Alice Walker and Bob Moses Reflect on an Obama Presidency and the Struggle for African Americans to Vote
Bob Moses is one of the leading civil rights icons from the 1960s. He was the former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. The New York Times once wrote, "In Mississippi, Bob Moses was the equivalent of Martin Luther King.” Moses is also the founder of the Algebra Project, a foundation devoted to improving minority education in math. Author, poet and activist Alice Walker won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for her book The Color Purple. She has written many other best-selling books, including In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens and Possessing the Secret of Joy.
Goodman: We're going to go to that clip of Dr. Martin Luther King; it was four years before he was assassinated. And on this day that is the inauguration of the first African American president, we go back in time, on this day after the federal holiday celebrating Dr. King's birthday. King was interviewed by the BBC. I think it was in 1964. He was asked if he thought it was at all realistic that an African American could become U.S. president within 40 years.
Bob McKenzie: Robert Kennedy, when he was attorney general, said that he could imagine the possibility of a Negro president in the United States within perhaps 40 years. Do you think this is at all realistic?
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: Well, let me say first that I think it is necessary to make it clear that there are Negroes who are presently qualified to be president of the United States. There are many who are qualified in terms of integrity, in terms of vision, in terms of leadership ability. But we do know that there are certain problems and prejudices and mores in our society which make it difficult now.
However, I am very optimistic about the future. Frankly, I have seen certain changes in the United States over the last two years that surprise me. I've seen levels of compliance with the Civil Rights Bill and changes that have been most surprising. So, on the basis of this, I think we may be able to get a Negro president in less than 40 years. I would think that this could come in 25 years or less.
Goodman: Bob Moses is one of the leading civil rights icons from the 1960s. He joins us from a studio in Boston. I am joined here in Washington with a special guest. Alice Walker will be joining us for our entire live coverage of the inauguration, co-hosting with me. Her most recent book is We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting for: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now. It is an honor, Alice, to co-host with you today's live inauguration coverage. Why don't we begin with your feelings today?
Walker: Amy, I'm so incredibly happy to be here with you. I have such respect for Democracy Now, and everything that I've been hearing from the concert moved me deeply. I'm feeling wonderful. I feel very happy. I feel that we have a chance now as a country to take our rightful place in the leadership of the world and in the caring of the world.
Goodman: Bob, as you join us from Boston, your thoughts? Did you ever think you would see this day?
Moses: Not actually. I didn't share King's optimism. And, you know, I was listening to the question, because the person from BBC said when Bobby Kennedy "was attorney general,” so he must have been talking to King after Bobby Kennedy left the attorney generalship. So it sounds to me like it was a little later than 1964. But I didn't share King's optimism.
And, actually, when I think about this, in order to become president of the United States, you have to be nominated by one of the two political parties, so the crucial thing for me was, in reflecting back, was the 1964 challenge of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the National Democratic Convention, because that was where the stage was set that allowed this to happen, because without opening up the national political structure in the country, this wasn't going to happen.
And, you know, we could have gotten the right to vote without the opening up of the national political party structure. And the party structure wasn't opened up by getting the right to vote; the party structure was opened up by directly challenging in Mississippi the right of Mississippi to send an all-white delegation to the 1964 National Democratic Convention. And it was Fannie Lou Hamer and all the people in that delegation that really forced the national Democratic Party to open up, you know?
Goodman: Explain exactly what happened, Bob. It was Atlantic City. It was 1964. Explain the moment when Fannie Lou Hamer came to the floor of the convention and --
Moses: I was sitting behind the credentials committee, behind in all the floodlights and everything. So, all I heard and all I saw was Fannie Lou Hamer giving her testimony. I had no idea that while she was giving her testimony, that the President, Lyndon Johnson, was so afraid of this woman, who had been raised and lived her life as a sharecropper and had been working on the Marlow plantation in Sunflower County, outside of Ruleville. He was so afraid of her that he went -- you know, at that time, we just had the three networks: ABC, NBC and CBS. And he notified all three networks that he had a special announcement, because he was terrified that her testimony was so powerful, and she was so authentic, that people would flood the convention, the credentials committee, with telegrams demanding that her party be seated. And so, he went and interrupted her testimony.
But then the networks decided that this was really an authentic moment, and they replayed what she said that night. And they did flood the credentials committee. And so, I think it was David Lawrence, who was governor of Pennsylvania, who was the chair of the credentials committee. He then postponed the decision, and they went after the delegates on the credentials committee. Johnson went after them, because the issue was whether there would be 11 delegates on the credentials committee who would vote to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and thus enable a floor discussion, in other words, that the issue -- we're talking about democracy, right?
So the question is, are we going to be able to get a full discussion and debate by the whole convention around this really critical issue? And, of course, Johnson didn't want that. He did not want this to go to the floor, because once it went to the floor and everybody had to get up in public and state their views, then the Democratic Party would have had to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And, of course, what Johnson was afraid of was that the whole South would then walk out of the Democratic Party. So this was really high drama.
And it was that -- I mean, Barack Obama could not be running for president if he had not been able to secure a party to run for. And the Democratic Party, from the time of after the Civil War right until 1964, there were no black delegates to the Democratic Party from the South, and it was that action, more than anything else, which opened up the national party structure and allowed eventually what is happening today to happen.
Goodman: Alice, can you talk about your trajectory, how you got involved in the civil rights movement? Where were you born?
Walker: I was born in Eatonton, Ga., actually on the remains of a plantation. My family were sharecroppers, so I could easily see from their experience of not being able to vote, although my father voted in the '30s and had to face down three white men holding shotguns, I could see that we lived under -- and feel every day -- that we lived under a very difficult situation.
So, as soon as I left home to go to school to Spelman College in Atlanta, I joined the student movement. And I was very much influenced by the people in SNCC, and especially by Bob Moses, whom I didn't meet for another two or three decades. But he was legendary, and he left such a wonderful sense of how one could serve the community.
So I went on to school, and my dream was to be able to help the people who were like my own parents and like my grandparents. And so, in the summers, I went to register voters in little towns in Georgia, and then later I lived in Mississippi, doing the same work for about seven years. So, it was because I truly, deeply appreciated my own people and my own culture, and my parents and grandparents, above all, and I saw how hard they worked and how little they received in return of money or kindness, and I wanted very much to change the South for them.
Goodman: You first got married to a white man, an interracial marriage in a time in Mississippi that it was illegal.
Walker: Yes, but that just happened because we fell in love. We did not go to Mississippi to meet. We went to Mississippi to work for black people. And if he were not there working for black people and our freedom, I would not have met him nor married him.
Goodman: It's very interesting, today in the news headlines -- I was wondering what you thought about the headline of the newspaper in Mississippi that apologized. The Meridian Star published an apology for its past coverage of civil rights issues, an editorial reading, in part:
"There was a time when this newspaper -- and many others across the South -- acted with gross neglect by largely ignoring the unfairness of segregated schools, buses, restaurants, washrooms, theaters and other public places. We did it through omission, by not recording for our readers many of the most important civil rights activities that happened in our midst, including protests and sit-ins."
Your thoughts, Alice?
Walker: Forty years is a long time, and it's good to have an apology. And I hope other newspapers will pay attention, because when newspapers and other media do not cover what is happening in people's lives, when people are struggling and suffering, it means a lot of danger, a lot more danger, a lot more despair, a lot more death. And I remember in Mississippi often feeling that we were working very hard and nobody was paying attention, and this was quite demoralizing. And that is when it was really wonderful to have our churches, because people could gather together there and sing and pray and look each other in the eye and say, "Yes, we know we are in danger, but we are going to keep going on.”
Goodman: Bob, Alice talked about knowing [about] you, but actually not meeting you for decades later. Can you take us from 1964, the battle for voting and civil rights, to what you see happening today, to the progress, and also warnings that you have for us, or suggestions, recommendations?
Moses: I try to look at this event through the lens of the evolution in this country, of the idea, who in our country are the people who have constitutional rights and constitutional responsibilities, and the evolution of the expansion of that. And I think the country kind of moves in cycles, which take roughly around three-quarters of a century.
So, I look at the time from 1787 until the Civil War as a time in which we had, yes, constitutional people, mostly white men, but then we had constitutional property: African Americans who were slaves. And then we had this horrendous war -- 600,000 people are killed during the war. And we come out of the war, and Lincoln, whom Obama is rightly looking at -- we get rid of the idea of constitutional property, but African Americans don't quite become full-fledged citizens.
And when we were in Mississippi, people all the time were saying, "Well, we want to be first-class citizens," the implication being that they were second- or even third-class citizens. So, the civil rights movement -- and here I think we have to give credibility to the sit-in movement, to the young black students at the historically black colleges who really dismantled Jim Crow in the area of its public accommodations with the sit-in movement. They actually dismantled that aspect of Jim Crow. So, then there was this dismantling of it around the right to vote and, what I was talking about earlier, also around the national party structure.
But, you know, when I was sitting in the federal district courthouse, I was in the witness stand, and if you remember, this was in the spring of 1963. And at that time, President Kennedy was still alive, Bobby Kennedy was attorney general, Burke Marshall was the assistant attorney general for civil rights, and John Doar was my lawyer. He was the chief litigator in the field. And the judge, Judge Clayton, was a federal district judge. We had taken hundreds of sharecroppers in Greenwood to register, and then, subsequently, the SNCC field secretaries had been arrested. And Burke had our cases removed to the federal courts. So, Judge Clayton looks over, and he wants to know why are we taking illiterates down to register to vote. And so, in a nutshell, our answer is, "Well, the country can't have its cake and eat it, too. It can't have denied a whole people access to literacy through its political arrangements and then turn around and say, 'Well, you can't access politics because you're illiterate.' "
And we won that struggle. We won it in the courts. And it was Judge Wisdom's decision in the case of U.S. v. Louisiana, where he said, well, we can't allow the state of Louisiana to have authority over the actual qualifications of voting. That has to be moved to the federal system. So the 1965 Voting Rights Act gave the federal government the responsibility of saying who could qualify for the right to vote.
But we didn't win the issue of illiteracy, and I think that's the issue that in this evolution of who are the constitutional people -- the children of our country do not have a constitutional right to a public school education. And you have to look at the Rodriguez case, 1971, Mexican Americans who sued in Texas for equity. Their case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court said, you can't come here into the federal system for relief, because there's no substantive federal right -- a constitutional right -- to a public school education in this country. And I don't think most people understand that. But following Rodriguez, litigation shifted to the states. So right now in our country, there are 45 cases in 45 different states looking at the question of equity and the funding of our public school system.
Goodman: Bob, a new report just came out from the University of California Civil Rights Project that says black and Hispanic students are more separate from whites than at any moment since the civil rights era.
Moses: Yes, so, here's what -- I think, really, that in our country -- and this is going to be a huge challenge for the Barack Obama administration -- in our country, I think we run sharecropper education. That is, an education that you can trace, when the judge asked me that question, because in the delta of Mississippi, sharecroppers were assigned to do a certain kind of work, and so the idea was you only needed a certain kind of education. So, if we carry that forward into the Information Age, then we will have serfs in our cities, just like we had serfs in the delta of Mississippi in the Industrial Era. And this is the huge challenge facing our country. I think what we need is a movement for our constitutional rights. We need a constitutional amendment, something which simply says every child in the country is a child of the country and is entitled to a quality public-school education.
Goodman: Alice, what do you think are the biggest challenges -- I won't just say the new president, Barack Obama, has to face -- but that everyone has to take on right now?
Walker: Well, I think Americans generally are not used to working very hard, in terms of working for the collective. I think in our country we have taken individualism to its farthest reaches, possibly. And it's very hard for people to think in terms of doing what is best for everyone -- and everyone, including people of different colors and different classes. So, I think there's going to have to be a great deal of soul-searching and an effort to understand that we are truly in this together, all of us, and that there's no such thing as getting ahead of some poor person forever. You have to make sure that the poor person has what he or she needs, just as you have what you need.
Goodman: Alice, you just returned from Mexico. I was speaking to an Ethiopian resident of Washington. He said he's getting calls from all over the world, that this is truly a global moment, some people paying more attention to our election and inauguration than they do to politics in their own country. What have you found?
Walker: I find that is true. I think all of my friends in Mexico are very excited for us. They met us at the plane saying, "This is a wonderful moment for America and a wonderful moment for the world, and we are with you.”
Goodman: I want to thank you both for being with us. It is believed that there will be millions of people in Washington, not to mention how many more millions who are watching all over the world, gathering in churches and synagogues and mosques and civic centers and community centers to watch this moment. The expectations are vast.
Alice Walker, thank you for joining us. Bob Moses, thank you for being with us from Boston, civil rights leader for so many decades in so many ways.