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Bob Moses stands in the old Mississippi Capitol in front of the old Mississippi flag with the Confederate canton showing. He is wearing a blue sports coast and looking downward
Civil-rights veteran Bob Moses, an architect of Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, spoke in July 2014 at the old Mississippi Capitol where the state had seceded from the union over slavery. He spoke about ongoing sharecropper education for Black children in the state and the need to demand full democracy for Black Americans. Photo by Trip Burns/courtesy Jackson Free Press

Rest in Power, Bob Moses and Emmett Till: Younger People Will Continue to Pay Your Legacy Forward

This morning, one of our advisory board members messaged me that Bob Moses had passed. The mentor who changed that Mississippi leader’s life and lives of so many other young Mississippians, fighting white supremacy and sharecropper education with every tool at his disposal, died at age 86 on the same day that Emmett Till would’ve turned 80, had white supremacists not brutally murdered the 14-year-old in 1955.

Both of these men gave it all, in different ways, to move our state and the nation past the curse of white supremacy that plays out in so many ways still now. Mr. Moses, a Harlem, N.Y., native who attended Stuyvesant High School and later Harvard, came to Mississippi in the 1960s to lay his life on the line and help lead the Civil Rights Movement. Here, Mr. Moses organized and watched friends like James Chaney die for the necessary cause of Black freedom—and then he later returned to Mississippi and stayed for much of his life. 

As a Mississippian, Mr. Moses was an unassuming part of the community, surrounding himself with young people, teaching them algebra and critical thinking and organizing at Lanier HIgh School in Jackson, and urging them to believe in themselves and their power to change the state and the nation. He also built alliances and legacies of inspiration to continue the work forward.

‘Say These Words With Me’

I met Mr. Moses soon after moving back to Mississippi and starting my first publication here, the Jackson Free Press, in 2002. I first met him through his also-inspiring son Omo at the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in Jackson one night when Mr. Moses was leaning against the wall during an event. On the inside, I was fan-girling—this was better than meeting about any celebrity I could imagine, a description I imagine he would hate. I soon learned that teenagers usually surrounded Mr. Moses, often taking the floor in conversations before he did as he sat back and listened deeply. 

It was one of my most important shut-up-and-listen lessons ever. If Mr. Moses, with his wealth of experience and brilliance, believed he was better off being quiet and learning from others, well, it’s certainly true for the rest of us.

It was on the annual anniversary of the murders of Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in my hometown in June 2003, though, where Mr. Moses had the most direct impact on me personally. Put simply, his words gave me hope and strength at a pivotal moment for our newspaper. 

We’d been publishing the Jackson Free Press for less than a year then. While we were quickly building the kind of readership we’d hoped our focus on covering the full community in a fearless way would bring, we were under constant attack already from some obnoxious white men who didn’t want to see our kind of journalism in Mississippi and who were clearly threatened by it. Of course, they didn’t settle for intelligent critique of specific stories; it was a constant barrage of sexist and racist attacks and belittlement, encouraging others subtly and not-so-subtly to boycott our advertisers, participate in smear campaigns against me and my team members personally, talking about my body, fixating on crime in Jackson because, you know, Black people. My challenging them on that racist crime shtick, for so long a favorite tool of white supremacists, would really get me beaten up and belittled.

I was already drawing strength from what I knew about Bob Moses and other civil-rights heroes. Put simply, the attacks on me and my team were nothing like what they had faced. It didn’t take “courage,” as some would try to say, for us to do the Jackson Free Press in the early 21st century; it took courage for Bob Moses and company to risk their lives daily against organized white terrorism. I knew this, but I admit that being pecked to death by a million dumb insults, courtesy of what I called the North Jackson Angry Men’s Club, was no joy ride and could sap your energy and spirit. I was already struggling with my patriotism in a country that would do so little, on the left or the right, to grapple with continuing white supremacy and misogyny, or even notice it then; it was easy to wonder how far we’d really come since the 1960s and when it would all end.

Civil-rights veteran Bob Moses spoke at the commemoration of the lives of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner at the rebuilt Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in June 2003 about freedom being a continual struggle by necessity. “One of the best things about this country is that you can live a life in struggle,” he said. Photo Jon Doe/Wikicommons

Then, suddenly, I was sitting in the historic Mt. Zion United Methodist Church east of my hometown when Bob Moses stood up in the front and started reciting the Declaration of Independence—a life-giving experience I soon wrote about. After telling us to “say these words with me,” Mr. Moses’ remarks made me understand that working (and reporting) for change and against white supremacy is an ongoing and often-unpopular struggle. It was really the day I started developing the tough skin I would need to deal with silencing and discrediting efforts. It was also the day I realized that our democracy and freedom will always be under threat—that’s kinda the point—and that we all must value it enough to work to strengthen and then maintain it for everyone.

That is not supposed to be easy, but as Mr. Moses said that day, “One of the best things about this country is that you can live a life in struggle.” In some ways, those words saved me. They certainly taught me to focus on the work much more than the people trying to stop it.

Changing Negative Media Narratives

Months after that quiet sermon from Mr. Moses, I got a call from a Lanier teacher telling me simply that Mr. Moses wanted me to come to the school—then, if possible. I asked no questions and drove over because, you know, Mr. Moses. There, a sizable group of students and teachers waited in a big circle of chairs; he was just one man in the circle, waiting patiently.

It turned out that The Clarion-Ledger had published a negative story about Lanier students struggling with state testing, with some students blaming teachers. A large photo of a student and a teacher appeared on page 1 to sell the piece. But, wait for it: The student, a young Black man, had done well on the tests, and she was a brilliant Algebra Project teacher. The student was so upset by the paper’s false implication that his mother bought up all the Ledgers in stores in their neighborhood and threw them out so folks wouldn’t see it.

I was there because Mr. Moses knew about my interest in correcting negative media narratives about young people, and I spoke to the group about research, causes and potential solutions including young people telling their own stories—and openly questioning the media. In the way that actions multiply forward when Mr. Moses was involved, that talk became others thanks to his protégés, then became the original Youth Media Project that examined how Mississippi media covered young people.

Early youth-media efforts eventually evolved into the Mississippi Youth Media Project, a full-blown newsroom and systemic-reporting publication for area teenagers (that will return after the pandemic subsides enough). Mr. Moses and his amazing family are known for starting and growing the nationally known Young People’s Project and the Algebra Project. But there is no real accounting for how often Mr. Moses inspired people in his larger universe to do the hard work on their own and with other collaborators.

To me, that always seemed to be his point: get others to take exponential action to better our world for everyone. Work together. Pay it forward. Speak truth to power. Believe in the people. Get real information out there. Trust in others to handle the truth and use it to strengthen and guard our democracy. Those are my words, but it’s hard to understate how much Mr. Moses helped clarify my thinking within a year of starting a weekly newspaper in Mississippi. I am so grateful for everything he did, and every seed he planted, in my home state.

Best Sort of Outside Agitation Imaginable

Emmett Till, of course, was just a child and not out to change the world. But he did—in part by inspiring so many young people of various races to put their lives on the line for Black freedom. His mother opened his casket, showing the world what entrenched race violence really looks like when you don’t turn away and pretend it’s always somewhere else.

It wasn’t like race violence, including against Black boys, was new in Mississippi then. White-supremacist violence—from lynchings of individual people on trumped-up charges in front of bloodthirsty white crowds to full-on race massacres to stop political gatherings and voting—had ruled in Mississippi since Reconstruction. During the pandemic, I’ve gone on road trips to the majority of our state’s 82 counties, and every one of them so far has a history of white terrorism in the form of often-long lists of lynchings and, in many cases, rull-on white riots and massacres. That didn’t surprise me, but confronting the history county-by-county is staggering.

Cousins Emmett Till (left) and Wheeler Parker (back right) wheel around Argo-Summit, Ill., with family friend Joe B. Williams (front right). Parker said this photo was taken some time between 1949-1950. White men killed 14-year-old Till in 1955, walking free despite their guilt, helping ignite the Civil Rights Movement. Photo by Wheeler Parker Jr.

But the disfigured face of young Mr. Till on the cover of Jet magazine and the massive media coverage of a racist circus of a trial in the Tallahatchie Courthouse in Sumner was a tipping point for so many—and especially an upcoming generation ready for change that included a young math whiz from Harlem. One outcome of the boy’s murder was that Mississippi would soon be blessed with the work of a multi-racial collaboration civil-rights activists like Bob Moses from here and elsewhere who joined their minds and efforts to break up the racist status quo and end Jim Crow—the best sort of outside agitation imaginable. 

Now, younger Mississippians are crawling up on the shoulders of these heroes who, over many decades, laid the groundwork for their work last summer to finally get the symbol of white terrorism out of the state flag. Like Mr. Moses and others, they are determined now that the work doesn’t end with the flag change, which too many clearly expect. This is the kind of historic, informed through-line our state and nation need, and it will continue and honor those who came before precisely because they taught and paid the work forward.

Young Black Mississippians came together in the summer of 2020 to force white leaders to finally take action on changing the Mississippi flag and then continue to roll back ongoing effects of systemic racism. They credit heroes like Bob Moses who came before them for laying the ground work. Photo by Nick Judin

Doing work that challenges white supremacy and its various machinations that always, somehow, tries to land credit for anything good back at white feet is hard. It gets people called names, threatened and, too often, hurt or killed. But none of us can be free until all of us are free. That means we must all join the American struggle for equality that Mr. Moses explained so well in whatever means we have at our disposal, starting with speaking (and reporting) truth, including to those who believe they are powerful enough to stop us. We cannot allow them to use their power to keep white supremacy in place.

Rest in power and peace, Mr. Moses and Mr. Till. We all owe you both, and we will stay the course toward truth and democracy thanks to your inspiration. And all our continued blessings for peace and comfort to both of your families.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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