Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, a multimedia collaboration of Comcast NBCUniversal and the Equal Justice Initiative, celebrates Black History Month with the second in a series of four essays that pay tribute to American civil rights leaders’ push for racial equality.
"We would sit at the lunch counters and say, ‘We’d like to order a burger, french fries and a Coke,’ and [the staff] said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ … We did not get up. We did not leave."
For William B. Moore, memories of racism are still fresh. But most pronounced in his memory is how, and why, he responded with civil disobedience. Sitting in was not a concept Moore conceived. Instead, it was a direct reflection of lessons he learned from his parents and as a student at North Carolina’s Fayetteville State University in the early 1960s.
Attending college was among few options outlined by Moore’s parents. "You either did one of three things: you went to college, you went to work or you went into the military … [there was] a sense of expectation and hope," Moore recalled. A fearful outlook or any sense of inferiority were unwelcome at home, despite the prevalence of Jim Crow policies in nearly every other aspect of his life.
Segregation in transportation, schools and restaurants was commonplace, but that didn’t hinder Moore’s family and church elders from infusing a sense of pride and courage in him. They reinforced a guiding principle, "that your failure ought not be your failure to try." Their resolve in the face of ubiquitous discrimination set a powerful example for Moore, and an early awareness that his existing status ought not be his ultimate destiny.
As a freshman, Moore was intrigued by extracurricular events at colleges in nearby Greensboro, N.C. He recalled, "I read about what was going on. … The conditions that we faced in Fayetteville were no different than what was faced in Greensboro. … Students [there] came together and decided to march, [sit-in] and to demonstrate peacefully." Some restaurateurs began to respond, drawing back on decades of segregation and racial inequity.
Observing an effective student movement fewer than 100 miles away, Moore decided to act. He gathered a group of fellow black classmates united by common experiences in the Jim Crow South. Their chief objective: to signal discontent with the status quo. Their method: expanding the sit-in movement to Fayetteville.
A 20-year-old Moore, top center, poses with fellow members of the Fayetteville sit-in planning committee.
They got to work right away, marching day after day from campus to local segregated restaurants. Sitting at "whites only" lunch counters, Moore was never served his desired burger and fries. Instead, he and his classmates were tendered jeers, taunts and repeated requests for their immediate departure.
Moore explained that even as students, they weren’t compelled to leave. They dismissed the discourteous treatment and remained seated until they "made a point."
Moore himself never experienced physical violence at his sit-ins, but his persistence vexed many business owners enough to close down early – resulting in lost income, and a "victory" for Moore and team. "Even though change did not come rapidly," Moore reflected, "[we] were very resilient, very persistent."
Sit-in protests continued to spread across the South. More than 70,000 black students mobilized, dispersing from their campuses to peacefully protest the discrimination they encountered at every turn. Freedom rides swept public buses, "wade-ins" inundated segregated swimming pools and "pray-ins" filled the pews of "whites only" churches. Even President John F. Kennedy was compelled to react, illustrating the newfound impact that empowered black students had on the national civil rights conversation. Moore was quick to recognize the value of civil disobedience as a force in righting wrongs – a lesson he learned and has taught throughout adulthood as an ordained minister.
For more than 40 years as pastor of Tenth Memorial Baptist Church in Philadelphia, the Rev. Moore has worked tirelessly to build a new coalition: a community bound by common faith, a devotion to collective advancement and neighborhood pride. Advancing his younger parishioners, in particular, is a priority.
Channeling memories of his own family’s persistent high expectations, Moore also has a firsthand understanding of how educational environments invite young people to be observant, ask tough questions, and pursue activities and career paths that help improve the world. To that end, Moore’s parish invests financially in their children beginning at an early age: "We open … a no-touch savings account that’s set aside specifically for their education. As they go up the ladder, we invest more and more."
The initiative is making a difference, landing Tenth Memorial’s youth at institutions like Brown, Harvard and Temple. And, they don’t leave forever; Moore delights that many "come back and use their talents in the church."
For graduates who return – and all aspiring youth alike – he encourages them to further their ambition and idealism well into adulthood. It’s Moore’s way of "passing the baton" to the next generation, reminding them that change can start with the actions of an individual:
"If there is a public action that you can believe in, and you want to do it, then do it. … Democracy is messy and bringing people from hate to love can also be messy. But you have to remain vigilant. And if you’re vigilant, higher ideals will bring people together [around] common ideas, to bring about a change."