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And Gently He Shall Lead Them

Robert Parris Moses and Civil Rights in Mississippi

Eric Burner

Publication Year: 1995

"This moving account of a key figure in American history contributes greatly to our understanding of the past. It also informs our vision of the servant leader needed to guide the 1990s movement."
Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children's Defense Fund

"First-rate intellectual and political history, this study explores the relations between the practical objectives of SNCC and its moral and cultural goals."
Irwin Unger, Author of These United States and Postwar America

"Robert Moses emerges from these pages as that rare modern hero, the man whose life enacts his principles, the rebel who steadfastly refuses to be victim or executioner and who mistrusts even his own leadership out of commitment to cultivating the strength, self-reliance, and solidarity of those with and for whom he is working. Eric Burner's engrossing account of Robert Moses's legendary career brings alive the everyday realities of the Civil Rights Movement, especially the gruelling campaign for voter registration and political organization in Mississippi."
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Eleonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities, Emory University, author of Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South

Next to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, Bob Moses was arguably one of the most influential and respected leaders of the civil rights movement. Quiet and intensely private, Moses quickly became legendary as a man whose conduct exemplified leadership by example. He once resigned as head of the Council of Federated Organizations because "my position there was too strong, too central." Despite his centrality to the most important social movement in modern American history, Moses' life and the philosophy on which it is based have only been given cursory treatment and have never been the subject of a book-length biography.

Biography is, by its very nature, a complicated act of recovery, even more so when the life under scrutiny deliberately avoids such attention. Eric Burner therefore sets out here not to reveal the "secret" Bob Moses, but to examine his moral philosophy and his political and ideological evolution, to provide a picture of the public person. In essence, his book provides a primer on a figure who spoke by silence and led through example.

Moses spent almost three years in Mississippi trying to awaken the state's black citizens to their moral and legal rights before the fateful summer of 1964 would thrust him and the Freedom Summer movement into the national spotlight. We follow him through the civil rights years — his intensive, fearless tradition of community organizing, his involvements with SNCC and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and his negotiations with the Department of Justice —as Burner chronicles both Moses' political activity and his intellectual development, revealing the strong influence of French philosopher Albert Camus on his life and work.

Moses' life is marked by the conflict between morality and politics, between purity and pragmatism, which ultimately left him disillusioned with a traditional Left that could talk only of coalitions and leaders from the top. Pursued by the Vietnam draft board for a war which he opposed, Moses fled to Canada in 1966 before departing for Africa in 1969 to spend the next decade teaching in Tanzania. Returning in 1977 under President Carter's amnesty program, he was awarded a five-year MacArthur genius grant in 1982 to establish and develop an innovative program to teach math to Boston's inner-city youth called the Algebra Project. The success of the program, which Moses has referred to as our version of Civil Rights 1992, has landed him on the cover of The New York Times Magazineemphasizing the new, central dimension that math and computer literacy lends to the pursuit of equal rights.

And Gently He Shall Lead Them is the story of a remarkable man, an elusive hero of the civil rights movement whose flight from adulation has only served to increase his reputation as an intellectual and moral leader, a man whom nobody ever sees, but whose work is always in evidence.

From his role as one of the architects of the civil rights movement thirty years ago to his ongoing work with inner city children, Robert Moses remains one of America's most courageous, energetic, and influential leaders. Wary of the cults of celebrity he saw surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and fueled by a philosophy that shunned leadership, Moses has always labored behind the scenes. This first biography, a primer in the life of a unique American, sheds significant light on the intellectual and philosophical worldview of a man who is rarely seen but whose work is always in evidence.

Published by: NYU Press

Copyright

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xvi

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Introduction

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pp. 1-8

Late at night on August 17, 1962, Robert Parris Moses returned to a deserted Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) office in Greenwood, Mississippi, that had just been ransacked by a white mob. Hours earlier three...

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1. "A Lot of Leaders"

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pp. 9-19

Robert Parris Moses was born on January 23, 1935, and raised in Harlem, New York City. His grandfather, William Henry Moses, was a charismatic Baptist preacher who traveled throughout the South raising funds for the National Baptist Convention. William Moses was educated at Virginia Seminary...

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2. "To 'Uncover What Is Covered' "

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pp. 20-31

Twenty-five year-old Robert Moses arrived by bus in Georgia early in the summer of 1960 to find only three full-time workers in the Atlanta SCLC headquarters. The office was in transition, the publicity-seeking Wyatt Tee Walker replacing...

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3. "This Is Mississippi, the Middle of the Iceberg"

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pp. 32-70

After Labor Day 1960 Moses returned to New York to his father's apartment and his teaching contract at the Horace Mann School in Riverdale. Late in the spring of 1961, he left for the South, honoring a commitment to work for SNCC...

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4. "Food for Those Who Want to Be Free"

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pp. 71-88

Mississippi was the hardest state for the civil rights movement to crack. It therefore offered the cause its greatest prize. In the early spring of 1962, SNCC workers resumed the drive to register the poor to vote, this time targeting the heavy black population in six counties of the Mississippi...

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5. "One Man-One Vote"

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pp. 89-103

The plodding zigzag efforts of the Justice Department frustrated and discouraged SNCC workers. This contributed to a heightened radicalism within the growing group...

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6. Young American Revolutionaries

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pp. 104-132

On Easter weekend 1963, at SNCC's fourth annual conference, Moses gave a speech outlining his plans for continuing voter registration in Mississippi's Delta. The need was for Ii not five hundred but five thousand" blacks to register to vote, but SNCC must realize that it was confronting a white monolith...

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7. Freedom Summer

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pp. 133-168

The Freedom Vote in the fall of 1963 was one victory for Robert Moses and his co-workers. The movement needed whatever victories it could get. Registration of blacks by mid-1963 was about three percent of all voters in the state; of all eligible blacks...

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8. "To Bring Morality into Our Politics"

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pp. 169-199

The initial phase of the Freedom Summer-voter registration drives, Freedom Schools, and the like-had failed to bring Washington to the Mississippi battle lines. SNCC workers hoped that the next phase, the attempt to seat Mississippi Freedom Democratic party delegates at the Democratic National...

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9. Disillusion and Renewal

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pp. 200-224

Beginning in the fall of 1964 Moses increasingly distanced himself from the organizational and policy discussions within SNCC. James Forman, SNCC's executive director, attributes this to the "almost Jesuslike aura that he [Moses] and his name had acquired." 1 Yet Moses worked with Forman to shape a plan for the following summer that they called the Black Belt Program...

Notes

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pp. 225-284

Index

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pp. 285-293


E-ISBN-13: 9780814739235
E-ISBN-10: 0814739237
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814712504
Print-ISBN-10: 0814712509

Page Count: 294
Publication Year: 1995