Why I Painted Bob Moses, A Civil Rights Hero You May Not Know

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Common Dreams

Why I Painted Bob Moses, A Civil Rights Hero You May Not Know

Portrait of Bob Moses by Robert Shetterly. (Credit: AmericansWhoTellTheTruth.org)

Editor's note: The artist's essay that follows accompanies the 'online unveiling'—exclusive to Common Dreams—of Shetterly's latest painting in his "Americans Who Tell the Truth" portrait series, presenting citizens throughout U.S. history who have courageously engaged in the social, environmental, or economic issues of their time.This painting of civil rights activist Bob Moses is his latest portrait of those who dedicated their lives to equality, freedom and justice. Posters of this portrait and others are now available at the artist's website.

"No living American has risked more or done more to make America a full democracy." —Bruce Watson discussing Bob Moses in his book Freedom Summer

"We are not here to bring politics into our morality but to bring morality into our politics." —Bob Moses

In an interview, historian of the Civil Rights Movement and author of the book Parting the Waters Taylor Branch said, "To this day Bob Moses is a startling paradox. I think his influence is almost on par with Martin Luther King, and yet he's almost totally unknown." What Branch meant was that the community building and voter registration effort that Bob Moses set in motion in the early 1960s had a revolutionary effect on racism and civil rights in the US.

Robert Parris Moses was born in Harlem in 1935, educated at Stuyvesant High School, Hamilton College, and earned a PhD in philosophy from Harvard. He was teaching math at Horace Mann School in New York when he saw the first pictures of the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina in 1960. He had been searching for meaning in his life, looking for a deeper way to engage, and in those pictures of young people, people like him, courageously confronting racism and power he found his answer. But Moses did not join the sit-ins. He headed south to Mississippi connecting with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). More importantly, he connected with Ella Baker who had been instrumental in founding each of those organizations. She mentored Moses in the importance and methods of grassroots organizing, teaching him to listen carefully to the constituency you want to help so that they are empowered to struggle for what they want not what you think they need.

What Moses heard from African-Americans in Mississippi—a state with a 50 percent black population where only 3% of that population voted—was the belief that the right to vote would change their lives. Moses knew that he would only be trusted by the black community if he demonstrated that he was there for the long haul and could not be intimidated. He began the education and registration campaigns. He was threatened, shot at, and badly beaten. Some of his friends were killed. Out of this singular effort grew the plans for Freedom Summer. The idea was that white America and the US government would not pay attention to this injustice, nor begin to correct it, until their own children were involved and taking the risks.

It was Freedom Summer that woke the country up to poll taxes, literacy tests, and the KKK terror that kept black people from voting in the South. It also launched the Freedom Schools aimed at educating blacks about their history and their rights. And then Bob Moses got another idea—why not form a grassroots party to challenge the segregated political structure, both Democrat and Republican, in Mississippi. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was formed in the summer of 1964 and sent 67 delegates by bus to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City to challenge the legitimacy of the already chosen, all white delegation. Perhaps the most famous member of the MFDP was Fannie Lou Hamer whose impassioned, personal stories of the violence of racism galvanized the nation. The effort to get the MFDP seated at the convention was the next turning point in the life of Bob Moses.

Upon arrival in Atlantic City it appeared that the MFPD delegation had enough support among the states and the credentials committee to get seated. But the Democratic Party's nominee, Lyndon Johnson, feared that if that happened, he might lose the southern white vote, and thus, the election. Johnson launched a ruthless campaign of surveillance, bribery and economic threats. The threats were so powerful that even black supporters of the MFDP—Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Martin Luther King, Jr.—succumbed to the pressure. Bob Moses felt betrayed.

David Garrow, in his biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bearing the Cross, discusses the events around the failure of many black leaders to support the MFDP: 

"The real problem ... was not the movement's failure to understand American politics... but American politics' failure to understand the moral justice of the movement's cause... suggesting that the problems the movement confronted had deep roots outside of Mississippi and the South as well as within... When the time for choice had come, old friends and allies had deserted the cause and forgotten there were some compromises a moral crusade could not make."  

Earlier that summer as MFDP was being organized, an excited observer said, "This is the stuff democracy is made of!" When the MFDP was sent home in defeat, another observer witnessing the threats and coercion, the blatant pandering to racist power, repeated, this time cynically, "This is the stuff democracy is made of." Fannie Lou Hamer said, "We went to Atlantic city with all of this hope. We went there because we believed that America was what it said it was." Bob Moses had been encouraging his people for years to risk everything for democracy. Many were beaten, many died for that idealistic dream. And now the Democratic Party, for which many of them hoped to vote, denied them. At least, as part of the deal of the MFDP denial, it was ordered that all future Mississippi Democratic Party delegations would be integrated. Many of the people who had not fully supported the seating of the MFDP thought an integrated Democratic Party was a significant victory, as much as they could possibly have achieved.

Bob Moses, a pacifist, went to Canada to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War. He then went to Africa to teach math for a number of years. He returned to the US, was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship ( the "genius award") and began the Algebra Project, attempting to use the same methodology of community organizing he had in Mississippi to build support among poor and minority students, parents and teachers to learn the math skills they need to succeed in a technological world.

In spite of Bob Moses' profound disillusionment at the democratic process in this country, his quiet, self-effacing, courageous determination did change this country and did make it more democratic. He was betrayed, and there is no way to balance the risks taken, the hopes crushed and the lives lost against the cynical compromises of the powerful to stay in power. But the power of determined people did have some success, did alter the consciousness of the entire country. What we need to applaud is not a system that works because of the wisdom of compromise, but a system that can be bent toward moral justice even when cynical compromise has been won by corruption and bribery. It is for that that I had the great honor to paint Bob Moses' portrait.

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly [send him email] is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth."

Please visit The Americans Who Tell the Truth Project's website, where posters of the Edward Snowden portrait, and many others, are now available.

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