash. At Camp Idylwold I soon realized that I was out of my league. Most of the other counselors beat me decisively, and the camp pro, Joe Fishback, demolished me. No matter how hard I hit the ball, he returned it with ease, and the wonder of it was, I never saw him run. He seemed to be waiting at the exact spot long before even my most sharply angled shots arrived. At the end of the match I slammed my racquet to the ground, and to make my humiliation complete, it bounced back up and smacked me in the face.
Nothing had gone the way I wanted that summer. My tennis game improved, but not as much as I had wished. When my girlfriend, Michelle, arrived unexpectedly, and the whole camp stood on the hillside cheering as I shouldered my sleeping bag and walked toward her car, I learned that she had come not because she wanted my body but because she had decided to go to Africa with the Peace Corps and was bound for Dartmouth to study Swahili. I'd been jilted before, but never by a continent.
Two weeks later I received letters from both my parents, bearing different addresses. "Your mother and I have decided to separate," my dad wrote, and he added with characteristic elusiveness, "I can't tell you how much I loved that house. Don't think for a minute I didn't hate to leave, but it got to a point where I couldn't stand it any more." I knew that was all he'd ever say, and for a moment I saw the stone fireplace and oak bookcases he had constructed with his own hands, and I wondered if he loved those better than he loved me. After years of listening to Mom's monologues and Dad's silences, I was not surprised. I thought of the photos of them when they were my age. He was a six-foot-two, well-muscled track star, and she a bright and patrician lawyer's daughter: an all-American couple walking arm-in-arm across the Oberlin campus with the world before them.
I had planned to drive straight back to Ohio as soon as camp closed, but I felt bitter and betrayed, as if they had staged all this just to hurt my feelings. I have no home, I thought, I'm on my own. I called my friend Lenny Swift in Washington. I admired his unflappable cool, his smart remarks at the passing scene; he could always make me laugh. Lenny had a heart, but he never wore it on his sleeve, and I found comfort in his caustic wit. He urged me to come to D.C. and join him for the March on Washington. That sounded like fun to me, especially after Lenny told me that Bob Dylan and Joan Baez would be singing. On the way, I decided to stop off in New York to scout out a suitable garret in Greenwich Village. Like most people my age I was auditioning identities: I saw myself at the time as something of a dandy, an aristocratic Q flaunting his foppish tail at the monotonous world of Os. Rather than go to graduate school as my favorite history professor had urged, I resolved to become a famous writer. I had read enough Jack Kerouac to assume that the place to find Real Life was with the hoboes huddled around flaming trash cans and the dark-skinned folk who worked the fields and sang the blues. I would write about them, the
down-and-out and dispossessed, and when I returned to my hometown with a best-seller to my credit, a sheaf of rave reviews in my pocket, and an exotic beauty on my arm, the local yokels would go slackjawed with desire and Michelle would bite her lip in envy. That was my American Dream, the I-told-you-so fantasy of a callow know-it-all who was a stranger to himself. That was before I met Bob Moses.
McComb and Liberty, Mississippi
I am Bob Moses. I first came to McComb in August of 1961 with a simple purpose: to break the Solid South by applying pressure at its strongest point. I sought out the worst part of the most intransigent state, placed myself on the charity of the black community, located a few brave souls who would support civil rights workers, and set up a voter registration school. If enough people could find the courage to go down to the courthouse, confronting the system designed to oppress them, then blacks all over the South would take heart, the country would take notice, and maybe, one hundred years too late, the federal government would take action. Was my effort a success? I would be reluctant to say that. When I started out, I hoped that no one would be killed.
A few years earlier I was headed down a different path. With an M.A. in philosophy from Harvard and a job teaching mathematics at the prestigious Horace Mann School in Riverdale, New York, I was a part of what W. E. B. DuBois termed "the talented tenth"--a black man who could succeed in the white world playing by white rules. I had had an elitist education since I was eleven, passing a citywide competitive exam to attend Stuyvesant High School in downtown Manhattan. President of my senior class, I received an academic scholarship to Hamilton, where I was one of three black students at the college.
It was at Hamilton, thanks to my French professor, that I discovered Camus. I read The Rebel and The Plague and began asking hard political questions: "Can revolution be humane?" "Can the `victim' overthrow the `executioner' without assuming his office?" For a time I believed that the only change worth working for was a change of heart, and so I joined a group of campus Pentecostals who traveled on weekends to Times Square to testify to the coming of the Kingdom. I considered becoming a preacher like my grandfather, but my father had his doubts. "That's not just any job," he said. "You've got to be called."
The pacifism of the Society of Friends also impressed me. One summer I attended an American Friends Service Committee international work camp in France, where I met people who had been part of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation. The following summer I went to Japan, where I helped build wooden steps up a slippery hillside for the children of a nearby mental hospital. Before I flew home, a Zen Buddhist monk invited me to spend a week at his home. Through my travels and study I learned to think before I spoke and to mean what I said, but I wasn't the serious brooder people took me for. What I loved best about the Quakers was their folk dancing and hootenannies. Back in my room I listened to Odetta, and out on a date I would strut down Amsterdam Avenue whistling show tunes.
In the fall of 1956 I began graduate work in philosophy at Harvard. I was convinced that the analytic method, with its insistence on clarity and precision, represented a significant advance in thought. Previous philosophers had relied on metaphor and rhetoric to make muddy water appear deep. I sat in the back of the class during Paul Tillich's lectures, shaking my head and muttering, "It's all poetry." More to my taste was Wittgenstein's axiom: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." If philosophy could streamline its language and define its terms, then it could attain the accuracy of mathematics with its postulates and proofs. Before long, however, I tired of thinking about thinking and the meaning of meaning. In that remote realm of tautologies, indexes, and
absurds, I was in danger of forgetting that the meaning of life was no abstract speculation but my immediate and concrete concern. I returned to Camus's dictum "I rebel, therefore we exist" and to Lao-tse, who taught that the way to wisdom consists in living one life well--starting small, a step at a time, with what is near, with what is at hand.
Then in the spring of 1958 my forty-three-year-old mother died of cancer; my father was so distraught he had to be hospitalized at Bellevue for several months. I dropped out of Harvard, accepted a job teaching math at Horace Mann High School, and moved back to Harlem to look after him. My father and I had always been close; we used to have long talks about what America denied and offered. Like many of his generation, he had been hamstrung by the depression. Intelligent, articulate, and handsome, he sacrificed his talents for the sake of his family, accepting a low-paying job as a security guard at Harlem's 369th Division Armory. He and my mother scrimped and saved to ensure that my brothers and I would get ahead. The stress and strain took their toll: my mother once suffered a minor breakdown, and my father would sometimes slip into fantasies that his name was not Gregory Moses but Gary Cooper--a man brave enough, in spite of his cowardly town, to stand up for what was right.
My only civil rights activity at that time was to participate in the Youth March for Integrated Schools that Bayard Rustin sponsored in Washington. Then, one day in February 1960, I saw a picture in the New York Times of the sit-ins that had just begun in Greensboro, North Carolina: a row of neatly dressed black students sat at a Woolworth's lunch counter, while a crowd of white toughs in duck-tails and sleeveless T-shirts waved a Confederate flag and shouted at their backs. Some of the students tried to read books, others stared calmly at the camera. I was struck to the core by the determination on their faces. They weren't cowed, and they weren't apathetic--they meant to finish what they had begun. Here was something that could be done. I simply had to get involved.
Over spring break, I visited my father's brother, a teacher at Hampton Institute in Virginia. One day I saw some students picketing stores in Newport News. I slipped into the line of march and suddenly felt a great release. All my life I had repressed my resentments and played it cool. Now the sense of affirmation and the surge of energy that came from this mere gesture at protesting were exhilarating. I had had a taste of action and wanted more. That evening I went to a mass meeting where Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference spoke. He talked about the need to collect money to defend the Reverend Martin Luther King from legal harassment, mentioning that Bayard Rustin was directing a fund drive in New York.
When I got back to Harlem, I volunteered my services to the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King, and so every day after school, I devoted time to organizing a Harry Belafonte fundraising rally at the armory where my father worked. But I didn't feel right licking envelopes while others were putting their lives on the line. I confided my discontent to Bayard Rustin, whose advice I respected.
"Go down to Atlanta, Bob," he told me. "I'll write to Ella Baker to tell her you're coming. She and Martin will find something for you to do."
As soon as my teaching duties were over for the summer, I packed my bags and took a bus headed south.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference office wasn't much: a small room, three women, three desks, three telephones. They were in the midst of a voter registration project and wanted me to do the same boring tasks I had done in New York. I soon found myself talking a lot to Jane Stembridge, a short, peppy blond with piercing blue eyes, a fiery spirit, and a crazy haystack of unruly hair. She was a southern girl, a minister's daughter, who had left Union Theological Seminary to become the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee's first executive secretary, a job she carried out with dispatch from her
desk stuck in a corner of the SCLC office. We spent animated afternoons discussing Kant's categorical imperative, Tillich's ultimate concern, Sartre's terrible
freedom, and Camus's authentic versus inauthentic existence. More pressing were our debates about the civil rights tactics of Martin Luther King and the
SCLC, which we called "Slick." They were in the process of replacing Ella Baker with Wyatt Tee Walker--part of a larger plan to promote Dr. King as the leader and spokesman of the black revolt. Jane and I thought the whole approach was too hero-worshipping, media-centered, preacher-dominated, and authoritarian. We agreed with Ella Baker, the midwife of SNCC, which we called "Snick," who had very definite ideas about organizing. She believed that the Movement ought to seek out the small farmers, sharecroppers, and plantation workers and start building at the grassroots instead of posturing in front of cameras. Jane suggested that I should make a field trip to the Deep South to recruit students for an upcoming SNCC conference in October. I would pay my own way and see for myself what conditions were like.
At this time I wasn't even on the SNCC staff. In fact, several of the SNCC people in Atlanta eyed me with suspicion. Who was this soft-spoken guy in horn-rimmed glasses with a Harvard degree? Why would someone so well educated (and with that name!) just happen to show up from New York? Was he an FBI spy? A Communist agent provocateur? Although I never tried to impose my views, from the start I made it clear that I thought the Movement in America was part of a larger world picture. Ella Baker, whose impact on all of us was enormous, argued that what we were after was much more than equal access to greasy burgers at the five-and-dime. That didn't stop me, however, from joining any picket line I saw. I marched for hours with Julian Bond and the other Atlanta University students in front of a local A&P that served mostly blacks but refused to hire even one. Another time I was arrested while picketing for the Southern Conference Educational Fund.
"How did you get involved with the SCEF?" Julian asked.
"I heard about it at a lecture."
"Ramifications of Goedel's Theorem."
"Oh," he said, raising one eyebrow.
As a result of my arrest, Martin Luther King summoned me to his study at Ebenezer Baptist Church. I knew that some people in SNCC had been expressing doubts about me to King; he wanted to see for himself. Face to face, I felt less in the presence of a national symbol than of a troubled man a few inche shorter than I was and a few years older. After some painful silences and a smattering of small talk, King finally said, "We have to be careful. The FBI thinks the whole Civil Rights Movement is a Communist plot. I'd advise against picketing with the SCEF."
I didn't like his advice, but I took it. Then I changed the subject. Could I move my operations for the SCLC over to the Butler Street YMCA where I was staying? "Of course, of course," King answered, and we parted on that cordial note of agreement.
When Ella Baker heard about my visit to Ebenezer, she was upset.
"Why, Martin himself is friends with Anne and Carl Braden and several of the other SCEF people. What right does he have to tell you to stay away from them?"
"It doesn't matter," I said. "I'm heading south in a few days anyway." "Well, I wish I could join you. Wyatt Walker just evicted Jane from the SCLC office, and I'm being sent to New York. When you get to Mississippi, make sure you talk to Amzie Moore. Before I leave I'll give you his address, and I'm going to give those snooty Atlanta students a piece of my mind about the dangers of red-baiting. I won't have that. When I've finished with them, they won't say another word against you, Robert."
The next day Julian came by and apologized. I told him about my plan to tour the South. "So `Moses' is finally going to Mississippi," he said, inspecting my face for signs of insanity. "I wish you luck."
One day in late August I knocked on the door to Amzie Moore's house in Cleveland, Mississippi. He was an NAACP organizer who had been working to change things in the Delta ever since he came home from World War II. The floodlights that radiated out from his brick house and the rifle he held on his lap as we talked testified to how precarious his position was. But he was dug in like a tree by the water and determined to defend himself. A strong, broad-shouldered man who looked like he could handle himself in a fight, Amzie made me welcome immediately, and for a week, we reconnoitered the area and discussed strategy. We went from shack to
shack, and he showed me scenes that I'll never forget: children with swollen ankles, bloated bellies, and suppurating sores; children whose one meal a day was grits and gravy; children who didn't know the taste of milk, meat, fruits, or vegetables; children who drank contaminated water from a distant well, slept five in a bed, and didn't have the energy to brush the flies from their faces. We were in the Delta, but it might as well have been Haiti.
"What can be done?" he asked me simply.
I mentioned the sit-ins and demonstrations going on elsewhere.
"No. No. That won't work here. They'd squash that like a bug and nothin' more would be heard. It's the politicians who control things in this state. If you can hurt them, things will change. The key is the vote."
Amzie convinced me that the best tactic was not to attack segregation head-on, but to focus exclusively on voter registration. Unlike the other NAACP leaders I had met, he was enthusiastic about bringing in SNCC workers and recruiting local students to help.
"It's the young people who are gonna carry this thing through," he said. "The adults are too afraid. But if the students show enough courage and
commitment, they'll back them up."
Amzie showed me a booklet put out by the Southern Regional Council that outlined the voting situation. Mississippi, as usual, was the worst: although 40 percent of the state was black, only 5 percent of those eligible were registered, and most didn't dare vote. We taped a map of Mississippi on the wall and hauled out Amzie's old Underwood. He extemporized on life in the Delta while I typed up a rough draft of a voter registration project to present to SNCC. A few years earlier, Amzie and a Catholic priest in Mound Bayou--Father John Lebouvre--had set up a voting school in his church. That would be our model. We would run off copies of the state constitution, and SNCC workers would teach the local people how to register. We knew we faced a tough, dangerous job, but my eyes gleamed with the vision of thousands of black people descending on local courthouses and gaining control of the Delta. "Don't get starry-eyed," Amzie would caution. "Things are gonna get real ugly round here before they get pretty. I've seen how mean these whites folks can be."
At the conference in October, Amzie Moore outlined our voter registration proposal. SNCC, which could never resist a dare or a challenge, was impressed with Amzie's presentation and decided to go ahead. I was named director of a voter registration project to start the following summer.
I taught one more year at Horace Mann, saving as much money as I could for what was ahead. Each night I read up on the South, studied the Mississippi constitution and maps of the state, planned, meditated, and then, before going to bed, listened to Odetta sing "I'm Going Back to the Red Clay Country."
When summer came, I returned to Mississippi, but it looked like the project wouldn't get off the ground. SNCC was in disarray over the question of whether voter registration wasn't a diversion from "direct action" demonstrations against segregation; Amzie was swamped with personal problems. Then a letter came from Curtis Bryant in McComb. He had read about SNCC's voter registration plans in Jet and wanted us to set up a project in Pike County.
"White folks around here are really upset about these Freedom Riders," Amzie said. "Maybe things down there won't be so tight."
So one day in early August I moved my base of operations to McComb, a tough railroad town in the southwestern part of the state.
Bryant, a brusque, energetic man with a high-pitched voice and a warm handshake, was one of the stalwarts of the Movement. He ran a barbershop in front of his house in Baertown, a small black community the city fathers had deliberately zoned outside the town limits. He also operated a loading crane for the Illinois Central, whose tracks, along with the Gulf, Western&Ohio, cut right through the heart of McComb. On the west side of town were paved streets; a few blocks of retail stores, and the white suburbs, spread out under a canopy of shade trees and embroidered with flowers. On the east, Burgland, the all-black town with its shabby stores, ramshackle houses, and dirt roads. The general air of grinding poverty was broken by the occasional brick house of somebody who worked for the railroad.
Bryant took me in and introduced me to as many people as he could. "This is my friend, Bob Moses," he'd say. "He's here to help us, so I want you to help him." Ernest Nobles, who ran the local laundry, said he'd keep me looking good; Aylene Quin promised food at her restaurant; Mama Cotton provided housing; and Webb Owens, "Supercool Daddy," volunteered to go door-to-door with me to raise money for the Freedom School.
At first, children stopped playing hopscotch and huddled together as I walked by "He's a Freedom Rider," they whispered. Their wary parents would pass me on the road without meeting my eyes, but I could feel their stares and questions jabbing into my back. Many were frightened; I meant nothing but trouble. I would tell them, "Get ready, the Movement is coming your way," but that wasn't anything they wanted to hear. One man stooped down behind the tomato plants in his garden to avoid me. Another time, a little girl came to the front door and said, "Mama say she not here."
It was hard work, but a few listened. I would take out a registration form and ask, "Have you ever filled one of these out?" They would shake their heads and look uneasy. Voting was white folks' business. "Would you like to sit down now and try?" I would encourage them to imagine themselves at the county courthouse in Magnolia actually answering the twenty-one questions, interpreting a section of the Mississippi Constitution, and stating in a paragraph the duties and obligations of citizenship. Whether they passed or not was at the discretion of the registrar, whose job was to see that they didn't.
People listened and gave what they could--a nickle, a dime, a quarter--to support a handful of SNCC workers. Soon I was joined by John Hardy, Reggie Robinson, Travis Britt, and a few others who had been in jail in Jackson for taking part in the Freedom Rides. Also, several of the local students got involved. One in particular, Brenda Travis, always brighteyed and brimming with questions, would sit on a family's porch talking to them for hours if necessary until they were convinced of the need to register. Thanks to Curtis Bryant, who, in addition to being head of the local NAACP, a deacon in his church, a Sunday school teacher, and a scoutmaster, was also a high official in the Freemasons, we were able to set up a Freedom School in the Masonic Hall over the Burgland grocery store. Saint Paul's Methodist Church, across the street, agreed to let us hold meetings there too.
One day in early August I was at the Freedom School preparing for class when a slim, serious-faced young man, who was about twenty, came in. He scrutinized me with wide-eyed intensity.
"Are you Martin Luther King?"
"No. I'm Bob Moses. Why did you think I was King?"
"I heard talk about some big secret thing goin' on, so I come to see for myself "
"Where are you from?"
"What's your name?"
"Are you in school?"
"No. But I got plans.
"I've got plans too. "
I told him about the voter registration project, and even though I wasn't Martin Luther King, he wanted to help. His friend Curtis Hayes would help too. They began to recruit. People relate to them as the sons of local farmers who dressed and acted in down-home ways. I soon learned to scrap my suit and tie for boots, bib overalls, and a chambray shirt; the other SNCC workers did the same. Those of us from the North learned to slow down to the rhythms of the South.
The people flocked to our school. When we explained the power of the vote, they squirmed in their chairs and glanced at each other. One heavyset woman up front fanned herself harder every time I mentioned the word freedom. Within a few days we sent several students to the Pike County courthouse in Magnolia. When they learned that they had passed, we held a party that lasted long into the night. It seemed for the moment as if everything would be easy. Then the local paper, the Enterprise-Journal, ran an article on what we were trying to do. Whites became alarmed. The next day, the registrar rejected our students, and that evening one of them, in an incident apparently unrelated to voter registration, was shot at. As the news spread, I noted the panic in people's eyes; they saw a connection. Fewer and fewer came to the Freedom School.
Meanwhile, farmers in nearby Amite and Walthall counties heard about SNCC and asked if we could help them, too. As dangerous as McComb was, the surrounding areas, with long histories of violence, were much worse. In Amite only one black was registered; in Walthall, none. If we had serious difficulties in McComb, what chance did we have in those places? But I knew that if we turned down the farmers, we would lose the trust and destroy the hope of the people. If we shied away from the toughest areas, everyone would know we could be intimidated, and the fragile project would fall apart. We decided that John Hardy should take on Walthall while I went into Amite, a name that meant "friendship" in French and "trouble" to me.
© 1996 William Heath