Mary Stanton. Freedom Walk: Mississippi or Bust. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. 254 pages. ISBN: 1578065054. Reviewed by Lynn S. Neal, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
At the end of her introduction entitled "Shadow History," Mary Stanton poses the question: "What can three dead white men teach contemporary Americans about the civil rights movement?" Her answer: "Nothing simple" (xv). So begins this exploration into the five unsuccessful freedom walks of 1963, the white men who led them (Bill Moore and Sam Shirah), and Moore's alleged murderer Floyd Simpson. Using newspapers, newsreels, autobiographies, and "reconstructed" accounts, Stanton seeks to recover the history of these walks, a history often overshadowed by Martin Luther King's contemporaneous work in Birmingham. Through the biographies of Moore, Shirah, and – to a lesser extent – Simpson, the human, religious, and racial complexities of the freedom walks emerge.
". . . by exploring Moore's life, and not just his fateful three-day walk, she urges readers to acknowledge the complexity of historical actors."
Part One of Stanton's narrative begins with the troubled life of mailman Bill Moore who, in April 1963, resolved to deliver a letter to Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett protesting his support of segregation and urging him to uphold the Constitution. Not content simply to write Barnett, Moore wanted to deliver his missive in person, and during his two-week vacation from the postal service he vowed to walk from Chattanooga, through Georgia and Alabama, to Jackson. Wearing sandwich boards – Mississippi or Bust – and pushing a shopping cart containing copies of his letter and boasting an image of Jesus accompanied by the caption, "wanted – agitator, carpenter by trade, revolutionary, consorter with criminals and prostitutes," Moore commenced on his journey with little fanfare from reporters and no support from civil rights organizers (67). Only with his murder in Keener, Alabama, at the end of his third day on the road, did Bill Moore's cause gain the attention he had sought. Stanton shows Moore's unwavering commitment to justice, the law, and desegregation, but she does not rest with simple characterizations of Moore as a hero or a martyr. Rather, by exploring Moore's life, and not just his fateful three-day walk, she urges readers to acknowledge the complexity of historical actors. In Moore we see a variety of competing commitments and failures. He was an atheist, a not so great husband, a former mental patient, a veteran, an advocate for mental health reform, a self-proclaimed Southerner (despite his deep Binghamton, New York roots), a believer in integration and, at the same time, a person who had faith in the goodness of the South. When asked if he feared injury, Moore replied, "I'm walking this highway as an American citizen under the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment. Besides, I grew up in Mississippi, and I don't believe the people of the South are that way" (70). Stanton's portrayal of Moore's interesting and complicated life is one of the strengths of the book.
With Moore's death the narrative shifts briefly to his alleged murderer, Floyd Simpson. As with Moore, Stanton seeks to show Simpson's many facets. She writes, "He was a good husband, a good father, a good neighbor, and a good Baptist" (200). However, Stanton again demonstrates that appearances deceive. While Simpson appears to be "better socialized and more economically productive" than Moore, he was also a member of the United Klans of America, a segregationist, and an alleged murderer (200). According to the FBI, Simpson's rifle matched the bullets taken from Moore's body, but Simpson never stood trial for the crime. Stanton uses Simpson as a bridge between the biographies of Moore and Shirah, and as a result, spends less time delving into Simpson. This leaves several fertile areas unexplored – the belief of both Moore and Shirah in "sacred constitutional rights," their competing claims and understandings of the South, as well as their religious differences (79). In addition, the narrative recounts Simpson's anger over Moore's image of Jesus, but its significance for understanding Moore's murder and the larger issue of religious violence remains unexamined.
Part Two of Freedom Walk chronicles the life and leadership of Sam Shirah who, along with nine other SNCC/CORE members, attempted to complete Bill Moore's freedom walk in May of 1963. The group failed to achieve their goal as they were arrested upon entering Alabama and spent a month in jail. Shirah, like Moore, was a Southern civil rights activist. A member of SNCC, he helped organize protests on numerous college campuses, worked with striking miners in Kentucky, and helped run the "White Folks Project" or "Freedom Summer" in Mississippi. In the last half of the study, which is less focused than the first, Stanton explores the developing racial rifts in the civil rights movement through the lens of Sam Shirah, who came to believe "that poor whites and southern blacks were natural allies" (169). They needed to work together, according to Shirah, and it was a message that the SNCC found less appealing as its leadership and efforts changed. As a result, Shirah resigned in 1964, and drifted from project to project, including protests against strip mining in Kentucky, defending framed garment workers in Tennessee, and assisting those on strike at a Levi Strauss plant. Stanton explores Shirah's numerous contributions to social and racial justice, but she also chronicles his struggles with drugs, manic depression, and adultery. Like Bill Moore, Sam Shirah was no hero. Despite being "prophetic dreamers," Stanton argues, "Shirah and Moore were hardly exemplary men" (199).
Freedom Walk urges readers to take "shadow history" seriously, a term that Stanton employs in two ways – historically and biographically. First, she illumines a neglected area of civil rights history and the work of two important men. Second, and most persuasively, she highlights the "shadows" – the flaws – that plagued activists such as Moore and Shirah (199). This biographical exploration makes the book accessible to both popular and scholarly audiences. While some may want more analysis than this recovery history provides, Stanton's research speaks to a variety of academic conversations and poses fruitful avenues for further inquiry. Those interested in the complexity of the civil rights movement may find Stanton's examination of Moore and Shirah a useful resource, and her recovery of Shirah's activism contributes to Southern labor history. While scholars of Southern religion will be left wanting more, Stanton draws some interesting connections between Christianity and the Klan, and Freedom Walk provides a starting point for thinking more about the relationship between religion, race, and violence.
Lynn S. Neal, Wake Forest University
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