[Amzie Moore was one of the key local leaders of the Freedom Movement in Mississippi. His home in Cleveland (Bolivar County, MS) was a center of activity for the entire Delta region. Interview conducted and edited by Howell Raines]
I had in mind one time to get rich. I thought this was the answer. I built a brick house, and I built a service station, and I had a store, and I worked from early morning 'til late afternoon. I was buying lots and trying to get ahead, and suddenly one day somebody came to see me and asked me if I would go out east of Mound Bayou. They wanted me to look at something, and I went out there, and I went in the house. Mr. Raines, there was a woman there with about fourteen kids, naked from the waist down. Had an old barrel, metal barrel that they were burning cotton stalks in to keep warm. Not a single bed in the house. A few old raggedy quilts were used to wrap the kids up to keep 'em as warm as possible, and no food.
Well, don't misunderstand me, I'd been hungry in my life. It was an experience that carried me back to my youth, and I could tell how a hungry child felt, because I knew how I felt. Just looking at that I think really changed my whole outlook on life. I kinda figured it was a sin to think in terms of trying to get rich in view of what I'd seen, and it wasn't over seven miles from me. I guess I could have seen it before then ...
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When did you get involved in the NAACP?
Well, I came out of the Army in nineteen hundred and fortysix, and in nineteen hundred and fiftyone, somebody held a meeting in a church and elected me president of the NAACP, and I'd never been [to a meeting]. Well, I think at that time they were just passing the buck, getting rid of it as a hot potato. And I decided maybe I wasn't going to serve, and then finally it was kinda forced upon me, and I just went on.
Forced upon you in what way?
Well, by people I suppose. I clearly understood that the individuals who met and had me elected were people who just really didn't wanna fool with it, 'cause they weren't gonna fall out with their white friends on account of it. So they just said, "Well, here's what we'll do. We'll just move it off to him. He's young and able to take it." I think that's how I became involved. Finally enrolled about six hundred members, became vice president-at-large of the state conference of the NAACP branches, and up until SNCC came in, it was a matter of legal maneuvering. Nobody dared move a peg without some lawyer advisin' him.
Were you able to really accomplish much in the Delta through that sort of...
I don't think so really, because, you see, the base of operations was too far away. We met in Jackson. That's a hundred and thirty sumpin' miles from here. We had a nice crowd, but we didn't know about methods and procedures for demanding things. ...
Anyway, in nineteen hundred and fiftyfive, Emmett Till was found dead in the Tallahatchie River, and they had newspapers from all over the continent North America, some from India, and it was the best advertised lynching that I had ever heard. Personally, I think this was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in the twentieth century. ... From that point on, Mississippi began to move.
Following the Freedom Bus Ride in nineteen hundred and sixtyone, I was invited to Atlanta by Bob Moses.
How did you meet him?
He came down and spent a while and invited me to the meeting in Atlanta. It must have been the spring before I went over the following fall.
Why did he come to you?
Now, that's the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, and I don't know until yet why Bob came to me, but he found me and spent most of the time that summer at my house. In the fall of that year, I went to Atlanta to the meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and invited them to come to Mississippi. So they came, set up their first office in Jackson, Mississippi, and then kind of spread it out all over the state. Activities were going on in McComb, Jackson, Indianola, Cleveland, Ruleville. ... They had more courage than any group of people I've ever met.
In that initial meeting that you had with Moses, did y'all discuss voter-registration tactics?
Well ... Moses and I talked about it when he was here visiting me in the summer. The first thing we had to try to figure out: How can we expose the conditions in Mississippi with reference to people voting? How can we uncover what is covered? So then we got together, we went into homes, we persuaded people to go up and register. We had cameras from everywhere, television, the newspapers, and the whole thing was brought out. ...
You knew they would be turned away?
Oh, we were well aware of that ...
Was it generally known that you were working with SNCC?
I think so. Of course, there was a little jealousy at that time between the N-Double-A-C-P and SNCC. The N-Double-A-C-P at that time seemed to have been a legal organization that required going to court and this type thing.
SNCC was an organization of strong, intelligent, young people who had no fear of death and certainly did not hesitate to get about the business for which they came here. It wasn't a matter of meeting in the Masonic Order or office or at a church to do this. They met anywhere, at any time. One great thing I think was introduced in the South with reference to SNCC's tactics was the business of organizing leadership. If 'leven people went to jail this evening who the power structure considered leaders, tomorrow morning you had 'leven more out there. [Laughs] And the next morning 'leven more.
I found that SNCC was for business, live or die, sink or swim, survive or perish. They were moving, and nobody seemed to worry about whether he was gonna live or die. [Laughs]
... Are you gonna sit here and tell me that didn't cross your mind?
Sho' I was scared to death. Now don't misunderstand me. [Laughs] Yeah. ... It came across my mind because I was constantly threatened. I was called at night and told, "In five minutes, your house gon' blow up." If I'd run out, I coulda been shot, and if I had stayed in, I coulda been blown to pieces. So then, here I am between two opinions. I've got to decide to stay in the house or run out. I mean, what's "safe" ...?
Did you get any adverse reaction from your N- Double-A-C-P associates when you ...
[Laughs] When I went over to SNCC? Well, naturally.
What form did it take?
Well ...it was like, "Maybe these kids don't know what they're doing. ... It could get a lotta people hurt." I think what I really did was stayed away from N-Double-A-C-P meetings for years. Now, I didn't join an organization with SNCC. I just worked with 'em. That's more or less how it was. Now, the NAACP certainly has done a lot of great things. Don't misunderstand me. ... Mr. [Roy] Wilkins, he's a fine man. He'd fly down and hold our conferences and hold our annual "days" and raise our freedom money and be advised by different people outa New York office. And that was it.
But when an individual stood at a courthouse like the courthouse in Greenwood and in Greenville and watched tiny figures [of the SNCC workers] standing against a huge column. ... [against white] triggermen and drivers and lookout men riding in automobiles with automatic guns ... how they stood ... how gladly they got in the front of that line, those leaders, and went to jail! It didn't seem to bother 'em. It was an awakening for me ...
Why did SCLC never create the kind of impact on Mississippi that it did in other Southern states?
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Well, SCLC had a group of preachers following it. Now don't misunderstand me, I think the world and all of ministers. I don't have anything against ministers, but their outlook was entirely different from SNCC's young people. Kids wore blue jeans, and I used to have sleeping in my house six and eight and ten, twelve, who had come. I bought a lots of cheese, and always we'd eat cheese and peaches, and sometimes we would get spaghetti and ground chuck or ground beef and make a huge tub of meatballs and spaghetti to fill everybody up. And this is how we were, and everybody knew they were there, wasn't any secret. They'd eat that without complaining. ... You know they're being really persecuted and pushed to the wall, and they always had a smile and was always ready to try to do something. ... To me, it was just a new leader. ...
Not long after he began sponsoring SNCC's work in the Delta, he came to the attention of journalists-and of white Mississippians who read their reports. He received a call from a white man he knew fairly well.
He wanted me to come see him, and he picked up a church magazine that carried an article about myself and said to me, "You know if these kids go to school together, they're going to fall in love and marry. That spells integration."
And I said to him, "Well, maybe it's better to marry than to burn."
Copyright © Amzie Moore & Howell Raines. 1977