Bill Moore’s Unfinished Journey April 28, 2008

Bill Moore’s Unfinished Journey

Ellen Johnson, the president of American Atheists, is on a mission to deliver Bill Moore‘s 45-year-old message that never reached its final destination.

Here’s the story as Ellen tells it:

My name is Ellen Johnson and on April 23, 2008 I am going on a journey to rewrite history and get some justice for the many Freedom Walkers who were prevented from delivering a letter for racial harmony in 1963.

The story began in 1963 with an Atheist named Bill Moore. He was a civil rights activist, author, marine corporal, and graduate from Johns Hopkins University. Bill was a member of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality and SNCC the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1962 the governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnet refused to allow James Meredith, a black man, to attend the University of Mississippi. It was then that Bill Moore decided to try, in his own small way to bring racial harmony to our nation. He wanted to see his home state of Mississippi do the right thing towards blacks. He decided that he was going to hand deliver a letter to Governor Barnett asking him to reconsider his position on segregation. He was going to carry the letter from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. It was a freedom walk.

The letter read:

Dear Governor Barnett:

I have always had a warm place in my heart for Mississippi, the land of my childhood and my ancestors. I dislike the reputation this state has acquired as being the most backward and most bigoted in the land. Those who truly love Mississippi must work to change this image.

Frankly, I do not know which is worse — to be raised to believe that one should be happy to live in poverty and die twice as fast as the white man and to be told to reject the ideas of those who tell you democracy means the right to vote whatever the color of one’s skin; or is it worse to be raised as members of a sort of ‘master race’ which fights a losing battle to preserve injustice with barbaric laws and police state methods.

The British were wise in that they dissolved their empire before they were forced to do so. Consequently, the governments of countries such as India and Nigeria are stable and friendly and democratic. The French, on the other hand, held onto their empire as long as they could. Thus the bitter strife in Laos, Vietnam, Algeria.

The end of Mississippi colonialism is fast approaching. The only question is whether you will help it to end in a friendship like the British, or try to hold onto what is already lost, creating bitterness and hatred, as did the French. For our sake, as well as the Negro’s, I hope you will decide to try the British way.

The white man cannot be truly free himself until all men have their rights. Each is dependent upon the other. Do not go down in infamy as one who fought democracy for all, which you have not the power to prevent.

Be gracious. Give more than is immediately demanded of you. Make certain that when the Negro gets his rights and his vote that he does not in the process learn to treat the white man with the contempt and disdain that, unfortunately, some of us now treat him.


William L. Moore

Bill Moore used his two-week vacation from his job as a postal worker in Baltimore, Maryland and began his walk. He planned to walk 40 miles a day for ten days.

He made a sandwich board sign for the walk — in the home of Madalyn O’Hair, who he supported in her Supreme Court case in 1963 called Murray v. Curlett. The front of the sign read: End Segregation In America. Eat At Joe’s — Both Black and White. The back read: Equal Rights For All (Mississippi or Bust)

Bill began his walk from Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 21, 1963.

Along the way, he was greeted by both friend and foe. Two days later on April 23, a motorist found Moore’s body. He had been shot twice in the head at close range with a .22 caliber rifle. The gun’s ownership was traced to Floyd Simpson, whom Moore had argued with earlier that day. Simpson was never indicted. Bill Moore was murdered because of his Atheism and his politics.

A week later ten more Freedom Walkers, both black and white, attempted to finish Bill’s walk. They never made it. They were stopped at the border of Alabama and they were beaten and jailed. They languished in jail for months. They were sentenced to death and fed muffins with crushed glass inside.

Four other attempts, involving hundreds of people were made and all were thwarted by the segregationists in Alabama and Mississippi. On August 3, 1963, the fifth and final attempt was made to complete Bill Moore’s walk from Gadsden, Alabama. Six hundred and eighty-two people were arrested attempting to finish the walk of a man they never even knew.

Forty-five years later it is time to deliver that letter.

Bill Moore did not die in vain. The Freedom Walkers (Sam Shirah, Winston Lockett, Bill Haley, Zev Aelony, Chico Neblett, Bill Hansen, Bob Zellner, Eric Weinberger and Robert Gore to name few) attempts to deliver the letter and their subsequent punishments must not have been in vain.

On April 23 I will be in Attalla, Alabama where Bill Moore was murdered and I’m going to finish his walk and deliver his letter to the governor of Mississippi. Then the history books will show that the Freedom Walkers were not defeated and that the letter was delivered. It may have been delivered 45 years later, but it was delivered.

She’s walking approximately 22 miles a day with her group, which includes Ken Loukinen (president of the Atheists of Broward County). The Mississippi governor’s office is expecting her.

May 7th is the tentative end date for the trip.

You can check out the daily updates here.

Can you help?

If you live along the route, then wait for the walkers and give them some moral support! You can even walk a mile or two with them, or arrange transportation and walk the entire day with them (Freedom Walkers cannot bring you back to your car because of the time limitations they have – walkers that join them are responsible for their own transportation). If you see them, you can make a cash donation to help pay for water, food, lodging, and gas for the chase car during the trip. If you cannot get to the Freedom Walkers on the road but would like to make a donation, please contact Blair Scott for details.

Spread the word about the Freedom Walk! Let people know what is going on and the progress the walkers are making. Tell others about the story of Bill Moore. Talk about civil rights and equality for all and live the concept.

Just a little over a week to go…

(Thanks to Rose for the link!)

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • Kathryn

    Thanks Hemant! Too bad I’m not in the South…

    Muffins with crushed glass? Really? That’s like the cruelest part to me, but I love muffins.

  • Erik

    What an incredible story…I’m truly moved. It’s so so difficult for me to believe that these things happened in MY country in MY parent’s lifetime. I know that even my home state of NC has no leg to stand on…we once held the record for most KKK members of any state. The freedom walkers will certainly be in my thoughts and I wish them safe travel and much encouragement along the way.

  • I like tea

    I find this story very difficult to believe. How do you arrest 682 people? Where do you keep them? It also never mentions if the people sentenced to death (also difficult to believe) were actually executed, or if they were able to appeal to a higher court (which would almost certainly be successful, since they didn’t do anything warranting execution).

  • TXatheist

    Go Ellen!

    I like tea….the idea of the good ol’ boy system of justice is alive and well in Texas. Look up the arrest problems of just a few years ago in Tulia, TX.

  • Erik

    I like tea…you’d be surprised at what used to happen in the south. Entire demonstrations of hundreds of african americans could be carted away in trucks and vans by the police. Especially if they knew all these people were coming, they could have paddy wagons lined up and ready to go. I’m sure that those who were arrested were released, although the glass in the muffins is highly likely since the racist police would have been the ones responsible for feeding them.

  • David D.G.

    I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and I am old enough to remember seeing such things as school integration come to pass. Reading about the atrocities committed against these freedom walkers, I find it shameful and depressing to think that anyone, especially Americans (and no doubt self-described “good Christians”), could have been so perversely and pervasively savage within my own lifetime.

    I have no words to express my outrage at learning of these atrocities — or, for that matter, my surprise that these incidents have not been more widely used ever since as a source of “never again” outrage to keep reminding people of the horrors of racism.

    ~David D.G.

  • Karen

    Very cool project – I only wish I were down there and could walk with them!

    There were many, many atheists and agnostics in the ranks of civil rights activists, and yet they are little known and the “immoral” atheist community gets no credit for having inspired them.

    Anything we can do to raise the profile of these folks is a boost to the image of atheism nationwide.

  • Jim

    I tried getting the info to mike malloy’s show on last night they told me Friday is good.

    Keep on keepin’.

  • Bad

    They languished in jail for months. They were sentenced to death and fed muffins with crushed glass inside.

    I read this and was baffled too. Even in those dark times, I don’t see how people could have been sentenced to death, unless this means figuratively, in that the muffins killed them or something. Isn’t there any more detail on this?

    As for mass arrests though, that sort of thing happened all the time though. You just round people up and march them somewhere or cart them off in buses to large pens and so on.

  • Ken Loukinen

    Hello, I thought I already sent this link… but I guess not. Here is a video of our freedom walk called “45 years to deliver a letter“.
    The two men sentenced to death was because they were falsely accused of raping 2 white women, the case was dismissed as the women were found out to be lying.
    The 618 arrested in Aug. of 63, didn’t all go to jail, but they were arrested in order to halt the walk

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