Civil Rights at the Grass Roots

IN 1961, a young Harlem-born Harvard philosophy graduate named Robert Moses left New York to work for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta. Soon Mr. Moses became a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In McComb, Miss., Moses was severely beaten on the way to register two blacks to vote. Ignoring the blood, he walked into the registrar's office and was later arrested - getting the US Justice Department involved and making voting , as much as Freedom Rides, a focus of SNCC's energy in early '60s civil rights.

In the movement, only King had as much "depth" as Moses, says Taylor Branch in his 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning book "Parting the Waters." Yet the two men had opposite styles. Moses was quietly grass-roots, after the model of Ella Baker, an early NAACP youth organizer. King was a national leader. They only met once.

After the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party failed to be seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention, Moses became bitter and left the US to live in Tanzania with expatriate US blacks. In 1976 he moved back, studied philosophy, and in 1980 won a MacArthur Fellowship. He now heads up "The Algebra Project," which teaches young blacks higher math. He spoke recently with Monitor editors.

What do you think about the hot "Malcolm vs. Martin" debate among black youth?

The thrust that never got enough attention was community organizers. Ella Baker symbolizes that part of the movement. She symbolized the whole idea of developing community leadership. What is the tradition? It's neither Martin or Malcolm. It is Ella Baker. What grounded SNCC really was its work in the rural black Southern community. It was dealing with day-to-day problems in these towns that kept SNCC sane. It kept these young people from just spinning off on tangents. But then Stokely Carmichael shouted

"black power," became a media freak, and then you lost that grounding.

You were famous for avoiding the media.

The media was partly responsible for our undoing - Malcolm, Martin. Media technology was just cutting its teeth during the civil rights era, and it needed figures. Malcolm and King shared the spotlight. But movements need organization. The real hard work is always done by people out of the spotlight. It is a dangerous thing. You try to do both, and to do one well, you ignore the other. To become a media figure meant that your organization began to be neglected, and in the case of SNCC and with Martin, it

fell apart. The media is all-demanding. It feeds on you, it feeds on itself. The Ella Baker tradition was trying to take hold in SNCC, but it got crowded out when the glitz of black power came in.

Why has Malcolm X become such a powerful symbol for young blacks?

There is a strong current running through young blacks. They are trying to grapple with the whole question of nationalism, self-determination, and pride. Nationalism is a worldwide phenomenon. Nationalism swept this country - with Reagan as the symbol. Obviously, it is going to sweep black people too. Part of what the young people are grappling with is - what can belong to them? Well, rap, and reggae. It is easier to find a cultural identity. But there are no political manifestations to identify with. Ma lcolm ... doesn't belong to the larger society. He is something that is theirs.

The problem is - can we create our own institutions? And part of the difficulty in creating institutions falls back on something very fundamental, like trust. Being able to get together with two or three other people ... who trust each other ... with money you plan to put together - those things, those values, the ability to do that is hard to find.

Will rallying to Malcolm build institutions?

No. These come by habits developed as you grow up. Certain habits are nurtured in families or you are taught them or you are in a community modeling them. My generation had adult models in the community who were living stable and productive lives. They weren't doing great things, but they were honest and decent. You knew them and could contrast them with people who weren't that way. You saw all of it. But with low economic advantage people move out of the black community and we don't see day to day peopl e who live and work in the larger society. Doctors used to be part of the community. Now they are hidden. You can't see them. There are black doctors, but try and see one. Lawyers - you don't see them.

What underpinned civil rights?

It was based on deep values embodied in the rural class, the Southern family tradition, black churches. Based in the family. Based on a down-to-earth, bottom-up approach, and a fondness for realism. The male has to be in that family.

You have been critical of black politics.

Too much emphasis was put on politics at the expense of the community. If electoral politics somehow got hold on economic issues and became the instrument for actually alleviating economic problems, it would gain credibility.

There are many black mayors ...

Yes, all those mayors. But nothing flows from them. They are caretakers of dysfunctional cities. Their job is to keep things from erupting and making the whole society dysfunctional.

Housing and education are needed. Having a house is a real stabilizing factor. Blacks feel the importance of education, but the educational system must provide the new technology for inner-city kids to learn on. Drugs are the wild card.

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