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Freedom Walk

Freedom Walk: Mississippi or Bust

Mary Stanton
Copyright Date: 2003
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  • Book Info
    Freedom Walk
    Book Description:

    In 1963, the streams of religious revival, racial strife, and cold-war politics were feeding the swelling river of social unrest in America. Marshaling massive forces, civil rights leaders were primed for a widescale attack on injustice in the South. By summer the conflict rose to great intensity as blacks and whites clashed in Birmingham.

    Outside the massive drive, Bill Moore, a white mail carrier, had made his own assault a few months earlier. Jeered and assailed as he made a solitary civil rights march along the Deep South highways, he was ridiculed by racists as a "crazy man." His well publicized purpose: to walk from Chattanooga to Jackson and hand-deliver a plea for racial tolerance to Ross Barnett, the staunchly segregationist governor of Mississippi. On April 23, on a highway near Attalla, Alabama, this lone crusader was shot dead.

    Although he was not a nobly ideal figure handpicked by shapers of the movement, inadvertently he became one of its earliest martyrs and, until now, part of an overlooked chapter in the history of the civil rights movement.

    Floyd Simpson, a grocer and a member of the Gadsden, Alabama chapter of the Ku Klux Koan, was charged with Moore's murder.

    A week later, a white college student named Sam Shirah led five black and five white volunteers into Alabama to finish Moore's walk. They were beaten and jailed. Four other attempts to complete the postman's quest were similarly stymied.

    Moore had kept a journal that detailed his goal. Using it, along with interviews and extensive newspaper and newsreel reports, Mary Stanton has documented this phenomenal freedom walk as seen through the eyes of Moore, Shirah, and the gunman, the three protagonists.

    Though all shared a deep love of the South, their strong feelings about who was entitled to walk its highways were in deadly conflict.

    Mary Stanton, an assistant public administrator of the town of Mamaroneck, N.Y., is the author ofFrom Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Lliuzzo. Her work has appeared inSouthern Exposure,Gulf South Historical Review, andGovernment Executive.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-541-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction: Shadow History
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    On April 23, 1963, Bill Moore, a white mailman, was shot dead on a highway near Attalla, Alabama. He was walking to Jackson, Mississippi, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to hand-deliver a plea for racial tolerance to Governor Ross Barnett. Floyd Simpson, a white Alabama grocer, was arrested and charged with Moore’s murder.

    One week later, Sam Shirah, a white college student, and nine activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) attempted to finish Moore’s walk. They were beaten and jailed outside Gadsden, Alabama, in the first of five unsuccessful attempts to complete the...

  5. Part I The Postman’s Walk

    • Walker
      (pp. 3-10)

      The spring air was warm, almost hot, when Bill Moore arrived at the Greyhound bus station on Market Street in downtown Chattanooga. It was nearly three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, April 21, 1963. Moore looked like a lot of the men who came through the terminal that day—tall, middle-aged, white, heavyset, a little down on his luck. He had on a jacket that had seen too many seasons and heels that were worn to forty-five-degree angles.

      He wore a set of sandwich board signs, but even that was not unusual. Drifters often picked up a few dollars in...

    • Student
      (pp. 10-20)

      Marine corporal William Lewis Moore was honorably discharged from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, on March 15, 1949, after serving for four years as an infantryman and a colonel’s courier on the island of Guam.

      Robert Moore, Bill’s father, and his stepmother, Clara, were happy to have their son back home in Binghamton, New York—at least initially. For a time it seemed that the animosity surrounding his enlistment was forgotten. Bill was four years older, seasoned by military service, and Robert’s hopes were rekindled. Maybe the boywouldmake something of himself.

      By late spring, however, old tensions had resurfaced...

    • Outsider
      (pp. 20-26)

      “Hey, you,younigger lover! Better watch yourself!”¹ Two young white men taunted Bill Moore from their flatbed pickup truck. It was six in the morning, Monday, April 22, 1963. Moore massaged his stiff neck and stretched the aching muscles of his back. The floor of the old school bus was as hard as a concrete slab.

      He’d been reading theChattanooga Timesby flashlight as he waited for the sun to rise. The Mississippi Delta voter registration project was running into trouble in Greenwood. Moore was a member of the Baltimore chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE),...

    • Patient
      (pp. 26-33)

      By 1953 one-fifth of all the patients admitted to state psychiatric hospitals and one half of all chronic mental patients were classified as schizophrenics.¹ William Lewis Moore fit the broad profile of a male between twenty and thirty-five out of touch with reality who’d suffered a childhood trauma (the death of his mother), had an adversarial relationship with his father, and defended an irrational belief (namely, that a dead friend was recruiting him to work undercover for the president of the United States).

      While Moore was certainly delusional, he did not suffer hallucinations, paranoia, speech distortions, or compulsive behavior, the...

    • Activist
      (pp. 33-42)

      By 1956 Bill Moore had become convinced that what discharged mental patients really needed was a self-help network like Alcoholics Anonymous, which had been created twenty years before. He opened up his apartment on Carey Street to support groups of ex-mental patients who tried to assist each other through the difficult transition from institutional to independent living. He offered a program based on AA’s self-help principles, calling it “a fellowship of people who share experiences, strength and hope with each other in a mutual search for friendship, understanding, and mental stability.”

      While Moore continued to work at the welfare department,...

    • Crusader
      (pp. 42-56)

      Moore put his pen down, set aside his journal, and rubbed his throbbing legs. Highway 11 was all hills, and his calf muscles were painfully stretched. He’d counted on being in better shape, having walked from Baltimore to Annapolis a month before and from Baltimore to D.C. just two weeks after that. Well, he was thirty-five, after all. Not a kid anymore.

      At 4:30 he’d passed an “Alabama Welcomes You” sign and adjusted his watch to central time. It was 5:30 P.M. back in Binghamton, New York. The kids would be home from school. Moore hadn’t seen them or Mary...

    • Native
      (pp. 56-61)

      By the end of Moore’s second day on Highway 11 he had put Georgia behind him, but his back hurt, his muscles ached, and for the first time he wondered if he’d really make it all the way to Mississippi.

      In Hammondville, Alabama, he’d offered copies of his letters to a few, mostly elderly, people he’d encountered. Nobody was interested. Nothing had been written about his walk in theGadsden Timesor theBirmingham Post-Heraldeither. Martin Luther King’s demonstrations were the big news. The minister was out of jail now and talking about his “next phase.” Moore would be...

    • Agitator
      (pp. 61-65)

      On Tuesday, April 23, Moore rose at sunup, settled his motel bill, and limped toward Highway 11 on stiff legs and swollen feet. Another endless stretch of road bordered by railroad tracks and mountains rolled out before him. He stopped twice before entering the crossroads of Collbran, Alabama, at the turnoff to Little River Canyon. It was 10:30 A.M. Collbran was nothing more than a grocery store–service station, a church, and a cemetery.

      The grocery was a simple white plank building with two wooden posts supporting a pitched tin roof which jutted out to form a shelter. Tires, hay...

    • Mixer
      (pp. 65-73)

      “I’m telling you, the man’s askin’ for it. He’s carryin’ signs about eating with niggers like it was some kinda his business.” The DeKalb County farmer could barely contain his anger.

      “What did I tell you?” his neighbor asked. “It’ll take another ten years to make the damn Yankees get it through their thick heads that we ain’t gonna mix.”

      “When the schools close it’s the niggers who’ll suffer. Don’t consider that, do they?”

      Up and down DeKalb County, speculation was growing about the big white stranger with his strange signs—so much so that state and local authorities were...

    • Victim
      (pp. 73-75)

      White Mixer Slain on ’Bama Highway,” the banner headline of the April 24Jackson (Mississippi) Daily Newsscreamed. The murder victim was identified as “a white integrationist from Maryland who had been a mental patient ….”

      “Robbery was not a motive,” Etowah County coroner Noble Yocum reported from Alabama. “Mr. Moore had fifty-one dollars cash in his pocket and his watch was still on his wrist …. From the angle of the bullet, it appears it was fired at close range.”

      One slug had struck Moore in the left temple, the other had ripped into his neck. Yocum estimated the...

    • The Suspect
      (pp. 76-81)

      “Disagreements over the principles of integration and religion are the only issues involved in this murder,” William Beck, Floyd Simpson’s attorney, insisted after his client was arrested on April 25, 1963, and held as a material witness in the matter of the murder of William L. Moore.

      “The guilty man fits the two categories of integration and religion, and my client fits neither. I’ve known him for thirty years and he’s not fanatically religious.”¹

      While the national press appeared uninterested in Moore’s atheism, it was a fact that many in the white South were anxious to broadcast. If black Christians...

    • White Americans React
      (pp. 82-90)

      Back home in Binghamton, New York, flowers, cards, and expressions of sympathy filled Mary Moore’s trailer home on Parkway Street. She took little comfort in them, however. Mary resented all the reporters’ questions and insinuations about Bill’s activism, and she was amazed when Governor Nelson Rockefeller declared that “the slaying of William Moore, a man expressing his beliefs in the worth and dignity of every human being, is a tragedy.”¹

      Yes, itwasa tragedy, but it was also a humiliation for her and the children. She tried to be gracious to the endless parade of strangers who came to...

    • Black Americans React
      (pp. 91-93)

      Many black activists embraced Moore’s symbolic walk and understood it in ways that escaped even sympathetic white liberals. Journalist John O. Killens wrote in theNew York Times, “To the average white man, a courthouse … is a place where justice is dispensed. To me, a black man, it is a place where justice is dispensed-with …. You give us a moody Abraham Lincoln [as a hero-symbol], but many of us prefer John Brown whom most of you hold in contempt and regard as a fanatic; meaning, of course, that the firm dedication of any white man to the freedom...

    • The Civil Rights Establishment Reacts
      (pp. 93-96)

      “Who the hellwasthis guy?” the members of CORE’s National Action Council asked each other. “What did he think he was doing, and how is this crazy business going to reflect on the movement?”

      Although countless blacks, named and unnamed, had been killed in the struggle to claim their constitutional rights, and many whites and blacks had been beaten and injured, Moore’s was the first murder of a white nonviolent social justice activist.

      While Walter Carter, executive director of the Baltimore CORE, had wired Mary Moore that “[t]his [tragedy] has struck us deeply, Bill was very close to us...

  6. Part II The Freedom Walk

    • Passing the Torch
      (pp. 99-103)

      Fifteen hundred black citizens of Birmingham, Alabama, lifted their voices at the St. James Missionary Baptist Church on Tuesday evening, April 23, 1963, to welcome Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., just returned from eight days in jail for defying an injunction against parading without a license. The midweek service was to honor the city’s youth: college students, high school students, and other teens who’d been participating in nonviolent workshops, picketing against Jim Crow, and demonstrating in front of the downtown stores.

      Rev. Fred Lee Shuttlesworth threw his head back, spread his arms wide, and shouted, “Keep on walking, keep on...

    • Day One
      (pp. 104-111)

      Four days after his twentieth birthday, Sam Shirah stood in front of the Greyhound bus station in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with hand-lettered reproductions of William Moore’s bloodied signs hanging around his neck.

      It was 8 A.M., May 1, 1963, and the six-foot, 160-pound Shirah was surrounded by five black and four white volunteers from SNCC and CORE. They’d gathered on the spot where Bill Moore had begun his walk nine days before. All were determined to deliver the mailman’s message,Mississippi or Bust, just as the signs said. Most were dressed in “city clothes”: white shirts, jackets, and ties. Shirah, however,...

    • Day Two
      (pp. 112-119)

      Even the most seasoned of the walkers would have had trouble envisioning the odd assortment of characters who were waiting for them on the road on Thursday, May 2. The men welcomed the bustle of returning newsmen and cooked an outdoor breakfast. Over oatmeal and coffee, aNew York Postreporter handed Richard Haley a copy of James Wechsler’s column which had run on April 30.

      At the church in Chattanooga the night before the march began, Wechsler had asked Haley what he thought about the revelation that Bill Moore had spent almost two years in a mental hospital.


    • Day Three
      (pp. 119-127)

      On Friday morning, May 3, the Freedom Walkers left the safety of Rome, Georgia’s black community, and drove downtown. At the junction of Broad and Second Streets they passed a monument to the Ku Klux Klan’s first imperial wizard, Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest had permitted his troops to massacre surrendering black Union soldiers at Ft. Pillow, and when asked what the war was about is reported to have said, “If I ain’t fightin” to keep my niggers, then what the hell am I fighting fer?”¹

      The three-car caravan navigated the twisting mountain roads back to U.S. 11 and...

    • Alabama Reacts
      (pp. 128-134)

      Although the Freedom Walkers had pledged “jail/no bail,” Zellner and Shirah accepted bond twenty-five days into their thirty-one-day confinement. Their preacher fathers bailed them out so that they could attend the annual Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church at Montgomery’s Huntingdon College on May 28. Governor George Wallace was scheduled to address the gathering.

      “Don’t you dare wash,” Big Sam told them, “I want George to seeexactlywhat you look like.”¹ They hadn’t been issued prison clothes or given the clothing their families sent. What they were arrested in was what they had worn for nearly four weeks....

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • Freedom Now!
      (pp. 135-140)

      After the SNCC/CORE Freedom Walkers were released from Kilby State Prison, James Forman sent Sam Shirah back to Gadsden to assist with the city’s growing freedom movement. He dispatched Bob Zellner to Danville, Virginia, for the same purpose.

      Suddenly the South was exploding.Freedom Now!was echoing everywhere. Cambridge, Maryland, was under threat of marshal law, and violence had erupted in Jackson, Mississippi, in Selma, Alabama, and in Savannah and Albany in Georgia. Zev Aelony had been arrested again in Americus, Georgia, and he faced the death penalty for inciting insurrection.

      Aelony’s arrest created an uproar in the European press....

    • Without Remorse
      (pp. 140-145)

      To dismiss Floyd Simpson, the unindicted accused murderer of William Moore, as a redneck racist, a religious fanatic, or a social misfit would be to seriously misjudge him. Within his Ft. Payne, Alabama, community Simpson was a far more conventional figure than either Bill Moore or Sam Shirah were in theirs.

      Simpson was a good family man, a good neighbor, and a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1963 the Klan operated so openly in Alabama that KKK welcome signs were posted outside the city limits of Gadsden, Montgomery, and Birmingham, right alongside the shields of the Rotary,...

    • Danville
      (pp. 145-149)

      Sam Shirah arrived in Danville, Virginia, on Saturday, June 22, 1963, with Mary King, a white SNCC communications worker. When they reached SNCC headquarters in the High Street Baptist Church, King went to look for Dottie Miller, who was handling communications, and Shirah stayed in the basement to catch up with the staff. Suddenly four police officers kicked down the door and rearrested Bob Zellner, black field secretary Ivanhoe Donaldson, and white volunteer David Foss. A grand jury had indicted them in absentia for inciting to riot. White Danville had stopped laughing at the black freedom movement and had begun...

    • Cognitive Dissonance
      (pp. 149-155)

      After his release from the city work farm, Sam Shirah remained in Danville, Virginia, until he was forced to flee with the remaining SNCC staff to evade a grand jury indictment for “inciting to acts of violence and war.”

      He returned to Defuniak Springs, Florida, to recuperate, but when he arrived at the parsonage it was clear that trouble had followed him home. News of his arrest had filled the local papers, and Big Sam’s congregation was once again calling for their pastor’s resignation. At the same time, Richard was getting ready to appear before the draft board to plead...

    • Another Direction
      (pp. 156-166)

      Sam Shirah hurried back to Atlanta when the news broke that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been fatally shot in Dallas, Texas. At the Raymond Street headquarters the SNCC staff was already gathered around a borrowed television set speculating about what they might expect from the new white southern president, Lyndon Johnson.

      Most anticipated a crackdown on activism, but opinions were divided about what SNCC’s field secretaries should do until the national direction became clear. Forman wanted to continue pressing Congress to move on the civil rights bill which was stuck in the House Rules Committee.

      “Whatever Kennedy did for...

    • White Shadow of SNCC
      (pp. 167-170)

      “Many [of us] who came to the movement with a paternalistic and missionary attitude have advanced far beyond that stage, but most have still not found a place or a meaningful role,” said Ed Hamlett, struggling to articulate the problem of white isolation in the freedom movement to the forty-five white southern student delegates who had assembled in Nashville on Easter weekend in 1964. The solution, he said, was to double SNCC’s efforts to build a national interracial coalition for fair housing, full employment, and economic reform.

      “Do you have the courage and vision that it takes to make a...

    • Freedom Summer
      (pp. 171-183)

      When her last class of the spring semester ended at the University of Illinois in Champlain, Elizabeth Khrone, a junior, packed her red Studebaker Lark, picked up her best friend, Carol Stevens, and headed for Jackson, Mississippi. Short and blonde, with a round angelic face and intense blue eyes, Liz was going to volunteer with SNCC’s white student summer project. She’d met campus traveler Sam Shirah four months earlier at an SDS rally in Chicago where SNCC field secretary Casey Hayden was the featured speaker.¹

      “How y’all doin?” Shirah had asked the group. He introduced himself as “the man from...

    • Moving On
      (pp. 183-195)

      Sam Shirah resigned from SNCC in December 1964. As the organization continued to move toward black exclusiveness, the executive council voted to discontinue the white southern student project, and all white community organizing programs defaulted to SSOC.

      Although the council insisted that its goal was to encourage local blacks to build their own movement independent of whites, Shirah accused them of lumping working-class whites together with the white liberals who’d betrayed them in Atlantic City. Refusing to deal with individuals was racist, he argued. He reminded Jim Forman that SCEF had funded the white southern student project and that it...

    • A March against Fear
      (pp. 195-200)

      As it turned out, the pilgrimage to Jackson ended just as it had begun, with one man walking. On June 5, 1966, James Meredith, the black hero who had inspired Bill Moore in 1962 and impressed Sam Shirah at the 1964 Chicago clergy conference, began a one-man, 220-mile March against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi.

      Meredith, a native of Kosciusko, Mississippi, had returned home only once after integrating the University of Mississippi. Three years later he wanted to inspire Mississippi blacks to register to vote and help them conquer the fear that they (and he) still felt living...

  7. Epilogue: Highway 11 Revisited
    (pp. 201-208)
    Howard Thurman

    In the spring of 2000 I drove to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and down Highway 11 through Georgia and northeast Alabama to follow the trail of William Moore, Sam Shirah, and Floyd Simpson. I fully expected to travel through Dogpatch, and, as with most of the assumptions I had made when I set out to write this book, I was completely and absolutely wrong.

    Hamilton County, Tennessee, Dade County, Georgia, and Dekalb and Etowah counties in Alabama, while still very isolated, are prosperous boroughs containing some of the most voluptuous farmland in America. There are no junkyards, no whitewashed truck tires filled...

  8. Appendix 1 The Walks and the Walkers
    (pp. 209-210)
  9. Appendix 2 Timeline
    (pp. 211-222)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 223-234)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 235-242)
  12. Index
    (pp. 243-254)