April 23, 1963
A group of black students stood in line at a whites-only movie theater in Baltimore in 1963, waiting to buy tickets but expecting to go to jail. Sure enough, the police arrived and began arresting the students for trespassing.
In the midst of the black students, the police were astonished to see a white man, William Lewis Moore. A puzzled officer asked Moore if he understood that he was in line to be arrested. Moore explained that if the others couldn’t see the movie because of the color of their skin, then he didn’t want to see it either. He spent that night in jail.
No one in Moore’s hometown of Binghamton, N.Y., was surprised at his willingness to go to jail. He was known for standing up for his beliefs, even when he stood alone, as he usually did. George Lipsitz notes in his book, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (p.XV), that Moore had been a patient in a psychiatric hospital in New York who had dealt with mental health issues (1953-55); so, others who criticized Moore, felt like he went on his march due to personal feelings of desperation and his more collective desires for Civil Rights-look, at that time in history, talking about Mental Illness was verboten, as well as being ultra-stigmatizing. Are you telling me, too, that someone with mental health issues can’t perform ethical & moral acts? In which case, I have to reply “bullshit!”
Eventually, Moore moved to Baltimore, where he worked as a substitute mail carrier and devoted his free time to writing and demonstrating. Moore felt individuals could be agents of social change simply by acting on their beliefs. To make his point, he used a tactic that seemed natural for a postman: He walked to protest segregation.
Lipsitz continues to show why Moore’s death was a pivotal time for Lipsitz personally, and for the nation, nationally. Although born in New York, Moore had been raised as a white in the south; he was shocked when Mississippi Governor, Ross Barnett, withstood the Federal government, and would not allow an African-American student, Medgar Evers to enter the University of Mississippi.
Moore felt deeply embarrassed by Mississippi’s image as one of the most racist states in the Union. Being a postman, he decided to write letters of his feelings on racism, then walk to the places he wanted to deliver them to. His first stop on his march was to deliver a letter to the President John Kennedy in Washington, DC.
In his letter to the President, Moore wrote, “I am not making this walk to demonstrate either Federal rights or state rights, but individual rights. I am doing it to illustrate that peaceful protest is not altogether extinguished down there. I hope I will not have to eat those words.” Tragically, he would embody this as a self-prophecy.
Moore planned to walk from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss. , to deliver a letter in which he urged Gov. Ross Barnett to accept integration. Just south of Collbran, Ala., a white storeowner named Floyd Simpson questioned him. Moore was happy to explain his views.
As Moore was resting by the road in Keener that evening, he was killed by bullets fired at close range from a .22-caliber rifle. FBI Ballistics tests later proved the rifle belonged to Floyd A. Simpson, but the Grand Jury concluded him innocent, so no one was ever indicted for the April 23, 1963 murder. It was proven that Simpson had talked with (threatened?) Moore earlier the day of his murder.
Alabama Gov. George Wallace and President John F. Kennedy denounced the killing. Within a month, 29 young people were arrested in Alabama for trying to finish the walk begun by Moore. They were carrying signs that read “Mississippi or Bust.”
I agree with Lipsitz-Moore: a southern white, was executed by other southern whites. His courage and bravery, as a man who believed from the heart in equality & Civil Rights, even willing to die for his beliefs, ignited many consequential & important aspects of the struggle to come, to impact the meaningfulness of what protestors & dissenters were doing in the struggle. As with the case of other martyrdoms in the struggle for justice, often there’s the reinvigoration of the movement for which a person dies.
For Lipsitz, it was this brightly-lit paradox: a white man who gave his life for Civil Rights is so radically bizarre, yet true, that it’s able to get the attention of an entire nation.