Not many days go by when I do not think about William Moore, the white Baltimore postal worker who set out in April of 1963 to walk from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi, to deliver a letter to Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett urging him to accept integration.
On his walk, Moore wore sandwich boards reading “Equal Rights For All & Mississippi Or Bust” and “End Segregation In America—Eat At Joe’s Both Black & White.” The cart he pushed bore, among other signs and sentiments, a “Wanted” poster adorned with a sketch of Jesus, captioned “Jesus Christ: Wanted for sedition, criminal anarchy, va-grancy, and conspiring to overthrow the established government.”
On April 23, on his third day out, and less than 70 miles into his walk, Moore in Alabama, about an hour northeast of Birmingham, was shot twice in the head and killed, his body left by the side of the road. No one has ever been convicted of his murder.
Moore’s final walk was his third lone “Freedom Walk.” He had earlier walked from Baltimore to Annapolis, the capital of Maryland. On his second walk he marched on the White House, arriving as Martin Luther King was released from Birmingham jail. His letter addressed to President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to devote his 10 days of vacation-time from the US Postal Service to walking to Mississippi, and offered “If I may deliver any letters from you to those on my line of travel, I would be most happy to do so.” White House guards refused to admit him, or to accept his note.
Moore, a former US Marine, had previously been arrested for standing in line to a whites-only movie theater with black people; their crime—”trespassing.” He also once marched around a courthouse, in 16-degree weather, with a sign reading “Turn Toward Peace.”
On Moore’s final walk, as soon as he crossed the state line into Alabama, he was assailed by white motorists who denounced him as a “nigger-lover,” and pelted him with rocks. On April 23, radio station WGAD in Gadsden, Alabama received an anonymous phone tip as to Moore’s location. Reporter Charlie Hicks drove out to find Moore walking along a rural stretch of Highway 11 near Attalla. Moore told Hicks, “I intend to walk right up to the governor’s mansion in Mississippi and ring his door bell. Then I’ll hand him my letter.” Concerned for Moore’s safety, Hicks offered to drive him to a motel. Moore declined.
Less than an hour after Hicks left him, a motorist found Moore’s body about a mile farther down the road, shot twice in the head at close range with a .22 caliber rifle. The gun was traced to one Floyd Simpson, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, with whom Moore had discussed integration, interracial marriage, and religion earlier in the day.
“I don’t see how anybody,” Simpson later said, “could believe in such things as intermarriage between the white and Negro races unless he was being paid for it. I told him they are having trouble in Birmingham, and I advised him to turn back as he would never get through Birmingham.”
Another white man, who had encountered Moore on his walk, observed: “I wouldn’t say that guy was fitten to be killed. I’d say he was doing what he thought was right. I shook hands with the man, and he seemed alright to me.”
Over the next month, 29 other people, black and white, tried to complete Moore’s walk. All carried signs reading “Mississippi Or Bust.” All were arrested and jailed.
The New York Times opined that Moore had died on a “pitifully naive pilgrimage”; two years previously, in the wake of brutal assaults on Freedom Riders, a Gallup poll found that 63% of white Americans who were aware of white civil-rights activists, like Moore and the Freedom Riders, disapproved of them. Just weren’t ready yet, most white folk. Many still aren’t.
Sometimes the people are ahead of the government; sometimes the government is ahead of the people. William Moore was killed for supporting what the United States Supreme Court had proclaimed to be the law of the land, eight years before.
After Moore’s death, Jerry Handte of the Binghamton Evening Press wrote this:
Bill Moore’s life was full of paradox. Although he was a vigorous crusader, he was a gentle one. He adopted such causes as civil rights, world peace, and bettering the lot of mental patients without the bitter invective and seeming hatred of opposition often characteristic of reformers.
His letters to newspapers were marked by humor, a quality usually conspicuous by its absence in the declamation of idealists.
Most crusaders are didactically sure of their ground: Mr. Moore usually admitted the possibility that he was not the sole possessor of wisdom, inviting men of good will to examine the issues in question together.
Would that a blogger or two might learn from William Moore.
In April of 2008, two people completed Moore’s walk, traveling the 320 miles from Reese City, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi. There, together with Bob Zellner, one of the post-Moore Freedom Walkers of 1963, they delivered Moore’s original letter. Which contained the words “the white man cannot be truly free himself until all men have their rights,” and “be gracious, and give more than is immediately demanded of you.” To Mississippi’s current governor. Who refused to accept it.
That man was Haley Barbour. Former chair of the Republican National Committee. Current head of the Republican Governors Association. Who recently dismissed Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s decision to honor the treasonous slave-holders who fomented the Civil War by designating April as “Confederate Month”—in a proclamation that mentioned not a word about slavery—as “a nit, “not significant,” harrumphing that those who complained were “trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t amount to diddly.”
These people haven’t changed. Haven’t changed at all since the days they left people like William Moore dead by the side of the road. All that has changed is that today they more successfully hide their hate and fear and rage and dark thoughts of murder.
Changed too is their party affiliation. In 1963, the haters and the ragers and the killers were associated with the Democratic Party. No longer. In the years after Lyndon Johnson elected to Do The Right Thing and commit the Democratic Party to civil rights, the haters and the ragers and the killers steadily oozed away from the Democrats, flowing into the Republican Party. Which since 1964 has consistently and deliberately employed overt and covert appeals to racism to achieve electoral success. Indeed, and as Johnson knew it would, the Republican Party thereby for decades flourished as the majority party in this nation.
It is hard to surpass for sheer ugliness the decision of stone racist Ronald Reagan to commence his 1980 presidential campaign by pledging fidelity to “states’ rights” while speaking in Philadelphia, Mississippi, notorious as the place where in 1964 three civil-rights workers were kidnapped, tortured, mutilated, murdered, and buried in a dam. But current Republican officeholders are certainly in the process of trying. Like George II, they don’t like black people, and they’re making that known using every means at their command just short of explicitly employing the N-word (and their people certainly aren’t afraid to go there). Some are now even flirting with the politics of violence.
And that flirtation emanates from the very top of the party. In an atmosphere where violent threats against Congressmembers have tripled, and the threats issued against this nation’s first black president are at levels unprecedented, Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 election, reacted to the passage of President Obama’s modest national health-care bill by instructing her supporters, via her Facebook page: “Don’t Retreat, Instead—Reload!” There she also posted a map identifying the 20 most “vulnerable” Democratic congressmembers in 2010, a map where these men and women were “targeted” in gunsights.
Palin has defiantly refused to tone down her rhetoric, denouncing Obama as “insane,” “immoral,” and “un-American,” hatching “schemes” that would make “good,” “hard-working,” “liberty-loving” Americans “beholden to foreign countries,” and repeating to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference her “don’t retreat, reload” line—which received a standing ovation. She denied that such words were “a call for violence,” claiming that the media is “so desperate to discredit the people’s movement, the tea party movement,” that it just makes shit up. She next coyly employed the word “shoot,” then, giggling, noted, “I said ‘shoot.’ I’m sorry.”
Somebody’s going to get hurt. And. They. Don’t. Care.
Hunter S. Thompson, in the last piece of consequence he ever wrote, observed, correctly, that “our tribe is strong like a river.” And then offered that “all we have to do is get out and vote.”
Things are a lot more complicated than mere “get[ting] out and vot[ing].” As Barack Obama has himself observed: “I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that. It was those women who were willing to walk instead of ride the bus, union workers who are willing to take on violence and intimidation to get the right to organize. It was women who decided, ‘I’m as smart as my husband. I’d better get the right to vote.’ Them arguing, mobilizing, agitating, and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable, I think that’s the key.”
But it is true that in a nation where an entire political party has allowed itself to become dominated by those who regard this, the nation’s first black president, as little more than a shoeshine boy, it is necessary, electorally, to cleave to the biggest and most powerful entity that would push back against such people. And that, currently, is the Democratic Party. Though it is likewise true that that wayward ass of a party can be a thoroughly exasperating creature. But our tribe is lost, I think, if, electorally, it leaves the river to flow off into various creeks, rivulets, eddies, whirlpools, backwaters. Flowing one’s own way electorally is certainly not “treasonous,” but it is not, I think, particularly productive. And I say that as someone who once voted for Gus Hall—never mind Ralph Nader.
In 1963 it was Democrats who killed people like William Moore. Today, the Democratic Party, although sometimes reluctantly or slothfully, more often works to enable William Moores to keep walking that road. Step by step. When the GOoPers would dump us all in a ditch.
My view, anyway.