The Corruption of Power: Lord of the Rings and the Civil Rights Movement

New Yorker Bob Moses one of SNCC's early leaders.

Few groups of people have shaken the American status quo like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC- pronounced “Snick”).    These college-age activists, mostly black and mostly southern, launched the sit-in movement and the Freedom Rides.   The sit-in movement involved thousands of young blacks nobly and peacefully desegregating white-only dining counters, while enduring enormous verbal and physical abuse.    The Freedom Rides were even more courageous.

In 1964, SNCC put out the call for both black and white college students to participate in Greyhound bus rides through the south, during which blacks and whites would sit together during rides and desegregate bus stations, on the heels of a recent Supreme Court decision banning “white only” areas in inter-state transit.    Southern racists did not take kindly to these “Freedom Rides”, beating passengers and setting buses on fire, while local officials  (and sometimes federal officials) stood by and watched.

On June 21, 1964, SNCC leader Bob Moses had just launched the first busload of volunteers when he received a call that three activists were missing.  They were Andrew Goodman, a white volunteer, and civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner (a white man from New York) and James Chaney (a black man from Mississippi).   All three were younger than 25 years old.    The immediate presumption at SNCC headquarters was that they were dead.  

Indeed, a Mississippi sheriff had detained the three of them for speeding, and while holding them in jail, devised a plan with the Klan to kill them.  When the trio were released, they were again pulled over at the edge of town, at which point Klansman arrived to murder them.   Goodman and Schwerner were shot, while Chaney was savagely beaten before he was shot.   The Klan used a bulldozer to bury them, while their car was sent on fire and plunged into a river.

Bob Moses stood before an auditorium of fresh, young volunteers who he was about to send into this same deadly mission.  He later explained that his challenge was how to explain that they still had a choice, and convey that they might not all live through their volunteer summer.   Bear in mind that Moses himself was only 29 years old, and had been a schoolteacher until just a few years ago himself.    After telling a shaken crowd that three of their brethren had just been lynched, and that they too would face incredible danger, he invoked J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

One ring to control all rings.

Lord of the Rings had been released in installments throughout the mid-1950s, and by 1964 was immensely popular in the United States, where some believed the  “One Ring” to be an allegory for the atomic bomb.    Moses now explained that in Lord of the Rings, Frodo had been tasked with taking the One Ring to Mordor to destroy it.   By the end of his journey, however, Frodo had been corrupted by the power of the Ring, and could not bring himself to cast it into the flames.

Moses continued: “This is like leadership.  Leadership affects you.  It’s like the Ring of Power.  I know this to be true.  I know this to be true about myself, but nevertheless, for better or worse am in this position and think we should continue the summer project…I don’t want to put you at risk, but I have to put you at risk.   All I can say is that I’ll be there with you.”

Moses profoundly recognized that the power that accompanies leadership inherently blinds leaders to the consequences of their decisions.   It is this corruption that allows chicken-hawk politicians to send young men and women to die in pointless wars.     After a long silence, a staffer named Jean Wheeler stood up and began to sing:  “They say that freedom is a constant struggle / They say that freedom is a constant struggle / Oh lord, we’ve struggled along; we must be free.”    One by one, the activists filed out of the auditorium, singing in unity.

The bodies of the three young men were found six weeks later.  President Lyndon Johnson used the outrage to help push through the Civil Rights Act.   None of the killers served more than six years in prison.  In 2005, the case was reopened against Edgar Ray Killen, who was convicted of manslaughter after journalist Jerry Mitchell uncovered new evidence.   Today Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney are remembered as martyrs of the civil rights movement.   Twelve other activists were killed that summer.  A thousand were arrested.  Thirty-seven black churches were bombed or torched.   But voters were registered and public places desgregated, defying centuries of oppression.  The courage of Bob Moses and the young SNCC activists and volunteers to go boldly forth is what assured that those young men did not die in vain.

(Accounts of the SNCC meeting and Moses’ speech are taken from Wesley Hogan’s book, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America)

About Janos Marton

Janos Marton is a lawyer, advocate and writer.
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