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.
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!)