Robert Parris Moses was in a Greenwood, Miss., jail when he heard about Medgar Evers’ death. Mr. Moses and two other activists had been locked up for disorderly conduct as they helped Delta sharecroppers register to vote.
It was June 1963 and Mr. Evers, one of the country’s most prominent civil rights leaders, had been gunned down outside his Jackson, Miss., home. The March on Washington, a church bombing in Alabama that killed four black girls and the assassination of a young president would follow that year.
And then there was the murder of Louis Allen in early 1964. He had been the only person to come forward as a witness in the murder of Herbert Lee, a black voter registration activist who was killed by white state legislator Eugene Hurst.
“When he was murdered, all we could do was re-dedicate ourselves,” Mr. Moses, 79, said this week. “In January 1964, when Louis was murdered, we were debating whether we should try to invite the country to come and take a look at itself through its Mississippi eyes. That did it for me.”
The Mississippi Summer Project was born and Freedom Summer took root.
The Freedom Summer of 1964 marked a turning point when thousands of students descended on Mississippi to engage in voter registration, set up freedom schools and pull back the curtains on the violence and hardship going on in Mississippi.
Fifty years after that pivotal summer, Mr. Moses, a longtime summer visitor to Oak Bluffs, spoke to the Gazette about a country that has lurched forward in the fight for civil rights, but still requires much work from the next generation.
On Wednesday, Mr. Moses will participate in a panel hosted by the Advancement Project in Second Coming: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer 1964 and Why America Needs a Second Freedom Summer in 2014. Sofia Campos of United We Dream, James Hayes of the Ohio Student Association and Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, are also on the panel. The event is free and begins at 4:30 p.m. at Dreamland in Oak Bluffs.
Mr. Moses remains one of most influential figures in the Civil Rights movement.
In 1961, he was field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which launched a Mississippi voter registration project. He later helped lead the Council of Federated Organizations into the Freedom Summer.
And he helped create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which in 1964 traveled to the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City to confront the national party and its segregationist delegation from Mississippi.
“The way I look at it,” Mr. Moses said, “is we were bringing to a close a constitutional era of Jim Crow . . . the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party really pushed Jim Crow out of the national democratic structure, and the idea the whole South should be in a democratic party as an all white political entity.”
But, Mr. Moses said, removing Jim Crow from education in the United States was a different story. In the summer of 1963, Mr. Moses helped Delta sharecroppers line up at the county courthouse every day to try to register to vote, eventually leading to his arrest for disorderly conduct.
“I was on the witness stand and we had packed the courtroom with sharecroppers; Federal District Judge Claude Clayton wanted to know why we were taking illiterates to vote,” he said. “Sharecropper reading and illiteracy was at the heart of it.”
The Justice Department eventually looked at the resources provided for blacks and whites from the end of Reconstruction to 1963 “and argued the state could not use literacy as a reason [to deny voting rights] because they had not educated black people in the state,” Mr. Moses said.
Fast-forward to today: the country has made progress, but still has miles to go, he said.
“The country has a problem now,” he said. “The country is undergoing this transition from industrial to information age technology. What is happening is that the inequality, which had begun to lessen in the era after World War II, has now skyrocketed.”
In 1970, for example, 40 per cent of the top economic quartile received bachelor degrees; 40 years later that number doubled, he said. In 1970, seven per cent of the bottom quartile managed to get bachelor degrees. Forty years later, that number has only gone up to nine per cent.
“The country is in really desperate shape,” he said. “These are the real growing pains of transition into this technological era. It isn’t clear which way the country is going to lurch, whether it’s going to lurch forward or what we’re currently doing is lurching backwards. As a country, we’ve really just lurched along. This is a real problem.”
The first big lurch was getting rid of slavery, he said.
“And then the double-take of well, can we really do this? Can we really let the African American population into the actual running of the country?” he said. “The answer was no, we can’t really do that. We are still wrestling with the idea of racial superiority. We wrestled with those ideas for the next three-quarters of a century.”
Even the country’s first black president has contributed to the lurch, Mr. Moses said.
“President Obama has aligned most of his policies with the elite of the country, and he didn’t really use the presidential bully pulpit to go to the country and say, well, look, this is the situation and we need a movement from below,” he said. “He missed his opportunity on this basic issue of how do we actually close the distance between the practice and the ideals. He missed it and it’s too bad.”
Enter the Algebra Project, a Cambridge-based group that helps students who score the lowest on state mathematics tests to prepare for college-level math by the end of high school. Mr. Moses founded the nonprofit with a MacArthur Genius Grant 30 years ago.
“We are now suffering because we really haven’t paid attention to that in the public schools, except for elite public schools and private schools,” he said. “We’re really just educating students to be factory workers.”
He recalled similar attitudes during his days registering sharecroppers in the Delta.
“This, in some sense, is the object lesson from Mississippi, where the idea was these people are going to be sharecroppers and they get a sharecropper education,” he said. “You are not going to educate them for the work they are no way going to be allowed to do.”
This reality flies in the face of the American dream and the pursuit to do better, a contradiction that has persisted throughout the country’s history, Mr. Moses said.
“America has always been a country that has had a real distance between its ideals that it promotes and the practices it condones,” he said. “This is built into the original Constitution with the idea of constitutional property.”
But there is hope, he said.
“I’m thinking the generation out there now between 10 and 40 years old, 30 years from now they will be 40 to 70 and running the country,” he said. “So, I think a lot of it depends on whether that generation can begin to think through what kind of country they want to run.”
Several things need to happen for the country to move forward, Mr. Moses said, including a reaffirmed right to vote and education reform.
“We also need to lift the concept of citizenship and public school education to the level of the Constitution. We really do need a constitutional right to public school education,” he said. “Right now, young people don’t have that.”
“One thing you can say about the country is in spite of itself, it has expanded the reach of who the constitutional people are — the ‘We the People’ part of it,” Mr. Moses said. “When we started, ‘We the People’ were white men who owned property. Then we expanded it to include free slaves who were men, then women and then other kinds of minorities got status of constitutional people. But young people are not, and certainly not for the purposes of their education.”
But the expansion of rights has always been a struggle.
“It hasn’t ever come easy and some of the struggles have been devastating, but in spite of itself, we always managed to expand that. It’s dangerous now because a lot of people with a lot of money are looking to contract it,” he said. “We really need a ‘We the People’ movement, ‘We the People’ coalition which encapsulates all groups of people which stand to have their livelihood severely diminished if the inequality keeps persisting.”