Robert Moses was a leader in the voting rights campaign of the 1960s. Raised and educated in the North, Moses put his teaching career ...
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Robert P. Moses was born in Harlem in 1935. He earned a master's degree in philosophy from Harvard University in 1957, the same year President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce school desegregation laws. From 1958 to 1961, Moses taught math at Horace Mann School in New York City. During that time the struggle for civil rights and the violence it was provoking - particularly in the South -- was gaining national attention. Motivated by the sit-ins that he heard and read about, Moses left a promising teaching career in the North and moved to Mississippi in 1961 to join the Civil Rights movement.
In the early 1960s, Mississippi was one of the poorest states in the nation. The vast majority of African American families lived below the poverty line. Mississippi also had a dismal voting rights record. While blacks made up nearly half of the state's population in the 1960s, less than seven percent were registered to vote. This struck a chord with Moses, who believed that racial equality would never be achieved as long as African Americans were excluded from the political process.
Shortly after he arrived in Mississippi, Robert Moses became a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") and the director of the Committee's Mississippi Project. The Mississippi Project was an effort by SNCC volunteers to register African American voters. Moses' talents as an effective community builder and grass-roots organizer inspired local African American civil rights activists, other SNCC field secretaries, and northern white volunteers. It also made him a target; he was attacked and beaten by law enforcement officials and other whites for his efforts.
In 1962, Moses became co-director of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of civil rights groups working in Mississippi. But he is best known for his work in establishing the 1964 Freedom Summer Project. In this campaign, SNCC volunteers and local activists brought approximately 1,000 college students from the North to Mississippi to both register African American voters and form alternative "Freedom Schools." The Project set up 41 schools, and over 3,000 African Americans attended classes. In addition to registering voters, the campaign hoped to bring national attention to the issue of racial inequality in the South.
As Moses and other activists expected, many white residents in Mississippi resisted the Freedom Summer Project. Whites harassed, intimidated, and attacked SNCC volunteers and potential African American voters. Moses and others were arrested and jailed for their efforts. During the summer of 1964, more than 60 black churches, businesses, schools, and homes were bombed or burned. In June of that summer, three Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) workers investigating the burning of a black church were killed by Ku Klux Klan members.
Undeterred, Moses proposed a strategy for political change. In addition to registering African Americans to vote, Moses and the SNCC volunteers formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the legitimacy of the state's all-white Democratic Party. The MFDP sought to replace the white Mississippi delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, arguing that these delegates represented only the state's white establishment. MFDP members, according to Moses, "were bringing to this country and to the Democratic Party as its major political institution a question of generations of black people who had been denied political process and who were now asking that they get it."
Though the MFDP failed to replace the state's white delegates, the incident sent a message to national politicians that African Americans demanded full voting rights. The work of Moses, SNCC, and the MFDP helped set the stage for the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Washington University Libraries, Henry Hampton Collection