Sunday, 13 July 2008

Behind the Songs: William Moore

"What price the glory of one man?"
--Phil Ochs, "William Moore" (1963)

Freedom Walk: Mississippi or Bust

In 1963, the streams of religious revival, racial strife, and cold-war politics were feeding the swelling river of social unrest in America. Marshaling massive forces, civil rights leaders were primed for a wide-scale attack on injustice in the South. By summer the conflict rose to great intensity as blacks and whites clashed in Birmingham.

In Freedom Walk: Mississippi or Bust, Mary Stanton chronicles deeply influential events that occurred outside the massive drive. Before the tumultuous summer of 1963, Bill Moore, a white mail carrier, made his own assault on racial injustice. Jeered and assailed as he made a solitary civil rights march along the Deep South highways, he was ridiculed by racists as a "crazy man."

His well-publicized purpose was to walk from Chattanooga to Jackson and hand deliver a plea for racial tolerance to Ross Barnett, the staunchly segregationist governor of Mississippi. Moore had kept a journal that detailed his goal. Using it, along with interviews and extensive newspaper and newsreel reports, Mary Stanton has documented this phenomenal freedom walk as seen through his eyes.

On April 23, on a highway near Attalla, Alabama, this lone crusader was shot dead. Floyd Simpson, a grocer and member of the Gadsden, Alabama, chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, was charged with Moore's murder.

A week later a white college student named Sam Shirah led five black and five white volunteers into Alabama to finish Moore's walk. They were beaten and jailed. Four other attempts to complete the postman's quest were similarly stymied.

Although Moore was not a nobly ideal figure handpicked by shapers of the movement, inadvertently he became one of its earliest martyrs and, until now, part of an overlooked chapter in the history of the civil rights movement.

Freedom Walk: Mississippi or Bust tells the complicated, interwoven stories of Moore, Shirah, and Simpson. Though all three shared a deep love of the South, their strong feelings about who was entitled to walk its highways were in deadly conflict.

"This is a story--actually three stories--that needed to be told. A good bit has been written about certain of the civil rights atrocities, such as the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, the Medgar Evers assassination, and the executions of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. However, the circumstances of the life and death of William Moore remained relatively unknown. Mary Stanton has done a good job of uncovering and relating this story. Regardless of their possible shortcomings, both William Moore and Sam Shirah deserve no less."
--Bill Baxley, former Alabama Attorney General

Mary Stanton, an assistant public administrator of the town of Mamaroneck, N.Y., is the author of From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo. Her work has appeared in Southern Exposure, Gulf South Historical Review, and Government Executive.

"Stanton . . . offers a well-written portrait of another overlooked civil rights warrior, mail carrier Bill Moore. . . . Retracing his steps and quoting liberally from the diary he kept, Stanton honors Moore and his brave efforts while examining his troubled life. . . . A fine contribution to the literature of the civil rights movement and to Southern history."
--Kirkus Reviews

"Mary Stanton has mined the historical record and her own considerable powers of insight and imagination to produce this compelling book, which illuminates the complex social forces and individual lives that were linked to William Moore's lone walk."
--Morris Dees, Executive Director, Southern Poverty Law Center

"A white Southerner, literally touched by Bill Moore during his walk, pronounced his epitaph: 'I wouldn't say that guy was fitten to be killed. I'd say he was doing what he thought was right. I shook hands with the man, and he seemed alright to me.' Bill Moore was all right. But he was not normal, with his stubborn belief that one person, alone, might make a difference. By bringing his example back to our national consciousness, Mary Stanton affirms that same abnormal belief and in the process does us all a service."
--James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

"The Freedom Walkers made a valuable impression--on me, on their colleagues in the movement, and on the larger on-looking world. Moore's murder drew international attention to the horror of white racism, and the lengths to which the resistant white South would go to support and defend white supremacy. The walkers who took up his journey demonstrated Moore was not alone in his quest for racial justice; their interracial character showed that whites as well as blacks supported justice. While more celebrated events fill the pages of history books, these smaller but nonetheless important moments need to be recorded and preserved. Thank you for telling his story."
--Julian Bond, Chairman, NAACP National Board of Directors

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