Bob Moses goes to McComb
When SNCC field secretary Bob Moses arrived in the small Southwest Mississippi city of McComb to begin SNCC’s first voter registration project, an older generation of local civil rights stalwarts had already laid a foundation on which he could stand.
The NAACP branch in McComb, led by railroad worker Curtis Conway “C.C.” Bryant, had long prioritized voter registration. In the spring of 1961, Bryant read an article in Jet Magazine reporting that SNCC was about to start a voter registration drive in the Mississippi Delta. Bryant contacted Amzie Moore, his NAACP colleague up in the Delta, asking that Moore send some of these workers to McComb. Bob Moses was the only SNCC worker in the state, and since Moore was not yet ready to launch a voter registration drive in the Delta, he sent Moses to Bryant.
When Moses arrived in July, C.C. Bryant wasted no time plugging Moses into McComb’s Black community. One of the first people he introduced Moses to was retired railroad man and NAACP membership chair, Webb Owens. Every morning for the rest of July, Owens picked Moses up and took him around town, introducing him to key figures in the community. They secured enough support from McComb’s Black community–in $5 and $10 contributions–to support the project. Reggie Robinson, who had been working on voter registration with a SNCC affiliate in Baltimore, and John Hardy, a Freedom Rider just released from Parchman Penitentiary, soon joined Moses.
House-to-house canvassing began at the start of August. Some honors students from the local high school that Webb Owens had recruited accompanied Moses as he worked his way through McComb’s neighborhoods. He often introduced himself as “C.C. Bryant’s voter registration man.” At each house, he would show a voter registration form and ask if the person had ever tried to fill it out. Then, as a way to cut through people’s fear about registering, Moses asked if they wanted to try filling it out right there in their home.
The three SNCC workers held their first voter registration class in McComb’s Masonic Temple on August 7th where attendees practiced filling out the twenty-one question Mississippi registration form. Earlier that day, Moses had brought four people he had met while canvassing to the county courthouse in Magnolia. Three of them were registered. Two days later, three applicants took the test, and two of them registered. Voting had long been the priority of Black people in McComb, and soon, SNCC’s voter registration classes were attracting around 25 people.
News of the voter registration efforts in McComb spread, and farmers from neighboring Amite and Walthall County reached out to Moses about starting voter registration schools in their areas. These rural areas of Southwest Mississippi were notoriously violent and poor. The Ku Klux Klan was stronger here than in any other part of the state. Many locals in McComb feared SNCC workers would be killed and tried to discourage SNCC from attempting a voter registration campaign. But Moses felt like he had little choice: “You can’t be in the position of turning down the tough areas because the people, then, I think would lose confidence in you.”
Murder and the inability to offer protection forced SNCC to leave these counties until returning in 1964, but this is where SNCC learned to dig in and where it found some of its strongest support. “We had, to put it mildly,” reflected Moses years later, “got our feet wet.”
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1988).
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
Charles E. Cobb, Jr, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get you Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom, a Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008).
John Dittmer, Local People: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995).
Robert P. Moses & Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996).
Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).
Interview with C.C. Bryant by Joseph Sinsheimer, February 7, 1985, Joseph A. Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University Libraries.
Interview with Bob Moses by Joseph Sinsheimer, November 19, 1983, Joseph A. Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University Libraries.