Robert Moses, one of the leaders of the SNCC training students as part of the Mississippi Summer Project. The project aimed to train students to register Black voters who had been denied the vote by discriminatory Jim Crow laws. 1964. Copyright: Steve Schapiro/Corbis.
Robert Moses (1935– ) is an educator and civil rights activist. After earning a master’s degree in philosophy at Harvard, Moses moved to the South and served as field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, working to register black voters in Mississippi as director of SNCC’s Mississippi Project. In 1961 he was a Freedom Rider, and in 1964 was the main organizer of the Freedom Summer project with the Council of Federated Organizations. His calm leadership helped SNCC navigate the threats and violence encountered in this process, including the murder of three volunteers. When SNCC became less committed to nonviolence, Moses left the organization to teach math in Tanzania. He later founded the Algebra Project, an innovative math literacy program geared for disadvantaged youth. Moses eventually returned to Harvard to complete a doctorate in philosophy, and now holds the Frank Rhodes Professorship at Cornell University.
Image: Robert Moses, one of the leaders of the SNCC training students as part of the Mississippi Summer Project. The project aimed to train students to register Black voters who had been denied the vote by discriminatory Jim Crow laws. 1964. Copyright: Steve Schapiro/Corbis.
Moses discusses his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, particularly in relation to King’s philosophy of nonviolence and white resistance to black voter registration efforts. He describes his educational experiences, arguing that improving the education system improves economic conditions for both whites and blacks. The conversation also covers racialized identities, historical racism, and tactical considerations in the processes of attaining justice in society.
Mr. WARREN: Now, if you will just announce yourself and the name of your organization, we’ll get at the start – This is Robert Moses –
Robert MOSES: I am with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee –
RPW: SNIC [SNCC], it is, isn’t it?
RM: SNIC [SNCC], right.
RPW: In Jackson, Mississippi. This is February the 11th. Just as a kind of warm-up, where were you born? Mr. Moses?
RM: Well, in New York City, in Harlem, and I was raised in upper Harlem – apartment houses – went to the schools in Harlem until high school, and then I went to Stuyvesant High School, downtown.
RPW: What accounted for that shift – that school shift?
RM: That was a special school – we took an exam – a city-wide exam, and so that was an opportunity to get a fairly good high school education.
RPW: What was the ratio of Negroes to white in the Stuyvesant school at a given time?
RM: I think I was usually the only Negro in my class. I think maybe out of a graduating class of a few thousand, not more than a handful were Negro.
RPW: Did Negroes try for it, or was this just seemed something not worth trying for?
RM: Well, I – I’m not sure about that. I know that in – I was – at the same time I went to junior high school they first started these special classes in – at least in the Negro schools, and we were encouraged to take, you know, these exams.
RPW: These were cram classes, or special classes for – aiming to Stuyvesant?
RM: They were special classes aiming to rapid advancement, two and a half years instead of three years in junior high school, and they tried to get people from the elementary schools who were – had shown some ability or some – the test scores or something like that were good. But over a city-wide basis I’d – my impression would be that there would – there was usually no – no effort, really, in the Negro, say, junior high schools, to prepare people for the tests and to encourage them to take it.
RPW: Was there also a considerable apathy or sense of the uselessness of the effort among the students – the kids?
RM: I think there would be – you know, that they would have had the feeling that they – that they wouldn’t have been able to pass, you know – that they – you know – wouldn’t be able to qualify, that that would be something out of their range.
RPW: I have heard it said here, in the last few days, that part of the problem of voter registration is the fear of not passing, not the fear of reprisals in many cases. A fear of being incompetent for the tests for registration.
RM: I think that – what that fear is, is the fear of being embarrassed. That is, that at the registrar’s office that – being in the position which the Negro is very often in, of not knowing the answer and therefore thinking that it’s – you know – their fault and being embarrassed.
RPW: Let’s cut back to your earlier career – at the Stuyvesant High School – at what date was that, by the way –
RM: That was in – I graduated from Stuyvesant in ’52, so it’s four – it’s three years – ’49-’52 – and then I went to Hamilton College –
RPW: Yes – In New York –
RM: In New York State – and I graduated from there in ’56, and went on right to graduate school at that time – I went to Harvard to – in philosophy – and stayed there for a year and a half. I picked up an M.A. at the end of my first year, and then we had family – my mother died in the next year, and my father was hospitalized and I dropped out. Then I got a job teaching at Horace Mann – and that was in ’58 – I stayed there three years – and then came down here.
RPW: Were you ambitious academically when you went to Harvard – you wanted to go into teaching philosophy?
RM: Well, I wanted to get the doctorate – I wanted to – I was interested – I liked philosophy, so I wanted to study. I wasn’t sure what I would teach - whether or not – but there wasn’t anything else at that time that I really wanted to do, so then I – I did want to study, so I just was in that degree program.
RPW: Now, how did you make the shift to active participation in civil rights? Operations?
RM: In the shift it was really a big break – I wasn’t active at all in any kind of civil rights organization while I was teaching until 1960, the second year, when the sit-ins broke out, and that attracted my attention. It seemed to me there was something different – something new – and if – I had a feeling for a long time that –
RPW: Before this you had the feeling?
RM: Yes – certainly that there was a continual build-up and frustration in – back I guess as early as high school – and then in college and graduate school – and then in teaching – of confronting at every point the fact that as a Negro – I mean, first that you had to be treated as a Negro and you couldn’t really be accepted as an individual yet – even at any level of the society in which you happened to penetrate.
RPW: You wouldn’t have felt it, you think, if you had continued your work at Harvard and taken your doctorate as planned, and then gone out to some good college or university to teach? Do you think you would still have had this as a personal experience – not as an observed thing, but as a personal experience?
RM: I think that – well, I don’t know if I would have. The fact – and I really didn’t project it like that – the fact was always that at any given moment in whatever experience you were in, it always cropped up, and that – gradually I got the feeling at least that no matter what I did that it would always be there, that at that time it was impossible, even though there were a lot of things that were much better and much different than, say, from my father’s time, but in terms of my own expectations and what I had grown up with, it was impossible to be accepted fully as an individual.
RPW: Had your father had aspirations and ambitions like your own?
RM: Probably yes. He was caught – he was caught in the depression with two families – at first, his own family hadn’t grown up – his father became sick – and then he got married, and so he got – and he had – he finished high school – he hadn’t gone to college – there was no money – there was no money for anyone – and then he decided – he got a job working in the armory – national – well, that’s part a state employee – then he decided to keep that and really – I don’t know – we had a long, long talks, and we had discussions as we were growing up about – talks which I can see now as talks really about the question of opportunity, and the question of discrimination, but which then were questions, you know, generally revolving around whether or not he was satisfied, and whether or not, you know, his whole purposes in life – what were they, were they frustrated, and – anyway, he decided to put most of his energies into his personal family. There were three of us, and he wanted to see us all through school and college, and most of his sacrifice went in that direction. And, for whatever reasons, he decided that there – at least that there wasn’t opportunity I’ll say in the general world.
RPW: It sounds as though you were very close to him.
RPW: When did you make the actual step to leave teaching and to move into this world?
RM: In the summer of ’60 I decided to come down and see what it was like, and I went down to Atlanta. SNIC [SNCC] was just organizing then, and so I worked for them for a while. Actually I came down to work with SCLC – Dr. Keane [King?] - but they were in the process of reorganization and changing executives, so there was no place to fit in.
RPW: Since we’re on that point, let me read you a quotation from Dr. Kenneth Clark on Dr. King, and see how you respond to it. On the surface, King’s philosophy of fears reflect health and stability, while black nationalism – he had been talking about the Muslims – betrays pathology and instability. A deep analysis, however, might reveal that there is also an unrealistic if not pathological basis in King’s doctrine. The natural reaction to injustice is bitterness and resentment. The form which such bitterness takes need not be overtly violent but the corrosion of the spirit involved seems inevitable. It would seem, then that any demand that the victims of oppression be required to love those who oppress them places an additional and intolerable psychological burden upon the victim.
RM: We don’t agree with King’s philosophy – I mean, in that sense. Most – you couldn’t find any other students who would do anything but – I guess they would ridicule and usually most of them – the majority of them are not sympathetic to the idea that they have to somehow love the white people that they are struggling against. There are a few within the group, say, who have a very religious orientation –
RPW: In SNIC [SNCC], you mean?
RM: In SNIC [SNCC] – who would – who preach this, and the constant dialogue and discussion at meetings about nonviolence and the meaning of nonviolence, and that kind of thing.
RPW: But nonviolence for SNIC [SNCC] is practical nonviolence, is that it?
RM: Well, most of the members in SNIC [SNCC] are tactical, and it’s a question of being able to have a method of attacking rather than to always be on the defensive, and having to wait until something happens to you and then try and do something about it. But instead, you know, just go right out and do something about it – be able to launch an attack – and this is – this would not be possible for organizing for violence attacks or anything like that.
RPW: What about the effect that King has had at moments of crisis where violence seemed imminent – general violence, as in Birmingham – the effect that he has been able to exert on people who are not avowed followers of his?
RM: Well, there’s no question that he has a great deal of influence with masses of people. I don’t know – and certainly I don’t think that effect is in that direction – love. I think the effect is in the direction of practical steps – that is, that whatever you believe you simply can’t afford to have a general breakdown of law and order.
RPW: This is a matter, then, of a tactical nonviolence, and a looking forward to the society to be created, is that it?
RM: I think that is a strong argument. I think that’s – I mean, the argument that somehow that the question of that in the end everybody has to live together, and the local people – Negroes – understand this very well and they’re the first to tell you this, that they put it in terms of when they all are gone, we’ll still be here, and we have to live with the people here.
RPW: You all being the workers who come in and then may go away next week, maybe.
RM: That’s – yes – except that we try very hard to heed that problem and to – especially in the work in Mississippi to – the idea has been to send in workers in the communities where they stay and live and work, so that there isn’t this moving in for a brief time and moving out again, so that the concept has been to work with some of the students and to prepare them to the point where they are ready to take a year off from school and some of them have taken longer, and go and really live in these communities and work and stay there.
RPW: The attitude you attribute to report from the local people – when you are gone we have to stay here, to live here – offhand that might have either of two meanings – one, we have to pick up the pieces and bear the burden of reprisal or difficulties that are left; the other one being some vision of a society which was lawful in itself. That is, one could be a negative argument - positive argument – the real vision of a law-abiding and humane society.
RM: Exactly. Well, I think that as they express it when they talk to you about the workers, it’s largely in that negative sense.
RPW: In the negative sense.
RM: But in an appeal, since they use that language, in an appeal about the community afterwards, that that can be an appeal which they understand – that is, that in the end, Negroes and the whites are going to have to share the land, and that the less overlay of bitterness that you have, and – or the less marks of violence that you have to overcome, the more chance of what you’re looking for really is a way to bring about these changes and without – with the least amount of this kind of bitterness – that is, you’re constantly trying to find different ways in which, you know, you can get real change, but still not leave such a legacy that it’s not possible to have some reconciliation and people working –
RPW: I talked, back in November, to a nonviolence conference at Howard – at lunch I sat beside Miss Lucy Thornton, who is at the law school there and has been through the jails and picket lines and so forth – she’s second in her class – a very, very brilliant girl – and she began the conversation by saying she had hope – a real hope of a reasonable society in the South, she said, because the Southern white man and the Southern Negro have a shared history. There has been a long history of human recognitions and relations, even though these relations sometimes are bitter and violent ones, but at least there was a human context. She said, we have all been on the land together – the same land together, and this means something. She then said, I am pessimistic – or I am frightened – I forget the exact phrases – of the big Northern city – of the adjustment to come out of a big Northern city – these would be more difficult there, she said. Now, she is from – she was raised on a farm in the back country of Virginia, she told me. Does that make any sense to you, or not?
RM: Well – I really don’t know. The country has such tremendous problems – I mean, when you start to talk like that then you – I mean, every time that problems which we’ve run into now is that everywhere you go to try and get a breakthrough in, say, the Negro problem, you run into a tremendous problem with the country as a whole to face.
RPW: The United States as a whole?
RM: Right – the question of jobs, the question – the whole question of education. All these things are tied so deeply into problems that run into the major – run deep into the major institutions of the country, and the whole question of the automation and – run right into the question of peace – and armament, and how much of the resources of the country are diverted – you know – into that area, and how much are needed in this area, and so that always you get back to economic and political questions, and they’re intertwined with these kind of questions which he raises about human values and historical questions. And then I get lost – I mean, I really do. I don’t see – I can’t see far ahead as to what the shape of this country will look like ten years – I mean, going through some, as I understand it, fantastic changes – that is, will be as deep as, say, the Industrial Revolution.
RPW: It’s fantastic – the technological revolution is fantastic. There’s another person who says that – let me change the subject a little bit – you hear it said now and then – I think that Baldwin writes this – that there’s no such thing as solving the Southern problem without solving the Northern problem. The Northern problem, that is, the race problem in the North is really in a sense prior in its implications to the Southern problem, or at least parallel to it and cannot be postponed till after a solution to the Southern problem.
RM: I agree with that, and one thing that I thought – I was very impressed by the Supreme Court decision in the fact that it wasn’t until the whole country has sort of been pounding away at the South about desegregating the schools, that you began to get some action in the North about desegregated schools. I remember I was at Hamilton, and a law professor from NYU came up and talked about the schools, and I told him that it has just dawned on me that I went to segregated schools all my life as far as public and junior high schools were concerned, and that most of the Negro students in New York City went to segregated schools, and that was – of course was something that he psychologically didn’t accept, that the schools weren’t really segregated, it was a question of the housing background, and the North has gone through this time and again – in Boston and other places – there’s a big battle with people to see whether or not they do have segregation, and of course they want to say that it’s not in the area in which they’re concerned, and the educators don’t want to say they’re sponsoring segregated schools – that’s a problem of housing. The housing people say it’s a problem of a class problem or the people being prepared and having jobs and things, and then you get back to the people who employ people and they tell you it’s an educational problem, and it’s a vicious circle and it’s –
RPW: What do you think of the school – or struggle in New York right now – the attempt to use buses to balance schools? Does that make sense? Or is it tactics? I’ve had people give the North – or have Negroes in the North say I don’t believe this – it’s stupid – but it’s a tactic – it’s a weapon.
RM: Yes – it’s a weapon, - to use.
RPW: Do you have any convictions about that
RM: I haven’t been – you know, I’ve been so removed from that – and of course the whole question is that the whole school system around the country is poor, inadequate, doesn’t meet the needs and the times, and the problem is to find a way to bring the whole thing up and it doesn’t seem – you never get – you can’t ever psychologically have any people take them from something – some place up here and ask them for the good of the barrier of integration or something like that, to drop down to this level, and – what you have to do is to find a level up here that both can be moved up into so that they both have a feeling that they’re moving.
RPW: You mean that the level of education is the key problem and not that a percentage of white children bussed into a Negro school – is that it?
RM: Right – that somehow that really millions and millions of dollars have to be put into Negro education as it exists, at the same time as you’re moving to integrate and to find ways in which the students can live together and study together, but also the whole question of housing and jobs has to be tackled.
RPW: Do you think that’s prior really to – or is it just a circle?
RM: Right now it’s just a circle – I mean that as far as for the mass of the people, for their – some – ten percent – fifteen, maybe – that it’s not a circle any more, but for the mass of people it’s just a circle, and it looks like it’s getting worse – I mean that the national percentagewise the Negro earns less now – percent of white income today than he used to, and that’s decreasing all the time and it seems that the gap will increase between the two because of the fact that the jobs available are for skilled people and there really is no – there’s no national effort and politically it’s impossible to lodge one at this time to bring all the people up, and not just the Negro poor but the white poor also.
RPW: They’re tied together then – the races tied together?
RM: And they’re tied together politically, because they both put out a voice – I mean they’re people who don’t have a real voice in Congress –
RPW: You mean the poor who are outside the umbrella of the strong labor unions?
RM: Right. I mean to say, for instance, the labor unions do not – they really don’t – I mean, the labor unions are concerned, as far as I can learn, with protecting the jobs of people who already have them, and they figure – and this problem seems to them overwhelming – that is, they can’t really cope with that –
RPW: With automation.
RM: Right. Organized the people who don’t have jobs so that they have political voice and power and can work for an overall solution.
RPW: Do you see the possibility after you experience it in the South for cooperation between the poor white and the Negro?
RM: I don’t know. I was just reading Keyes’ chapter in his book on the Mississippi Delta and the hills, and he was going through the neo-populism in and so forth and pointing out that there was always – besides the race issue – an underlying issue which people had to hit in order to get elected even in a place like Mississippi, and – but I just don’t know – we’ve had some contact with some whites and what seems – I’d think what’s different now is that most of the poor whites have moved into cities, and they’ve gotten jobs in industry on the basis of Negroes not being able to get these jobs, and it seemed to me that they would want to hold onto them and that no appeal on that concrete basis – if you point out to them that – well, he has this big industry or this which will move in if you drop this thing, but I just don’t see that kind of breakthrough at this point.
RPW: Nobody is going to resign a job to give it to somebody else, when it comes to personal –
RM: This is the problem right now in the North – these construction industries, where the people are laying down in the streets and asking – literally asking people to give up their jobs so that some – move over and make room for us – and nobody is going to do that – nobody, I mean, that – that kind of struggle has to be taken into a wider struggle in which everybody demands for more jobs for everybody. You get these people together and work to say that everybody has to have jobs. Now, whether in the South – there isn’t that much unemployment among the white people as I understand it.
RPW: In the South now?
RM: In the South now.
RPW: Not even in Mississippi?
RM: Not even in Mississippi, as I understand it. I don’t really –
RPW: Back to your personal experiences, have you been the object of violence? In Mississippi? Do you mind telling me about that? Some of the details?
RM: Well, the – it happened when I first came down in ’61 – what happened was, that summer in ’60 I came down and then made a little trip through the South and in Mississippi found a person – Amzie Moore – who wanted to work on registration – on the Delta –
RPW: Up in Cleveland?
RM: In Cleveland.
RPW: Yes, I met him last night.
RM: Amzie and I sat down in ’60 and plotted out a voter registration drive for the Delta, and that state, that is, the need for it – and showed the county breakdown and things like that, and I went back to teach for a year and came back in ’61. Well, then, I couldn’t get started in Cleveland and I came down and in the course of that drive, the farmers from the neighboring county – Amy [Amite] County – came out and we began taking people there and one –
RPW: The farmers – the Negro farmers?
RM: The Negro farmers, and once I was attacked on the way to the court house. There were two farmers and myself –
RPW: With people to register?
RM: We were going to register, and walking on the main street in town and three white young fellows came up and one of them began to pick an argument and began – they singled me out and began to beat on me, and I had about eight stitches on the top of my head.
RPW: With their fists, or –
RM: Well, apparently – it turned out later that he had a knife which was closed.
RPW: Using that as a kind of bludgeon?
RM: We went to trial and a couple of days later he was acquitted.
RPW: Was it a jury trial?
RM: No – yes – there was – it was very interesting. We came by –
RPW: In two days you had a jury trial?
RM: Yes. We came back in town – the town’s reaction was interesting because it was this little town – Liberty – a town of maybe a thousand people –
RPW: Which town is this, now?
RM: Liberty –
RPW: Liberty, Mississippi.
RM: Amy [Amite] County. And it has a long and vicious history. In fact, just last week one of the farmers down there was killed on and – RPW: He was killed – he had been a – he had consented to be a witness in another murder trial, hadn’t he?
RM: Right. And in fact, the other murder trial was a trial which grew out of the voter registration that summer in ’61 and there were several acts of violence. The first was my getting beat up. A week later another one of the workers got beat, and then we called off the drive and about a month later this farmer was killed, which led to Lewis’ participation in the trial and he had to testify, and he wanted to tell the truth and he told the truth to the FBI, but the local authorities – he told them what they wanted to hear, and –
RPW: Excuse me – he told the local authorities what they wanted to hear? But told the FBI the truth?
RM: Yes, and we believe that the FBI leaked it to the local authorities, and the sheriff – the deputy sheriff came out, you know, and told him – Lewis – what they had learned.
RPW: This being Lewis Allen again?
RM: Lewis Allen – yes. And they have been picking at him every since – that was in September ’61. At one point the deputy sheriff broke his jaw and that deputy is now sheriff – and then they killed him –
RPW: How was he killed?
RM: With a shotgun, and they – laid in wait for him in some bushes next to his wife – and it was in the nighttime, and he was coming back – and he had to get out of the truck to unhook the fence and when he gout out they just shot him, and –
RPW: Has there been any arrest on that?
RM: No arrest – and I doubt that there will be.
RPW: Do you believe in the possibility that the leak was intentional?
RM: Well, I believe that, and we said as much to the Justice Department and have said so before.
RPW: Is that your only experience of that sort?
RM: Where I myself was attacked – yes. Except – well, no – I forgot, we were – last year in Greenwood we were driving along just out of town at the end of February, and some white people had been circling the town for – about three or four carloads of white people. One of them followed us out of town – there was three of us in the car, sitting up front in the middle seat, and they opened up about seven miles out of town – just bullets rained just all through the car – the driver had a bullet in his neck, and he was slumped over into my lap, and we went off the road. We had to grab the wheel and stop the car, and then he almost lost his life – he had a .45 that was lodged just about an inch from his spine, and none of the rest of us were – just shattered with glass – we weren’t hit at all, but that I think is interesting because Beckwith – the fellow who killed Medgar – is from Greenwood, and the people who –
RM: Yes. The people who – well, no – the people who shot us that the police arrested – there were some arrests on that case – and they answered to the same general description, that is, they were middle-aged, middle class white people, sort of – just as Beckwith is. Now, they’ve never been brought to trial.
RPW: The same general type as Beckwith?
RM: Yes – I think that there was a whole conspiracy up there – and we wrote letters to the – telegrams to the Civil Rights Commission – stating this and asking them to investigate. Of course they say that there are no grounds justifying – no grounds -
RPW: You’re recently married, aren’t you?
RPW: What view does your wife take of your hazardous occupation?
RM: Well – that’s hard to say because she doesn’t – I guess it’s – what you do is that you don’t really confront her – I mean you just go on living – I mean I’ve found that it’s literally impossible to confront that even after that kind of narrow escape –
RPW: You take it day by day?
RM: Yes – otherwise it’s not – there is no real way to confront that except to – within yourself you try to – you have to overcome that fear, and that took for me, you know, quite a while.
RPW: Can you put your philosophy to work on that? Did the Harvard seminar help you any?
RM: Not the Harvard seminar. It went back a little further when I was in college I had a French professor who did a lot of work in 20th century French lit and read a lot of Camus -
RPW: That’s an interesting connection.
RM: And I picked it up again. I just finished, while I was in jail this last time, I read through The Rebel and The Plague again, and –
RPW: Where were you in Jail then?
RM: This was in burg –
RPW: Just now?
RM: This was about a week and a half ago.
RPW: Yes – just this last business – so you read in jail?
RM: Yes. And – well – I think, you know that the main essence of what he said was what I feel real close to – closest to –
RPW: Will you state that –
RM: Well, that it’s important to struggle, that is, the sense of working against some of these forces, that it’s important to recognize in the struggle certain humanitarian values and to recognize that you have to struggle against the – for people in that sense, and that at the same time if it’s possible you – there’s some – you try and eke out within that – it’s possible to eke out some corners of love or of some glimpses of happiness within that And that’s what I think more than anything else that it bitterness, let’s say, that
RPW: Yes, can you hold it a moment? This is the end of Tape #1 of Robert Moses – resume on tape #2.
person, who carries his whiteness and who in addition to that may be trying to move into this area, that person then becomes an object for amusement.
RPW: Do you find some resentment of your own superior attainments and education – do you sense it?
RM: No – I don’t – One thing was when I first came down – it was something that I just very consciously played down.
RPW: Well, naturally.
RM: Yes – so that if you establish your relationship with people on another level, and then – and they identify with you – then after they find out something like that, that becomes something that they are not resentful of but they can – they become, you know, proud or something like that. It can be transformed into a positive thing.
****** The transcription that follows for RPW is crossed out but was typed since the response by Robert Moses is left intact ******
RPW: This is something of the ambivalence that was said to exist and I suppose exists in all societies – to exist in the Negro society. On the one hand a kind of jealousy or amusement of that achievement, and on the other hand a kind of identification with the achiever, the Negro achiever. At least, many Negroes have written about this and have talked about it.
RM: Well, of course when it’s a Negro achiever then – I mean there’s an additional problem of his achieving in the white world, and particularly down here in Mississippi, because that – I mean, it just means that he’s an Uncle Tom. In fact, or that he has to compromise with the white world at some point – or that he isn’t free – he can’t fall – he’s gotten – he can’t now say participate with us or even do the things that he wants to do, and he becomes a conservative and a person who’s trying to hold back the change, trying to hold on to what he has, trying to protect that.
RPW: The sneers one can hear directed at Ralph Bunch or Clarence Mitchell or various other people – certain writers – Ralph Ellison and people like that – these – on account of these sneers, not – because you encounter sneers against anybody sooner or later, you know – there’s no - opinion, but – those examples are the thing I am talking about.
RM: I always think that most of that is due to lack of ability to understand on a more complex level and, you know, to understand all the different facets of society and how people – you know – with the acceptance of certain positions, goal – there are certain goals which are defined, and they’re very – the question always is – really, the question which you can’t answer unless you know the person up close, and it’s the kind of evaluation which people want to make from a distance, and it really then becomes an abstraction, that is, that they can’t really make that kind of evaluation without getting in close and knowing that – watching some day by day transactions and seeing where – you know, what kind of tension that person lives under, and – in making his decisions and –
RPW: Not to take personalities – just take Mr. X, you see, who is very able and enjoys a fine reputation, is distinguished in some profession or occupation – well, naturally he has some white friends. Now, if he has white friends, could the same line of work or an associated world – or does that much build against him?
RM: I think more than anything else that what the kind of thing that you can say now is that it’s called upon – it isn’t as if Negroes were not successful, have the right to live a completely private life, that is, that the time is such that they have – I mean, it seems to me that you can ask them – that you have a duty to ask them, and even that – what the questions about what are they doing in this big change – what public life are they – you know – are they pursuing? It doesn’t have to be directly in a revolution, but if they’re doctors and the time has come for them to prepare themselves so that Negro people get the best medical care, and that they get it no longer does the – because they’re – the Negroes are shoved off to one side, and do they now get the same kind of treatment if they’re teachers, then the time has come for them to prepare themselves to know what’s going on in the educational revolution that the country is going through, and to see that the Negro students that they’re teaching now are getting real – you know – education and preparing themselves. There’s so much that needs to be done that even – O.K., if he’s in, he’s got a berth profession and everything that – and this is what, after all – I mean, he has a right to this, and they all – everybody does, and the people – that’s what the people want – they want to be able themselves to do that, but that’s now – the fight is of such proportions that he also it seems to me, can ask legitimately what commitment he has been making to it. And not just in terms of funding or supporting, but in terms of his own profession, his own skills – how is that being used in the – to help the Negro along and help the whole society.
RPW: How much of a split remained between the – oh, the black bourgeoisie and the masses – is that being narrowed – that breach?
RM: It doesn’t seem so
RPW: It’s not being narrowed, you think?
RM: The new Negroes coming out of school now – more of them I think are aware of identification with the masses, but I think they’re just most of the people who are the old line of bourgeoisie – I don’t think that that identification is
RPW: You can find, actually resistances to the impulse toward integration. I have read several articles by Negroes – one by the president of the Business League of St. Louis - a Negro business organization – saying integration would set Negro business back twenty-five years, and things like that – that kind of argument – defending the vested interest any cause to –
RM: Well, that’s the kind of thing that I’m – was trying to get at before, that the – he’s got a business, maybe, so he’s got to compete now with the general market, and he’s got to produce enough services and goods and so forth so that the Negroes themselves don’t have to get the second-hand in terms of getting that kind of service, and if he lives up to that then it seems to me that he – you know, he won’t have this kind of worry. Usually where you find the Negro businessman who is worried about that – what integration is going to do to his business – then he’s usually giving the Negro a second-hand deal anyway – higher prices, or worse products or something.
RPW: *What about that split that is talked about often – I encountered it first in Du Bois many years ago – between the impulse toward loyalty to Negro-ness – the negative idea – the mystique noir – the sense of identification in a exclusive way, the notion of an African tradition or a least of a shared American tradition – but an exclusive one – this precious identification is – now, this is me – this is my identify – this is outside of all other definitions. This is a form on one side – it has many forms, of course – against another impulse to move out into the tradition of Western European culture – American * culture – penetrate that and perhaps integrate with it and perhaps in the end even have identify almost in it – physiologically and culturally. This split. Now, for
* Handwritten word, garbled, written in margin beside this section.
some people it’s a very important problem – it’s a deep problem – for others it’s not. How do you feel about it?
RM: For myself personally, the problem has been to – you know- to find out this kind of identify – is to find a broader perspective, that is, I don’t feel that I’m looking – you know, that it’s a problem of identifying Negroness, or this mystique or anything like that, and that – you know – it’s just historical. If you look back through the family as far as I can trace it you get all sorts of elements, and there’s no way of saying that – you know – this is – belonged to Negro culture and it’s just – it seems to me that it evaporates, and I can – everything – Harlem – you know – my family – there are all sorts of things mixed in there. Neither, however, do you want to integrate into the middle class white culture, since that seems to be at this point in vital need of some kind of renewal. But the – I don’t know – I think that in the struggle that we’re going through here that what’s happened is that - you know, you find a broader identification, that is, that it leads to identification of the same kind of thing that other people – individuals are going through, that the struggle doesn’t become just a question of racial struggle, it ventures into other planes – political – the question of humanitarian struggle, and the question of justice, and in – within those – if you cut it differently like that, then you can get a picture of yourself as a person, and caught up historically in these circumstances and now your job is to try and work something out. And in working that out, you finally begin to get a concept of yourself as a person and that whole question of needing to identify yourself as – in this kind of Negro culture or needing to become integrated into the whole white society, and that disappears.
RPW: Have you encountered Essum Uden’s book on black nationalism?
RM: No, I haven’t.
RPW: It’s an interesting book. He says that on the one hand the exclusiveness of the Black Muslim to withdraw from the white devils and the ferocious pride in being Negro and even the dream of – you know – of imperial grandeur – which seems to be a withdrawal from white Western culture and middle class values, works out as an appeal to the concealed aspirations toward those same middle class values.
RM: I think that’s true. I mean, the – what they want is – or what they’ve worked for – that same kind of set-up, but just separate.
RPW: Just separate.
RM: And others within the student movement – some people challenge that whole set-up, and they’re not working at all towards that kind of set-up. They – but then you get into the real question of –
RPW: Excuse me – you mean they’re not working towards the acceptance of middle class American values?
RM: Right. They – you know, they’d be very uncomfortable in that. But then you get the impression of hope – where the society is going to go – the economy – the question of the job, you know, the alienation, as it were. The people who are working on little bits of large things and don’t know what it’s about –
RPW: Alienation from active – from work – creative effort.
RM: Creative effort. That’s – they just –
RPW: In that sense it is sometimes said that the Negro is the final victim of their modern alienation of a technological industrial society – he’s laid the biggest victim – he is cut off most from the possibility of significant work. What about the relation, if any between the student movement and Beat-ism? Now this was brought up to me first by some people associated with the student movement – so this is part of the same atmosphere that created the Beats. I was shocked by this, I’ll tell you, because it seemed to me it was a new way of looking at it, to me. I thought the Beats represented something quite different. Of course they’re not a church or a cult so I don’t know what they mean except by analysis. What do you think of it?
RM: I’m not – I don’t’ know – I’m not sure what that person meant. same atmosphere
RPW: I tried to probe it and I didn’t get very far, except that there seemed to be some protest on the part of this speaker in this conversation – it was attributed to the Beats similar to the protest that the students against middle class diners. But he wanted to go farther.
RM: I don’t think so. You see, one thing, the Beats were left without a people – without anybody that they were identifying with.
RM: Yes. So they were reacting against everything and closing in on themselves, and – for their own values and things like that. What happens with the students is that they are reacting against this level and identifying with these people – and – I mean, the students are constantly renewed just by – you know – the people who come off the land – the farmers – they’re unsophisticated, and – but who simply voice time and time again the simple truths that people – you can’t ignore because they speak from their own lives and their own personal experience and – so that it’s in this that – you know – the students are rooted in, it seems to me, that – this is what keeps them from going off on some kind of real tangent, that they always say as long as they keep working with people, they – the people are really the force in many senses of its – of values which they can’t refute themselves. I mean – and it’s this that is put in opposition to life now. We at this meeting, for instance, that we had on Sunday –
RPW: Yes – I was here for a while, and then I was very much struck by the quality of some of the people speaking from outlying counties - these older people particularly, you know – these old men, who
RM: But still, see, there were some in leadership who would say – who were against this kind of meeting.
RPW: Now, why is that?
RM: They’re for the kind of meeting where you get – well-dressed, cleaned-up Negroes who have maybe some semblance of an education and who is now a leader, and he represents these people. They want these people to be represented.
RPW: Not present.
RM: Not present.
RPW: A really democratic town meeting.
RM: Right. They don’t’ want them. They’re embarrassed by their getting up, and of course maybe they don’t speak English well. Maybe they grope for the words.
RPW: “Redish” for register, for instance.
RM: Right. They can’t say that – But – and they were complaining about, you know, the fact that - look at all these people, they look – every one of them thinks they can get up – just anybody can get up and talk. Now, it’s that kind of thing that the students are really battling against, that is, the fact that somehow people have to be cleaned up and presented before they’re ready for the larger society, and this – serves the expression of that these people themselves needn’t be present and presented to white people, just as they are, and the white people – the society needs to hear them, needs to listen to them, and as long as the students are – you know – are tied in with these, then I don’t think that they’re – I mean, I think that their revolt is well-based, and doesn’t – in that sense it’s not like the beatnik revolt, which didn’t have- you know – it seemed to me that just turned in on itself, and –
RPW: To take another tack which involves some of the same elements – why did Cumminson [communism] never make any headway with the American Negro? That was a fruitful situation, I would think both in the North and in the South.
RM: I don’t really know that – the people that I know who – say who are older now and who were in that move, back in the ‘30’s and early ‘40’s, apparently – I mean, they say that they just became disillusioned and that at one point the Communists were really not interested so much in the Negro – it’s – I think mainly after that it’s found somewhat in the sort of more left-wing people now who are present and current now, who have really worked out political programs of sort of and ideas about what needs to happen. When they confront – say, when they get down in this kind of situation, the people are not really concerned with the abstract level of politics, they’re concerned more with concrete levels of what happens to the individuals and progress is made in winning their allegiance in terms of, if as you struggle you are doomed to become concerned with the individuals, which means in a lot of cases working on compromises, so you can’t say no – you know, you’ve got to cut all of this off because if you get bogged down with this – working with these individuals and this kind of problem of trying to bring this guy along and – you know – you’ll never get up to this level that you’re working for – there’s a tendency to sacrifice people for platforms. I think that as far as I can see that that would be one big reason.
RPW: Apparently it happened in any case that the – how much of this thing are the white man’s organization – does that come into it? I’ve heard that said many times.
RM: Maybe – maybe – I don’t know about that.
RPW: I don’t know either, but I’ve heard it said. It’s not a Southern Negro – this was a white man’s thing.
RM: The problem of course is that you really can’t find out because the Communist scare is such that the issue –
RPW: Now, you mean.
RM: Now – that you can’t - you don’t really feel – for instance, I wouldn’t feel good talking to people that I know may have been involved, because then there might come some day when I have to get up on the witness stand on the issue at the time, and I’d say, now that I don’t know anything about it and –
RPW: Keep it clean.
RM: Keep it clean, and then they’re reluctant to talk because they can be brought up against
RPW: Tell me this – why did this movement, and not merely SNIC [SNCC] but the whole complex of movement, and even the activities of people outside of movements – the rise of the new Negro, as they say, the Negro revolt – why did it come when it did instead of not thirty years before in the ‘30’s or twenty-five years ago, or – make it thirty years?
RM: Of course, now my father and some of the people of his generation – they made the point that they had to come along first and prepare young people in order so that we could do the work that we’re doing now, and we have in essence their support where they wouldn’t have had their parents’ support, and that – so that one reason they say was – that couldn’t happen now – at that time they wouldn’t have had any support, that is, they would have just been cut out from under.
RPW: There was no popular support.
RM: No popular support – but also that as young people at that time there was no support from the older generation, that is, that – anyway, this is one kind of point that makes – now, other people, you know, point out the whole question of the move from Africa and the rise of an image in Africa of white people being able to control their own destiny.
RPW: You mean that the American Negro changed his self-image as a reflex of the African situation?
RM: I think that there’s no question that that has some –
RPW: Some merit.
RM: And certainly it’s under key leadership, that is, that they were struck and greatly influenced by this move.
RPW: Would there have been enough educated Negroes thirty years ago to mount this vast organizational effort and to spearhead it, to use the cutting edge it has now?
RM: I don’t know – maybe not. I don’t know.
RPW: I was just trying to get you to assess what have been the educational and cultural gains in one generation. The field gains, you know.
RM: Of course the – I think the – right – and I think it seems to me that all of these sprung up out of World War II Of course, we were picked up and moved in that rapid advancement class – I’ve been thinking back, you know, of why we – of what happened and it seems to me that in the late ‘40’s when I was in junior high school and they started that rapid advance, and that was part of the move around the country to begin to provide educational opportunities for Negroes in the North – for a conscious move for able students to begin got open up doors which had previously been closed to them, and going to Hamilton was simply a part of that – that aspect. Special money was available and they were looking for Negro students and it was part of the move to begin to provide some education. And all of those things, the gains of World War II, I think, in terms of the Negro in the North where he was – they needed people to work and they had them, so then they were subsumed in to a higher standard of living. So that that laid the basis for it, too. There’s no question about that. The Supreme Court decision was another kind of basis for –
RPW: I have heard it said, too by Negroes that the war experience itself and being
RM: There’s no question about it.
RPW: - integrated first – of not being integrated units and then being integrated units – these kinds of contrasts were very significant.
RM: And also there’s no question about the fact that the turning back to the South after being in the war and fighting and so forth, and having to come back to the same situation that they had left, I think that left a real residue of bitterness – I mean many of them soldiers, and they weren’t ready to be merely
RPW: What about the change in climate of general opinion – say, including white opinion, not just a change in Negro attitudes, the Negro situation, but a change in climate – the spiritual climate, the emotional climate, the intellectual climate – over that period of twenty-five to thirty years? How much is that to be taken into account? I don’t mean the explanation – I mean as part of a – this complex of factors.
RM: Well, it’s hard – it seems to me that the change in climate that put the white – I don’t mean, you know, but they’re trying to assess the people, say, who have position in the overall society for really effecting change, it seems to me what they said was, well, we’ve got to be able to give them a chance to do something on their own, that is –
RPW: Say it again, will you please. They being whites.
RM: Whites – now that is that it has opened up the extent – this is really what the Supreme Court decision did – it didn’t integrate the schools or anything – it gave the Negro the legal basis and the moral basis for fighting in the overall society to integrate the schools, and so they’re carrying on the fight. I mean, and – this happened I think in terms of the education and of it, that is, that the feelings was, well, it has to be the climate that happened in the was that, well, if they’re going to participate in this society again, certainly they must have leadership realized the white people were not going to do it – they weren’t going to lead them – so that therefore a move toward at least trying to prepare people or get people – open up opportunities and so forth. I don’t know that there was any feeling of preparing people for what is now happening. I am sure there wasn’t.
RPW: I asked this same question of a very able Negro lawyer who has been very active in civil rights – and he burst out, there’s been no change. It’s always been the same. He added that he has more than once Black Muslim movement. He’s the last man you’d expect, you see, given the objectives – aspects of his life. There’s been no change. It’s always the same. He didn’t use the word white devil, but he said – he used the word Black Muslim – I’m more and more interested in their point of view.
RM: I mean, for instance, at Hamilton – it seemed to me that the attitude – the difference – the change in attitude was that, well we have to do our part in – the society has the overall problem, which was realized and brought to the fore during World War II, our part in an educational institution is to try and open up a door or two for Negro, and let’s see what happens. And the difference was before was that they weren’t really interested in even trying to open up a door to see what would happen. They were apprehensive about what might happen about getting the wrong person up there and having it fail and that kind of thing, and while I was up there – you know – I was glad to have that opportunity, but still deeply bitter about some of the realities of the campus and some of the realities of the white attitude, that is, they were willing to go so far but not any further. But I think in itself was a kind of change that took place in many places around the country, that is, that we’ve got at least to open up one or two doors and try it. Now you’re getting – you know, you’re getting a different kind of change now, that is, people are furiously looking to see – I think everything happens with pressure – I mean – that is, that it’s always the pressure from underneath which forces people to realize that they have to do some kind of changing –
RPW: Yes, if nothing changes, nothing changes. The conception of the Negro from 1865 to the present – the white man’s picture of the Negro has changed – through pressures of all sorts?
RM: I’m sure it has. Even down here, even in Mississippi where you get it – referring to the sheriff in Canton – told some of our fellows – they’re planning Freedom there too – they’re coming at the end of this month – and he told them, “Well, you all are fighting for what you believe is right, and you’re going to fight. And we are fighting for what we believe is right, and we’re going to fight also.” Now, that seems to me a tremendous change.
RPW: It surprises me, to tell you the truth.
RM: That’s the recognition that the equal status – that is, you’re a person with now all of a sudden they can realize that these are people and these are – now, these guys that are up there, they’re not particularly well-educated or anything like that. They’re just from the South – Negroes born and raised down here – and here they’re saying that – O.K. – you have something that you believe in and you recognize it finally, and – but we have something we want. So we have both sides – either side of the fence – and we’re going to just fight this thing out. Now, that it seems to me is tremendous kind of change.
RPW: The sheriff is not a man of – I suppose – much education or much experience outside this county as a matter of fact. If he says this, it must reflect something that’s happened in the county itself.
RM: Exactly. It’s a tremendous movement among the Negro people – you know, in organizing and it’s gotten to the point there I understand they just raised all the electric bills in just across the board – they said if anybody it’s a tremendous struggle that’s taking place, but part of it is the recognition by the white man that there is a struggle and that Negroes themselves are struggling.
RPW: What about the Freedom Day in Canton, say – what would it be like? What is the nature of its program objectively?
RM: That there will be some – we’re trying to get the National Council of Churches to get involved with another group of ministers and probably have another picket line downtown and –
RPW: Does this involve a boycott?
RM: They’re having a boycott –
RPW: Now, I mean.
RM: They’re having one now, so that – that’s already part of the picture.
RPW: How effective has it been?
RM: Well, that’s – the boycott I guess is fairly effective, but it’s just going to be very bitter and all – there’s not question about it.
RPW: Bad trouble?
RPW: Do you find any irony, even a mild irony, in the fact of the March on Washington being in the Lincoln Monument? In the sense of Lincoln being a declared racist? As everybody knows.
RM: No. I guess the fact is that – just in terms of popular projection, but in –
RPW: But popular projection is useful – just an image. But the reality – in your own mind – how would you reason this out - not on tactical grounds, but on other grounds – to the Lincoln Monument?
RM: Well, in just the sense that this was a popular march, that it was a march, you know, and that – it was for people who were not so much –
RPW: Who don’t know American history.
RM: Right, it’s true, and who –
RPW: But you do know American history, so you have to make some terms with it, I mean – one has to make some terms with it. In what sense can one make terms with it? I don’t pretend to have any answer in the back of the book, mind you, to turn to. I just recognize this – I have to think of it as a problem, and some people have answers based on the relativism of historical value, or else as of value to history as opposed to absolute values.
RM: It didn’t bother me – I mean, I was concerned, I guess – more concerned with other things about that march –
RPW: The practical side, yes. I mean –
RM: It really hadn’t – crossed my mind.
RPW: These were very tepid emancipations to begin with, and then a total racist – and here the great March on Washington in the shadow of his monument – the ghost of his monument – he’s a shrine. Now, by the way, Lincoln is a hero of mine – I’m not trying to set up a way to kick Lincoln in the shins, you see – there’s your point.
RM: I’m afraid I draw a blank on that.
RPW: You draw a blank on that one? What I was getting at is simply repeating what a Negro I was talking to some time back said, to paraphrase him roughly, he said it very well – that history proposes issues and determines what is possible in that moment – that the problem of racism was not proposed by him at that time. And another historian I was talking to said, “My God, there wasn’t a man on this continent who was not a racist.” The whole notion of attacking the concept of racism is recent. It’s not a relevant comparison.
RM: Well, it didn’t even cross my mind.
RPW: Well, this is just a – it does raise a little fable or something. It ties in with the question of whether the white man’s attitudes have changed in these hundred years – that is, where the Abolitionists were racist in form too. That is, they were not concerned with abolishing racism as a concept or even a practice. They were concerned with something else. I suppose it varied from case to case, but it was not an attack on the theory of racism or the other theories of racism. Your sheriff, then at Canton – what county is that? I forget.
RM: Madison County.
RPW: Your sheriff at Madison County is a – less of a racist than Abraham Lincoln – whish is a strange little quirk in history, isn’t it? Tell me this – what is of Freedom Now – in the time context. We know all sorts involve time – more or less time. Horace [Gordon?] Hancock says – a Negro historian and sociologist – there are no such things as absolute and immediate solutions to social questions. Put that concept over against Freedom Now. How do you give flesh in history to the concept Freedom Now?
RM: I don’t know that that’s a concept. It’s an emotional expression –
RPW: And not a concept?
RM: - it’s a feeling – it’s an attempt to communicate.
RPW: I see.
RM: I think it’s a – we’ve got a poster in our office, and all it says is “Now”.
RPW: I saw it.
RM: That’s to say to people, this is how we feel. This is the urgency. I think it’s an attempt to communicate a sense of urgency, that is, this is how urgent the problem is.
RPW: It’s a poetic statement.
RPW: I asked a student in a Negro university this question some time back, and he said, why, it’s ridiculous to think that any changes are not in time and they’re not – a process, not immediate and catastrophic events. He says, “But I can’t bring myself to say it.” There’s a right there, you see – the emotional demand and his hard sense of social process.
RM: And it’s – what it’s linked up to is the fear that the white person and the people who run the society are going to take as much time as you give them. That is – and that they will always stall for time and will always say it takes time.
RPW: That is, they would use the concept of social process as a protectional device for delay.
RM: For delay, yes. That a question of For instance, it’s very interesting to watch Atlanta because Atlanta image not it’s the newspapers in Atlanta making distinctions between what they called over the radio I believe the doves and the hawks. And the hawks are the people out asking for instant equality – freedom now. And now they’re siding with the elements in the civil rights movement who are ready to work for social change over a period of time or something like that, and they’re focusing all their criticism on the people who are saying freedom now. Well, that’s fine in a sense because two or three years ago they were focusing all their criticism on the people who were saying we need to work some of these things out, you see, and now – O.K., these people now are moving up and they’re agreeing with them – we’ve got to work these things out and now people are saying that.
RPW: Well, that is associated with the question of the brinksmanship of violence, isn’t it – that the threat of potential violence can be used for social – for peaceful change. I borrowed a phrase from some of the speakers at Howard University, - to advocate this, you see. Play with the possibility. Keep it just at the boiling point but don’t let it boil over the pot if you can avoid that.
RM: Well, there’s two distinctions. One is that, first if Lester [Leslie] Dunbar of Southern Regional Council – he has an image which he uses – he calls it the annealing of the South. He says that what he describes as a process whereby towns or communities are heated up and in the process of this heating up they can be remolded and then in the cooling off period this remolding takes place and they go back to a different level or different form. And then they’re heated up again to get over another stage and things like that, and that this is what takes place. Now, this in fact takes place. It’s another thing to say that, you know, - to talk about brinksmanship in the sense of consciously, you know –
RPW: One is descriptive and one is prescriptive.
RM: Right, and I personally don’t – I mean I don’t believe in ________ - that this should be prescribed – that is, that – we are involved right in this now because we’re planning a huge summer effort - maybe involving up to a thousand students and people to work in this this summer in Mississippi summer.
RPW: On the registration program?
RM: The registration program – they’ll have freedom schools and community centers and there will be some political activity – the people are writing for Congress and carrying out this freedom registration and getting ready to challenge the Mississippi Democratic Party.
RPW: You mean really running for Congress or
RM: No, they’re really running. We plan some people who will enter in the primaries – the Democratic primaries – and also run again as an independent in the general elections. And there are two ways of looking at this. That is, one way is that this is brinksmanship and you – and it’s purely psychological - you know, you play with this to bring a community or a state or whatever up to this point, and under this threat you get a change.
RPW: But the threat is not one of violence – your offering violence?
RPW: You may get some, but you’re not offering it.
RM: Right. The threat is that the community will – there will be a breakdown, and rather than face such a possibility, that the people will capitulate and give in. The other feeling is that it’s inevitable, that is, that if a change doesn’t come about unless you really face this risk. And again, this comes back I guess to that we feel, you know, that we ourselves personally are facing the same risk – that is, that we’re not asking anybody to face a risk that we do not face
RPW: But you’re not proposing the brinksmanship of violence – you are running the risks of violence by way of reprisal or repression.
RM: That’s just a part of the risk that you take and that – at every point what you balance out is the risk against the possibility of change and you realize that and you tell the people that this is what’s open to them, is that the need for this kind of sacrifice and that they have to run the risks of this if they want real change. What I’d like to get away from is the idea of a few people sitting down and manipulating and planning a campaign which involves a whole mass of people and – without – and bringing them somehow to this point.
RPW: We’ll cut this at this moment. We need a new tape. (End of tape)
ROBERT PENN WARREN BOX 8 ROBERT MOSES FEB. 11 TAPE ##3
RPW: This is the beginning of the third tape of Robert Moses. Now, where were we?
RM: Were we talking about the – well, we were talking about the –
RPW: Freedom Day and brinksmanship. The distinction between the fact that social pressures are always exercised by force, and the manipulation of people to create situations of violence, to deliberately exploit the possibility of violence.
RM: And it’s a very subtle distinction, I think, in many cases. And certainly here, what – I mean we’ve – the problem is to bring the Negro people along, that is, to get them – or get some segment of them ready to the point where they’re ready to participate and know what they’re getting involved in. And are themselves ready to move. And then I think you don’t – at least that question of manipulating and talking about brinksmanship is something like a general in the army saying or planning that least you don’t have that, and then since you yourself are getting involved in the struggle and you run the same risks that they run, then I think that – you know, that eases, at least for myself, that question of – the more philosophical question, the question of exposing people to dangers.
RPW: To take a concrete instance, I’ve heard it said here in Jackson that when the student demonstration at the college and the shooting took place, here was an occasion where a slight push or a little support you could have had a real big explosion and then several troops – anyway, it’s _______ ________ advanced the cause of integration by ten years.
RM: I don’t think so. In the first place – personally, my own philosophy is not geared to capitalizing so much on that kind of outburst in which you get emotional involvement. What’s called for then is an emotional release about the specific incident which is in itself a trifling incident and the emotional release s is needed because it’s been built up for a series of these incidents. Now, the problem then is to capitalize on that emotional energy, to get a chance to get at those people and explain to them the whole situation that they’re involved in and what has to be done to make real change and then to recruit from within that group their people. That’s the time you can get people and start them to working. But now the tragedy of that is that we have no access to Jackson State – and this really is something that – well, it’s part of the war. If there were more enlightened people on the other side of town we would have access to it. But now –
RPW: The other side of town being what?
RM: White people. Because now what it means is that everything is down – subsided – the students are back. It’s going to happen again. It’s inevitable for it to happen again. Because there’s no transition, and there’s no possibility for building up –
RPW: You mean, the random violence burst out of – random violence without program – mere resentment - under the present situation?
RPW: Where if this resentment and aspiration could be channelized by SNIC[SNCC] and similar organizations, it would be constructive. Is that the –
RM: Right. The possibility for it to be constructive and possible maybe to find solutions. You know, now we hit upon these things at Hattiesburg – you know – we would talk about anything and tried it – we didn’t know – and that looks like a real breakthrough. I mean, it looks like some way of -
RPW: Explain that, will you please?
RM: Well, everybody has been talking about marshalls. I mean we’ve, you know, filed – we’ve protested time and again to the Department of Justice and we felt troops – you need marshalls, you need law enforcement agencies down here. Mississippi poses a problem that they will not actually enforce any of these laws, and that what’s needed is for people to do it. And the whole question on voting – this ties around the problem of creating an atmosphere in which Negroes are not afraid to go downtown. And what happened in Hattiesburg with the picket line thrown up around it was that – I think that the court house was neutralized. It became instead of enemy territory a white man’s territory. The presence of the picket line neutralized the court house and the ministers and the people on the picket line and the police guarding them had the same effect as if they were marshalls. That is, because they were there to keep law and order – the police. So this meant that for the time being it was safe for Negroes to go down, and they went down. You see, - and that seems to me constructive way out of an impasse. Now, it’s not sure yet – you’re not sure what’s going to be gained out of that. You’re not sure yet whether the white people will settle for this kind of thing, or whether they will arrest everybody on the picket line and – you know – return back to the former situation – put you right back in the past.
RPW: I’ve got to break it. I’m sorry. I’m going to be late to my luncheon engagement out there with the people there.
This is the end of the conversation with Robert Moses.
Original materials provided by the University of Kentucky and Yale University libraries and digitized with the permission of the Warren estate. Digital archive created and designed by the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University.