We welcome to the blog a guest post by Laura Visser-Maessen, author of Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots. One of the most influential leaders in the civil rights movement, Robert Parris Moses was essential in making Mississippi a central battleground state in the fight for voting rights. As a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Moses presented himself as a mere facilitator of grassroots activism rather than a charismatic figure like Martin Luther King Jr. Examining the dilemmas of a leader who worked to cultivate local leadership, Visser-Maessen explores the intellectual underpinnings of Moses’s strategy, its achievements, and its struggles.
In a previous post, Visser-Maessen compared top-down and bottom-up forms of social change. In today’s post, Visser-Maessen makes a connection between religious and racial terrorism, exploring how the Civil Rights activism by Robert Parris Moses in Mississippi during the 1960s can inform current terrorism debates in the United States.
Paris is only a five-hour drive from my home in the Netherlands. I have strolled its streets many times, undoubtedly including those covered in blood after the November 2015 attacks. I have also passed through San Bernardino, California, and have stood regularly at the former World Trade Center site. Yet as I commemorate those victims of religious terrorism, I cannot but remember my meetings with black civil rights activist Bob Moses and his colleagues of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Their haunting tales of life in Mississippi in the 1960s wryly challenge some politicians’ and media pundits’ current claim to exclusivity for the term “terrorism” only in relation to Islam, reminding us that the most bloody and consistent trajectory of terrorism in the United States occurred under the banner of white supremacy.
When Moses initiated the 1964 Freedom Summer, a massive state-wide civil rights campaign aided by hundreds of northern white volunteers, he had been struggling for nearly four years to communicate to the nation the violent atrocities that were committed against its black citizens in the Deep South.
Moses too was savagely beaten, once when he escorted a black voter registrant to the courthouse in a town with the ironic name of Liberty, and once in McComb as he tried to protect his white “race traitor” SNCC colleague Bob Zellner from a furious white mob. He had to identify the body of Herbert Lee, a black farmer who attended his voter registration classes and was murdered as a penalty. Louis Allen, whom Moses reluctantly counseled to uphold his coerced witness testimony that Lee was killed in self-defense, was nonetheless assassinated after the FBI, in cahoots with local authorities, got wind of Allen’s wavering. In 1963, thirteen bullets pierced Moses’s car, nearly killing his coworker Jimmy Travis who sat next to him, in an orchestrated drive-by shooting on a Greenwood highway.
Between the 1963 March on Washington and Freedom Summer, Moses recorded 175 cross burnings. Shootings and bombings of black churches, businesses, and homes likewise reached record numbers. Among the dozens of black bodies that popped up he emphasized three whose deaths were ruled the result of carbon monoxide—although two had gunshot wounds and one a broken neck. Membership in the KKK, Citizens Councils, and other white supremacist organizations soared. The newly formed White Knights of the KKK urged its members—6,000 within four months—to form “swift and extremely violent” covert groups which could instantly “destroy and disrupt [our enemy’s] leadership.” But Moses could not get the news out, nor the nation to commit its vast resources to the eradication of these crimes.
Until the victims were white. Journalists flocked to Mississippi after the disappearance and murder of white activists Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and black activist James Chaney. As Freedom Summer progressed, journalists eagerly broadcast the countless false arrests, beatings, and bombings (over twenty in McComb alone) that beset movement workers and volunteers. They covered every inch of the trio’s case—from the 400 Marines dragging the swamps for their bodies (although the “bonus” discovery of the bodies of three black students missing since 1963 received little attention), the revelation of local authorities’ complicity in the murders, and President Johnson’s meeting with Schwerner’s and Goodman’s parents, to the hundred FBI men sent to the state who eventually cracked the case and broke up the Klan.
When recounting how the large-scale organized and state-sponsored racial terrorism that characterized most of the twentieth century was eradicated, it is impossible to ignore Freedom Summer. Yet as shocking and important as its story is, perhaps its main significance lies in why it was needed and, as Moses told the summer volunteers, how it is that no one cares to know that Harvard University, which many of them called home, was also the largest stockholder in the holding company for Mississippi Power and Light, then “one of the most powerful forces in the state, on whose board [sat] several White Citizens Council leaders.”
“Mississippi is a mirror to America,” Moses once said, and this holds true today. This is not to say that many who rail against religious terrorism are not equally repulsed by racial terrorism. Yet as politicians and media pundits debate terrorism in American society today, they should be wary to address the issue through the complex and totalizing perspective of history rather than one-sided examples in which their audiences might find tacit approval to overemphasize the first kind of terrorism, or worse, use it to justify the second. Moses’s experiences in Mississippi remind us of everyone’s complicity in the crimes of a nation and the dangers in assigning hierarchy in death.
Laura Visser-Maessen is assistant professor in American studies at Utrecht University. Her book Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots is now available.