Continue Bob Moses’ ‘Unfinished Work’ With Voting Rights Bills, Biden Tells Congress

Civil rights activists, from left, Bob Moses, Dave Dennis, Rita Schwerner Bender, Leroy Clemons, Myrlie Evers-Williams and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga
Civil rights activists, from left, Bob Moses, Dave Dennis, Rita Schwerner Bender, Leroy Clemons, Myrlie Evers-Williams and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., gather outside Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Miss., Sunday, June 15, 2014, and sing "We Shall Overcome," during a commemorative service for three civil rights workers killed in Neshoba County for their work for Black voting rights. The wreath is on a marker honoring the three men. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Congress should honor Bob Moses, the longtime voting rights leader who died Sunday at age 86, by continuing his work to protect voting rights, President Joe Biden said in a statement late Monday. Moses, a Harlem, N.Y., native, moved to the deep south in the early 1960s to lead voter-registration efforts in Jim Crow Mississippi.

In his statement, the president recalled a question Bob Moses once asked while discussing his plans for Mississippi’s Freedom Summer in 1964: “What kind of society will we be?”

“From the polling stations of Mississippi and in classrooms of our nation, Bob always showed up and never, ever gave in,” Biden said. “In his memory, let us continue his unfinished work and answer the question he asked us once before—to be a society that delivers on the promise of this nation.”

Those two bills would make voting easier nationwide and limit the ability of state legislatures to restrict voting, including in ways that could have an outsize impact on voters of color. In Mississippi, which still has some of the strictest voting laws in the nation, the For The People Act would significantly expand voter access, including by requiring the state to implement early-voting options.


‘Another Wave of Jim Crow Laws’

“With attacks on the right to vote unseen since the days of the Jim Crow system Bob helped to dismantle, I call on Congress again to pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” Biden said yesterday.

Though the two bills Biden mentioned have majority support in the Democratic Party-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, which passed the For The People Act earlier this year, they face far longer odds in the U.S. Senate. Though Democrats also control Congress’ evenly split upper chamber with Vice President Harris serving at the tiebreaker, the bills would need the support of all 50 Democrats and 10 Republicans to overcome a GOP filibuster.

So far, the bill’s backers have not found Republican senators willing to cross the aisle and support new voting-rights legislation, however. Since the 2020 election, Republican legislatures in states across the country have passed new voting restrictions under the banner of “election integrity,” often citing unfounded allegations of massive fraud. 

In Georgia, lawmakers passed a law earlier this year making it illegal to give food or water to voters waiting in line—mere months after voters in some majority-Black precincts waited as long as eight hours to cast a ballot. Still, despite a spate of new voting restrictions in other states, voting access remains more restrictive in Mississippi without any changes this year.

In a statement after Moses’ death, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, as Biden has done previously, characterized the wave of voting restrictions this year as a continuance of the efforts to disenfranchise Black voters that the voting rights activists fought in the 1960s.

“Throughout his life, Bob Moses bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice,” Johnson, a Mississippian, said. “He was a strategist at the core of the voting rights movement and beyond. He was a giant. May his light continue to guide us as we face another wave of Jim Crow laws.”

After the U.S. House passed the For The People Act in March, Mississippi’s junior U.S. senator, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, spoke against it.

“A small spread of voter fraud makes a difference. So I am totally against this. I will fight it every single day,” the senator said. “We need to have confidence that our vote counts—that there’s one person for one vote,” she said.

Hyde-Smith also claimed the bill would “undermine” the work of suffragists who “fought for women to have the right to vote”—a comment that drew a puzzled rebuke from The League of Women Voters.

Behind ‘A Cotton Curtain’

When Bob Moses arrived in the Magnolia State to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s “Mississippi Project” in 1961, it was white segregationist Democrats, also known as “Dixiecrats,” who were leading efforts to keep Black people from voting.

“I was taught about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe; I never knew that there was denial of the right to vote behind a Cotton Curtain here in the United States,” Moses later explained according to SNCC Digital.

With hurdles to voting that included Jim Crow laws like poll taxes and literacy tests, backed by threats of white supremacist violence, fewer than 7% of Black Mississippians were registered to vote in 1962. In 1964, Moses and fellow SNCC activists planned Freedom Summer with the aim of registering as many Black Mississippians to vote. They also set up dozens of “Freedom Schools” to teach topics that were not taught in public schools at the time, including Black history and civic rights.

Just as Freedom Summer began in June 1964, a lynch mob of Ku Klux Klan members, including a sheriff, deputy and several Mississippi Highway Patrol officers, murdered voting-rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in an act of terrorism designed to stop the voter-registration effort. The violence did not stop Moses and his fellow activists, however.

That year, Moses joined other Mississippi civil rights leaders, including Fannie Lou Hamer, to co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The group traveled to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., where they demanded to be seated as Mississippi’s delegates in place of the Magnolia State’s slate of white segregationists and where Hamer gave a powerful speech on national television about her realities as a sharecropper not allowed to vote in Mississippi. The effort put them at odds with Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had signed the Civil Rights Act months earlier. 

 

Back home, Charles Pickering, a Democratic politician in Jones County, told a newspaper days later that he was switching to the Republican Party, citing “humiliation and embarrassment” over the MFDP’s efforts at the DNC. (Later in his career, Pickering would help convict white supremacists for civil rights murders before former President George W. Bush’s controversial decision to appoint him to a federal appeals court).

U.S. Supreme Court Weakened VRA

In his statement Monday, Biden credited Moses’ actions in 1964 with securing the nation’s strongest voting protections law in history.

“The violent and murderous response to the Freedom Summer he organized helped galvanize support for the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965,” the president said. “A celebrated educator by training and by heart, he understood education is a great equalizer and helped countless students, and our nation, realize their dreams and full potential.”

In January 1965, Moses traveled to Hattiesburg to register voters in a “Freedom Day” event alongside fellow civil rights leaders including Hamer, Victoria Gray Adams, Amzie Moore, John Lewis and Ella Baker. The segregationist Forrest County Circuit Clerk, Theron Lynd, forced all applicants that day to take a literacy test that involved interpreting complex sections of the Mississippi State Constitution; he failed them all, allowing none to register. Police arrested Moses that day for picketing outside the county courthouse as Lynd denied dozens of Black applicants.

Eight months later, on Aug. 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, banning literacy tests and other Jim Crow-era roadblocks that southern politicians like Lynd had used to keep Black southerners out of the voting booth. The law’s preclearance provisions required U.S. Justice Department approval for any changes to voting laws in states like Mississippi that had historically fought to quash Black voting rights.

Since 2013, though, the U.S. Supreme Court has significantly weakened the 1965 law’s power. That year, Chief Justice John Roberts authored a ruling that struck down the preclearance requirement, scoffing at the idea that states like Mississippi and Alabama are any more racist today than northeastern states like Massachusetts. The decision split along partisan lines, with Republican-appointed judges joining Roberts and Democratic appointees dissenting.

President Barack Obama presented U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Lewis, a native of Troy, Ala., was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Organizing Committee from 1963 to 1966 and served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia’s Fifth District from 1987 until 2020. He died July 17, 2020, at age 80.

Immediately after that ruling, southern states began enacting new voting laws that added additional requirements for participating at the ballot box, such as Mississippi’s photo ID law. If it became law, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would weaken the VRA’s preclearance protections with some changes to accommodate Roberts’ 2013 ruling.

On July 1, the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act even further while upholding a set of voter restrictions in Arizona. In the ruling, Justice Samuel Alito, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote that laws can cause “some disparity” in voting access without being illegal under the VRA. Once again, the justices split along partisan lines, with Republican-appointees joining the majority and Democratic-appointees dissenting.

‘Continuing The Fight … For The Right To Vote’

In his remarks on Moses’ death, Biden urged Americans to mobilize to protect voting rights.

“Let us build the coalition of Americans of every race and background that (Moses) once formed to meet the urgency of the moment. And let us follow his towering legacy and ensure every American is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Biden said.

Bob Moses teaching math to students at Lanier High School
Bob Moses used a MacArthur Foundation genius grant to create and launch the Algebra Project in 1982  to help rural and urban students achieve math literacy and to train teachers, administrators, and community activists to be math coaches. He taught math himself from Lanier High School in Jackson for years. Photo by David Rae Morris

In her own statement yesterday, Vice President Kamala Harris praised Moses as “a soft spoken and big hearted educator and organizer.” Moses used his MacArthur Foundation genius grant to start the Algebra Project and mentor young people in Mississippi into leadership starting in 1982, which Harris lauded.

“Throughout his life, Mr. Moses continued to teach and organize. He saw a nexus between mathematics literacy and economic empowerment, and he founded the Algebra Project to expand both knowledge and opportunity to underserved students,” Harris said. 

“My condolences to the Moses family and to all who knew and loved him. Let us honor his memory by continuing the fight for justice, for equality and for the right to vote.”

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