Civil rights leader Robert Moses pioneered voting registration in the segregated Southern state of Mississippi in the 1960s, surviving relentless violence and intimidation by practicing what he refereed to as “guerilla warfare.”
“I was based in a community I could disappear in. Day or night I could knock on a door and someone would give me a bed to sleep in and food to eat,” Moses told award-winning broadcast journalist Pam Cross in an interview at Northeastern on Thursday afternoon at the university’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. convocation. “I lived with a network of people who had my back and showed me how to live in Mississippi.”
The conversation served as the centerpiece of the hourlong event, “A Tribute to the Dream,” which honored Dr. King’s legacy and commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act through a series of visual narratives, musical performances, and candid discussions. The event was part of “50 Years Forward: The Journey Continues,” Northeastern’s yearlong commemoration of the people, events, and organizations dedicated to civil rights in America and around the world.
“We’re here to celebrate and honor the legacy of those who have gone before us, those who have fought for the rights and freedoms of all Americans,” said host Robert Jose, associate dean for cultural, residential, and spiritual life.
In addition to honoring the Civil Rights Act’s 50th anniversary, “50 Years Forward” is also celebrating the 45th anniversary of Northeastern’s John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute and the 40th anniversary of the Department of African American Studies. It is sponsored by the Office of Student Affairs and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, which have helped organize more than a dozen upcoming events.
On Thursday, Cross and Moses discussed his path-breaking work as a civil rights leader in the Jim Crow South. Moses, she said, was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement as a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which organized sit-ins and freedom rides. In 1961, he initiated SNCC’s Mississippi voter registration project and was appointed its director in 1962. Twenty years later, Moses received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and subsequently founded the Algebra Project, a nonprofit organization that uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every student in America.
The country, Moses said, is running out of time to educate its youth. “America must decide that young people are worthy of an education,” he explained. “We are a constitutional people and a quality education is a constitutional right.” In other words, Cross said, “voter registration was key but education is a pathway to life.”
In his remarks, Ralph Martin, senior vice president and general counsel, challenged the Northeastern community to join Moses’ fight for equality, noting that a victory would transform Dr. King’s dream into a reality for the marginalized.
“My own belief is that this struggle should be everyone’s work,” said Martin, who characterized Moses as a selfless icon. “Whether in small gestures or profound measures, we all need to continue the work that will help our communities realize the ideals that Dr. King activated and that Bob Moses continues to pursue.”
Prominent students, alumni, and university leaders echoed Martin’s sentiments in a four-minute video clip in which they reflected on the impact of the civil rights movement.
“The message of Dr. King gave us hope,” said Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun. “It allowed us to see that we can be agents of change.”
“Ever since we opened our doors more than 100 years ago, we’ve understood that no one should be marginalized or excluded or limited in life in any way,” noted Margaret Burnham, a professor of law and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. “That itself is our foundational commitment to social justice and civil rights.”
As in the civil rights movement, freedom of expression figured prominently at Thursday’s event. Sand animation artist Charlene Lanzel paid tribute to Dr. King by creating a portrait of the civil rights icon while Anjimile Chithambo, AMD’16, performed an acoustic rendition of the summer anthem “Wake Me Up.”
Distilled Harmony, Northeastern’s co-ed a-cappella group, and special guest Kwesi Abakah, a redshirt freshman on the men’s basketball team, performed “Feeling Good,” an American standard popularized in 1965 by songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone.
Dressed in black and bedazzled in gold, the talented vocalists put a unique spin on the classic tune, lending new meaning to the song’s lyrics, “It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day.”
The event ended on a high note—literally and metaphorically—when the Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School Choir led the singing of the spiritually uplifting song “This Little Light of Mine.”
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” the kids from Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood sang as hundreds of students, faculty, and staff clapped along. “Every day in every way, I’m gonna let my little light shine.”
On Friday, Northeastern will host a lecture by Douglas Blackmon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Other upcoming events include a celebration of African American veterans on Thursday, Feb. 6; a panel discussion on race and democracy on Friday, Feb. 7; and a conference on gender and identity in the age of Obama on Friday, March 21.
Gallery 360’s current exhibit features civil rights era photography from the University Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections, including portraits of prominent figures who fought for equality—namely Jackie Robinson, Coretta Scott King, and President John F. Kennedy.
Use the Twitter hashtag #50yrsfwdNU to stay connected to the series and visit northeastern.edu/50yearsforward for a full list of activities.
– By Jason Kornwitz