Bob Moses, civil rights activist, received us to examine the tip of racism
(RNS) – The death of Bob Moses on Sunday, July 25th, at the age of 86, should halt anyone who dares to interfere in the voting rights of Americans in this country. The life of the great educator and civil rights activist in Mississippi during the turbulent and violent 1960s reminds us that there can be no nobler cause and that it attracts powerful champions.
I met Moses, 29, at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in February 1964 when I was a young rabbi serving in the B’Nai Jehudah Ward in Kansas City, Missouri. Like millions of Americans, months earlier I was deeply moved by the huge civil rights rally that drew hundreds of thousands to the Lincoln Memorial.
In February 1964, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City sent me to Hattiesburg as their official representative to participate in the Interfaith Ministers Project, which included rabbis, Presbyterian pastors, and episcopal priests from across the country. I spent a week in Mississippi supporting the city’s African Americans, who were cynically forced to pass a lengthy and drawn-out test that only a constitutional scholar could pass to systematically have them disenfranchised.
When the Hattiesburg voting rights campaign began in January, only 12 of 7,000 black voters eligible to vote were registered. By early April, the number had risen to almost 800.
The action, which was based on nonviolent direct action, consisted of marching with fellow clergy outside the Forrest County courthouse for several hours each morning demanding an end to voter suppression. In the afternoons we went door to door instructing black residents on how to register despite the burdensome restrictions placed on them. In the evenings, rabbis and Christian clergy visited various black churches, where we heard rousing music, powerful sermons and again offered help with voter registration.
ARCHIVE: Freedom Summer Volunteers inspired by more than idealism
On one of those evenings, Bob Moses got up to speak at the Morning Star Baptist. A graduate of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he had earned a master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University, but, prompted by the civil rights movement, gave up his secure apprenticeship at Horace Mann, an elite private school in New York City and traveled to Mississippi in 1960.
Moses soon became a prominent figure as the field secretary in the newly formed voter registration group, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, popularly known as “Snick”.
In February 1964 he had become a legend. He was shot while driving in a car. He had been stabbed in the head by racial desegregation, and since no white doctor would treat his wound, Moses had to be driven around until a black doctor was finally found and nine stitches were sewn into his head.
Moses gave a powerful, eloquent address at the Morning Star that evening. His face was professorial and he communicated in a soft voice, but spoke in powerful cadences about basic American suffrage. 57 years later, the memory of Moses’ great speech has the power to move me.
The next year, Moses organized the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which attracted many young volunteers, including two young Jewish men from New York City: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who followed Moses’ call to help register black voters.
That summer in Neshoba County, Mississippi, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan along with James Chaney, a young black civil rights activist. Her killers were not brought to justice until many years later.
Moses believed that quality education was another necessity to achieve a just and just society. In the 1980s, Moses organized The Algebra Project, the aim of which was to help young black students acquire proficiency in mathematics, a subject that Moses found that many African American students were very lacking.
When I returned to Kansas City, I wrote an article about my Mississippi experience that appeared in the Jewish Frontier, a national magazine. I ended the play with two predictions: There would be violence in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, and “total integration” would occur in the United States within 10 years.
Tragically, I was right about the potential for violence and far too optimistic about the end of racism in the US. It was then possible to believe it by listening to men like Moses.
May his memory and legacy always be an inspiration and challenge to all Americans.
(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the senior interfaith advisor to the American Jewish Committee and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.” He can be reached at jamesrudin.com, which is sure to reflect that of the Religion News Service. )