Bob Moses: A Life of Civil Rights Activism

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Bob Moses, civil rights activist and founder of The Algebra Project, died on July 25, 2021. We pay tribute to Moses and share a collection of materials from Howard Zinn’s papers and books that provide a look at Moses. We also share a video clip and transcript from the Martin Luther King Jr.: The Leader and the Legacy Forum (1986) where Moses and Zinn gave commentary on papers presented.

Bob Moses and Howard Zinn at the Martin Luther King Jr.: The Leader and the Legacy Forum (1986)

screenshot of man at podium
Bob Moses. Source: C-SPAN Video Library.

On October 15, 1986, Robert “Bob” Moses and Howard Zinn joined a stellar panel of scholars discussing Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy in Washington, D.C. The entire day’s event is available to watch at C-SPAN Video Library.

In discussing the Civil Rights Movement, Bob Moses offers the metaphor “Consider that the movement is an ocean of consciousness, protest, rebellion, organizing — fill in other things that the movement is an ocean of — and that the people in the movement are the waves on that ocean.”

He continues:

Let us shift our attention from the wave to the ocean, because the wave is not the ocean. Even if it’s a tidal wave, it has no meaning apart from that ocean. The idea is that the history, any history, of the movement, means we have to talk about its failures, its false starts, as well as its successes. We have to offer our young people an understanding of why King was assassinated, as well as why he became a Nobel Peace Prize winner. But not only King. We have to offer them an understanding of why Medgar Evers, Herbie Lee, Louis Allen, Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner, Malcolm X, those two Kennedy brothers, why all those people were assassinated from 1961 to 1971, and the point is that King’s assassination has no meaning apart from the assassinations of all those other people. You cannot understand it as an isolated event. They belong to the ocean that was the movement. That’s what has to be studied to get a deeper understanding about who and what Dr. King was.

 

Howard Zinn Documents Bob Moses’ Experience in Mississippi Helping Register People to Vote

Bob Moses is in black coat underneath street sign. Howard Zinn is third person from left. Source: Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

The following excerpt includes interviews Zinn conducted with Bob Moses in 1963. The original typed transcription can be accessed at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Freedom Summer Collection.

SNCC: The New Abolitionists, pages 66-68
by Howard Zinn

Opening page of typed transcription
Transcription of interview conducted with Bob Moses, June 20, 1963. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society.

On August 7, 1961, the first voter registration school was opened in Pike County and Negroes, in a slow release of resolve bottled up for a hundred years, began to study the complexities of registering to vote in Mississippi.

Mississippi law requires that a person wanting to vote must fill out a twenty-one-question form. He must interpret any section of the Constitution of Mississippi chosen by the registrar, who has complete authority to decide if the interpre­tation is correct — there are 285 sections in the Mississippi Constitution. But in the schools people patiently went over the questionnaire and the Constitution, and the first Negroes made the trek to the county courthouse.

Sixteen Negroes went down to the county seat of Mag­nolia to register, and six passed the test. Word got out to two neighboring counties, Amite and Walthall Counties, and people began to ask for schools in their areas. Three Negroes from Amite County—an old farmer and two middle-aged ladies—decided to go to Liberty, the county seat, to register. Bob Moses went with them.

We left early morning August 15. It was a Tuesday. We ar­rived at the courthouse about 10 o’clock. 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 them: What did they want? What were they here for? In a very rough tone of voice. They didn’t say anything. They were literally paralyzed with fear. So after a while I spoke up and said they would like to come to try to register to vote. So he asked: Who are you? What do you have to do with them? Do you want to register? I told him who I was and that we were conducting a school in McComb, and these people had attended the school, and they wanted an opportunity to register. Well, he said, they’ll have to wait . . . . Our people started to register, one at a time. In the meantime a procession of people began moving in and out of the registration office: the sheriff, a couple of his deputies, people from the far office, the people who do the drivers’ licenses — looking in, staring, moving back out, muttering. Finally finished the whole proc­ess about 4:30; all three of the people had had a chance to register — at least to fill out the form. This was a victory.

As the four drove back on the road to McComb, a high­way patrolman whom they had seen in the registration office flagged them down. Moses got out of the car to find out what was wrong and was told by the policeman to get back in. He wrote down the name of the patrolman, who then pushed him back, saying, “Get in the car, n*****,” and ordered all of them to follow him to McComb. There Moses was placed under arrest on a charge of interfering with an officer, but was given a quick trial and a suspended sentence with a five dollar fine after they heard him complaining on the telephone to the Justice Department in Washington. He described the incident later: “Well, I refused to pay . . . since I was obviously not guilty.”