(RNS) — The death of Bob Moses on Sunday (July 25) at age 86 should make anyone who dares meddle with Americans’ voting rights in this country pause. The life of the great educator and civil rights leader in Mississippi during the turbulent and violent 1960s reminds us that there may be no more noble cause and that it attracts powerful champions.
I met the 29-year-old Moses at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in February 1964, when I was a young rabbi serving Congregation B’Nai Jehudah in Kansas City, Missouri. Like millions of Americans, I had been deeply moved months before by the huge civil rights rally that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the Lincoln Memorial.
In February 1964, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City sent me to Hattiesburg as its official representative to participate in the interreligious Ministers’ Project, which included rabbis, Presbyterian pastors and Episcopal priests from all over the country. I spent a week in Mississippi supporting the town’s African Americans, who were cynically forced to take a detailed and lengthy test that only a constitutional scholar could pass, designed to systematically deprive them of their vote.
When the Hattiesburg voting rights drive began in January, only 12 out of 7,000 eligible Black voters were registered. By early April, the number had climbed to nearly 800.
The drive, based upon non-violent direct action, consisted of marching each morning for several hours with other clergy in front of the Forrest County Courthouse demanding an end to voter suppression. In the afternoons, we went from house to house, instructing Black residents on how to register despite the onerous restrictions that were placed on them. In the evenings, the rabbis and Christian clergy attended various Black churches where we heard stirring music, powerful sermons and again we offered assistance in voter registration.
On one of those nights, at Morning Star Baptist, Bob Moses got up to speak. A graduate of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he had earned a master’s degree in philosophy at Harvard University, but, stirred by the civil rights movement, he had left his safe teaching position at Horace Mann, an elite private school in New York City, and traveled to Mississippi in 1960.
Moses soon became a prominent figure as the field secretary in the newly established voter registration group, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, popularly known as “Snick.”
By February of 1964, he had become a legend. He had been shot at as he rode in a car. He had been knifed in the head by a violent segregationist, and, because no white doctor would treat his wound, Moses had to be driven around until a Black physician was finally located and sewed nine stitches in his head.
Moses delivered a powerful, eloquent address that night at Morning Star. He had a professorial mien and communicated in a soft voice but spoke in powerful cadences about the fundamental American right to vote. Fifty-seven years later, the memory of Moses’ magnificent oration has the power to stir me.
The next year, Moses organized the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project that attracted many young volunteers, including two young Jewish men from New York City: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who heeded Moses’ call to assist in registering Black voters.
That summer, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by members of the Ku Klux Klan, along with James Chaney, a young Black civil rights worker. Their killers were only brought to justice many years later.
Moses believed that a quality education was another necessity if we were to achieve a just and equitable society. In the 1980s, Moses organized “The Algebra Project,” whose goal was to help young Black students acquire skill in mathematics, a subject Moses discovered was greatly lacking for many African-American students.
When I returned to Kansas City, I wrote an article that appeared in the “Jewish Frontier,” a national magazine, about my Mississippi experiences. I concluded the piece with two predictions: There would be violence in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, and “total integration” would come to the United States within 10 years.
I was tragically correct about the potential for violence and much too optimistic about the end of racism in the United States. In those days, listening to men like Moses, it was possible to believe it.
May his memory and legacy always be an inspiration and a challenge for all Americans.
(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.” He can be reached atjamesrudin.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”
Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.
An interracial group of women and men founded the group that would soon become known as the NAACP in 1909. A coalition of white journalists, lawyers and progressive reformers led the effort. It would take another 11 years until, in 1920, James Weldon Johnson became the first Black person to formally serve as its top official.
A violent attack by white people on the Black community in Abraham Lincoln’s longtime hometown inspired the NAACP’s founding. In August 1908, two African American men in Springfield, Illinois were accused without clear evidence of murder and assault and taken into custody.
Two of the NAACP’s most prominent African American founders were W.E.B. Du Bois, a sociologist, historian, activist and author, and the journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who had been publicly challenging lynching since the early 1890s.
They were joined by a number of white people, including New York Post publisher Oswald Garrison Villard and social worker Florence Kelley in issuing “the call” for racial justice on the centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth: Feb. 12, 1909.
The group organized a precursor to the NAACP known as the National Negro Committee in 1909, which built on earlier efforts known as the Niagara Movement. This loose affiliation of Black and white people called on “all believers in democracy to join in a national conference for the discussion of present evils, the voicing of protests, and the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.” Du Bois chaired a May 1910 conference that led to the NAACP’s official formation.
As the historian Patricia Sullivan writes the NAACP emerged as a “militant” group focused on ensuring equal protection of under the law for Black Americans.
The NAACP’s founders, in their words, envisioned a moral struggle for the “brain and soul of America.” They saw lynching as the preeminent threat not only to Black life in America but to democracy itself, and they began to organize chapters across the nation to wage legal challenges to violence and segregation.
The group also focused its early efforts on challenging portrayals of Black men as violent brutes, starting its own publication in 1910, The Crisis. Du Bois was tapped to edit the publication, and Wells was excluded from this early work despite her expertise and prominence as a writer – an exclusion she later blamed on Du Bois.
James Weldon Johnson joined the organization as a field secretary in 1916 and quickly expanded the NAACP’s work into the U.S. South. Johnson was already an accomplished figure, having served as U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua under the Taft and Roosevelt administrations.
Johnson also wrote a novel called “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” – a powerful literary work about a Black man born with skin light enough to pass for white. And he wrote, with his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which to this day serves as the unofficial Black national anthem.
As field secretary, Johnson oversaw circulation of The Crisis throughout the South. The NAACP’s membership grew from 8,765 in 1916 to 90,000 in 1920 as the number of its local chapters exploded from 70 to 395. Johnson also organized more than 10,000 marchers in the NAACP’s Silent Protest Parade of 1917 – the first major street protest staged against lynching in the U.S. James Weldon Johnson became the first Black American to head the NAACP in 1920. Library of Congress
These clear successes led the board to name Johnson to be the first person – and the first Black American – to serve as the NAACP’s executive secretary in November 1920, cementing Black control over the organization. He united the hundreds of newly organized local branches in national legal challenges to white violence and anti-Black discrimination, and made the NAACP the most influential organization in the fight for Black equality before World War II.
Johnson united local chapters in advocating for the introduction of an anti-lynching bill in Congress in 1921. Despite efforts in 2020 to finally accomplish this goal, the U.S. still lacks a law on the books outlawing racist lynching.
Johnson did, however, preside over the NAACP when the group notched its first of many major Supreme Court wins. In 1927, the court ruled in Nixon v. Herndon that a Texas law barring Black people from participating in Democratic Party primaries violated the constitution.
Johnson’s tenure at the NAACP’s helm ended in 1930, but his ability to unite local chapters in national litigation laid much of the groundwork for numerous Supreme Court wins in the years ahead, including the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which marked the beginning of the end for legalized segregation in the United States.
Among Johnson’s contributions to the NAACP was hiring Walter White, an African American leader who succeeded Johnson as executive secretary. White presided over the organization between 1930 and 1955, a period that included many successful legal actions.
That people of the cloth are at the forefront of the current protests over police brutality should not be a surprise.
From the earliest times of the United States’ history, religious leaders have led the struggle for liberation and racial justice for Black Americans. As an ordained minister and a historian, I see it as a common thread running through the history of the United States, from Black resistance in the earliest periods of slavery in the antebellum South, through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and up to the Black Lives Matter movement today.
As Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matters, says: “The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight.”
Sojourner Truth was driven to anti-slavery activism by spiritual visions. GHI Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
For many Black religious leaders in the United States, civil rights and social justice are central to their spiritual calling. Informed by their respective faith traditions, it places religion within the Black American experience while also being informed by African culture and the traumatic experience of the Transatlantic trade of African people.
We see this in Malcolm X’s 1964 exhortation that Black Americans should form bonds with African nations and “migrate to Africa culturally, philosophically and spiritually.” Malcolm X’s desire to internationalize the struggle in the U.S. after his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca also speaks to the role he saw Islam having in the civil rights movement.
“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem,” he wrote in a letter during his visit to Saudi Arabia. The struggle of Black Americans informed Malcolm X’s reading of the Quran.
Similarly, the interaction between religious text and real-world struggle informed earlier Black civil rights and anti-slavery leaders. Slave revolt leader Nat Turner, for example, saw rebellion as the work of God, and drew upon biblical texts to inspire his actions.
As the historian and Turner biographer Patrick Breen noted in an article for Smithsonian Magazine, “Turner readily placed his revolt in a biblical context, comparing himself at some times to the Old Testament prophets, at another point to Jesus Christ.” In his “Confessions,” dictated to a white lawyer after his 1831 arrest, Turner quoted the Gospel of Luke and alluded to numerous other passages from the Bible.
Turner had visions he interpreted as signs from God encouraging him to revolt.
Such prophetic visions were not uncommon to early anti-slavery leaders – Sojourner Truth and Jarena Lee were both spurred to action after God revealed himself to them. Lee’s anti-slavery preaching is also an early example of the important role that black religious female leaders would have in the civil rights struggle.
In arguing for her right to spread God’s message, Lee asked: “If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?”
These early anti-slavery activists rejected the “otherworld” theology taught to enslaved Africans by their white captors, which sought to deflect attention away from their condition in “this world” with promises of a better afterlife.
Instead, they affirmed God’s intention for freedom and liberation in both this world and the next, identifying strongly with biblical stories of freedom, such as the exodus of the Hebrew community from Egyptian enslavement and Jesus’ proclamation to “set the oppressed free.”
Incorporating religion into the Black anti-slavery movement sowed the seeds for faith being central to the struggle for racial justice to come. As the church historian James Washingtonobserved, the “very disorientation of their slavery and the persistent impact of systemic racism and other forms of oppression provided the opportunity – indeed the necessity – of a new religious synthesis.”
At heart, a preacher
The synthesis continued into the 20th century, with religious civil rights leaders who clearly felt compelled to make the struggle for justice central part of the role of a spiritual leader.
“In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a 1965 article for Ebony Magazine.
Racial justice remains integral to Black Christian leadership in the 21st century. In an interview earlier this year, Rev. Barber said: “There is not some separation between Jesus and justice; to be Christian is to be concerned with what’s going on in the world.”
Recognizing the rich legacy of Black religious leadership in the struggle of racial justice in the United States in no way diminishes the role of historic and contemporary secular leadership. From W.E.B. DuBois to A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize 1963’s March on Washington, and up to the current day the civil rights movement has also benefited from those who would classify themselves as freethinkers or atheists.
Before he was a Democratic congressman and before he was a civil rights activist, Rep. John Lewis preached to the chickens on his family’s farm as a young boy.
It’s a story staffers of Lewis can repeat by heart because they’ve heard it so many times.
“They would bow their heads; they would shake their heads,” he recounts in footage from an appearance at a Houston church in the new documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”
“They never quite said ‘Amen,’ but they tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues on the other side listen to me today in the Congress.”
The documentary, presented through a partnership including Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films, traces the journey of Lewis, now 80, from the fields of Alabama to the halls of Congress. The film portrays how Lewis was shaped by his faith and guided by religious leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. James Lawson, two advocates for nonviolent civil rights action.
“Faith is an integral part of Mr. Lewis’ life but also part of his activism,” said Dawn Porter, director of the documentary, who filmed the congressman for more than a year starting shortly before the 2018 election.
Though he is a politician rather than a preacher per se, Lewis considers politics to be his calling, she said.
“He started preaching to chickens and now in many ways even though he’s a layperson he preaches to us,” she said of the man with a seminary degree as well as a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy. “That is part of the reason why people find it so motivating and so comforting when he speaks.”
The 96-minute documentary, which is to be released on demand and in select theaters on Friday (July 3), includes what has become Lewis’ mantra in its title.
“My philosophy is very simple,” he says in the film, which is also expected to air on CNN in late September. “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
The documentary’s producers have created a “Good Trouble Sunday” promotion for the movie, encouraging houses of worship to host a digital screening starting this Sunday,for which they can keep a portion of ticket sales.
Faith leaders on a mid-June conference call promoting the documentary expressed appreciation for Lewis, who was diagnosed with cancer late last year, and his long service as a role model.
The Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church outside Atlanta, recalled seeking advice from Lewis in the 1990s, when as the NAACP’s youth director Bryant received pushback for suggesting the civil rights organization reach out to the hip-hop generation.
“He said to me: ‘Jamal, change is never politically correct,’” Bryant recalled. “‘If everybody is in agreement, it’s not that radical.”
In the documentary, Lewis, a member of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, recalled his last meal in downtown Washington just before embarking on a trip as a Freedom Rider seeking equal access to accommodations for Black Southerners.
“Growing up in rural Alabama, I never had Chinese food before,” he recalled. “But someone that evening said, ‘You should eat well because this might be like the Last Supper.’”
American civil rights activist John Lewis on April 16, 1964. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko/LOC/Creative Commons
Porter said those comments showed how Lewis and other young civil rights activists did not take their work lightly as they prepared for rides on segregated buses or sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.
“You’ll see in the movie that Rev. Jim Lawson, who was coaching and guiding the students, had them rehearse,” she said of Lewis and his fellow activists. “And I do think he decided that life under a segregated system was not the life that he wanted to live.”
Archival footage — some of which the congressman says he’d never seen before — reviews landmark, as well as lesser-known, moments in Lewis’ history. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On his first attempt on “Bloody Sunday” to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, he was beaten by Alabama state troopers and thought he would die as he protested for voting rights.
The film’s crew followed him as he supported fellow Democrats in the recent election and traveled with a bipartisan group of politicians and faith leaders on the annual pilgrimage to Alabama with the Faith and Politics Institute.
“Congressman Lewis has conveyed to all of us over the course of his lifetime that (the) fundamental right to vote is a foundational right,” said Joan Mooney, CEO of the institute, on the recent conference call. “So more than the transactional act of voting, Congressman Lewis talks about its sacredness, and voter participation in a democracy is the active expression of the values of all human beings.”