Robert Moses was a highly educated man who grew up in Harlem. The early rumblings of the youth centered protest movement stirred Moses to go south. Naturally, he sought out Rev. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. However, many in that organization did not know what to think about the quiet, hardworking man who wore horn-rimmed glasses.
Some suspected that Moses might have been a communist – people in the movement worried about communist infiltration because movement opponents used that accusation to discredit the groups. Some may have even thought that Moses was an FBI informant.
Moses soon fell under the sway of Ella Baker, another SCLC staffer viewed suspiciously by the SCLC’s patriarchy because she was a female who was not sufficiently deferential to the organizations clergy based leadership. She also adhered to his novel leadership style called participatory democracy.
Moses started working with Baker around the time that the latter became an advisor to the student sit-in movement that ultimately led to the creation of one of the movements most important organizations SNCC. SCLC leaders may have hoped that Baker would convince the students to merge with the older organization. She advised them to remain independent.
From Baker, Moses learned the importance of entrusting the people to leadership responsibility. That lesson paid dividends when Moses became SNCC’s field officer in Mississippi starting in 1961. Mississippi was a closed state rural and dangerous. Those who ran afoul of the power structure disappeared as if they resided in some South American country. Consequently, the civil rights establishment avoided the state. Native born Medgar Evers was the only national civil rights figure in Mississippi. He would be assassinated in 1963.
Before Moses moved to MIssissippi, Baker told him that he would have to rely on local leaders to gain trust and a foothold in the state. She gave him the name of Amzie Moore. Moore was the president of the Cleveland, Miss. branch of the NAACP. Moore had the kind economic independence that most Mississippi Delta blacks did not. He owned a service station and a farm. Moore had observed the student led sit-in and freedom rides movement with excitement. He understood that students would be willing to confront Jim Crow in a way that older black Mississippians could not.
Still, Moore had his own ideas on how the latent power of Mississippi’s students – once harnessed – should be used. Moore personally supported efforts to integrate lunch counters and Greyhound bus depots. However, he believed that what black Mississippians needed more than anything was the franchise. Moore and others drove home that point by giving Moses a tour and an elementary math lessons. Moore noted that the number of blacks registered to vote in many Delta counties could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Yet, the Delta was two-thirds black.
Moses listened to Moore and other black leaders. More importantly, he became a part of the community and used the credibility he earned from leaders such as Amzie Moore to register voters. The work was painstakingly slow and very dangerous. Moses was attacked by mobs and jailed on several occasions. Some people who worked with him were killed.
However, Moses’ work soon attracted the attention of young Mississippians such as Hollis Watkins, who joined the voter education and registration drive. The effort even sparked students to engage in the same type of direct action protest such as sit-ins employed in cities such as Nashville, Greensboro and Atlanta.
Moses noted that the activities in Mississippi also attracted the attention of SNCC officials in Nashviile. Soon, a few others outside organizers joined Moses. Yet, the efforts in Mississippi had a local feel. Of the 20 field officers in the state, 16 were native born.
By being willing to listen to, live with and work with those who understood the community, Moses was able to build an apparatus to challenge the state’s efforts to keep black disenfranchised. He also inspired and trained youth activists who brought direct action protest to MIssissippi.