1960s Civil Rights Leaders Hopeful about Changes Coming to US

28 June 2020

Bob Moses says the United States is at "a lurching moment" for racial change. He believes these days could be as important for Americans as the Civil War and the 1960s civil rights movement he helped lead.

Moses was an organizer of the 1964 "Freedom Summer" project in Mississippi. The goal of the campaign was to register as many African American voters as possible.

"What we are experiencing now as a nation has only happened a couple times in our history," Moses told The Associated Press, or AP.

"These are moments when the whole nation is lurching, and it's not quite sure which way it's going to lurch," he said.

Now 85-years-old, Moses is still active with The Algebra Project, which he established. During the civil rights movement, Moses was among the many people who risked jail time, violence and even death. In doing so, they fought against racial segregation and for voting rights in the South.

This Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 file photo shows Bob Moses, a director of the Mississippi Summer Project and organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) answering questions about Freedom Summer in 1964 during a national youth summit h
This Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 file photo shows Bob Moses, a director of the Mississippi Summer Project and organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) answering questions about Freedom Summer in 1964 during a national youth summit h

AP reporters asked those active in the civil rights movement for their thoughts on the current protests across the country. These demonstrations have resulted from police killings of Black men in Minnesota and Georgia.

Jesse Jackson was a close aide to the Martin Luther King Junior, the famed civil rights leader who was murdered in 1968. Jackson is the head of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a Chicago, Illinois-based group that fights for social change.

"We have kind of the perfect storm," Jackson said. "You've got COVID-19, you've got ‘Code Blue' — police brutality — you have poverty, and you have Trump."

Studies show that Black people have suffered more than other groups from the coronavirus, the resulting economic downturn and at the hands of police. And studies of likely voters show most Black people are opposed to President Donald Trump. But Jackson noted it is not just Blacks taking to the streets in large numbers.

"They have been more massive, more rainbow and more global," he said.

Bobby Seale, a political activist, co-created the Black Panther Party in 1966. The 83-year-old praised the current demonstrations for bringing in hundreds of thousands of people. These are far greater numbers that he could gather back in his day.

"I love it," Seale said, laughing, from his home in Oakland, California.

Like Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. He later was elected as Atlanta's mayor, served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and worked as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Young says he is surprised at both the sizes of the current protests and how quickly they formed. He recalled activists spending three months to organize for a 1963 Birmingham, Alabama campaign in which King and other protesters were jailed. He said only a small number of the 500 demonstrators they sought showed up.

James Meredith became the first African American to study at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Meredith, who turns 87 this month, has seen himself on a lifelong mission from God to stop white supremacy. From his home in Jackson, Mississippi, he said it is a sign from God that a young girl filmed George Floyd's death at the hands of police. He told the AP that kind of evidence calls attention to continued violence against Black people.

"Every time it looks like it's going to be over, the same thing that's been happening now for 500 years, happens over and over," he said.

Bobby Seale said activists should use the energy from the diverse coalition growing in the streets to register new voters for lasting political change.

Jesse Jackson suggested that the demonstrators, in addition to calling for police reforms, should expand their efforts. "Racism is bone deep; it's not just police," he said.

Former U.S. Senator Fred Harris, 89, is the last surviving member of the 1968 Kerner Commission. That was a government effort to examine the riots in American cities at the time. Harris said he is "as angry as the protesters" because racism, inequality and poverty continue to exist all these years later. But he warned that violence leads to more injustice.

"I'm hopeful, though," Harris, who is white, said from his home in New Mexico.

But Bob Moses is not as sure. America has "lurched" forward racially, then fallen back before. The freeing of African slaves after the Civil War eventually led to segregation in the South. Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolence movement and racial progress slowed after his death.

But Moses also thinks the video of Floyd dying slowly under a white police officer's knee presents a powerful image.

"Some Americans were shocked, it seems to me, to discover they had actually been swimming in this deep, deep sea and didn't understand it," he said.

I'm Pete Musto.

Dan Sewell and Russell Contreras reported on this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

lurch(ing) – v. to move or walk in an awkward or unsteady way

quiteadv. to a very noticeable degree or extent

segregationn. the practice or policy of keeping people of different races or religions separate from each other

brutality -n. cruel, harsh, and usually violent treatment of another person

globaladj. involving the entire world

missionn. a task or job that someone is given to do

white supremacyn. the belief that the white race is better than all other races and should have control over all other races

diverseadj. made up of people or things that are different from each other