Netherlands American Studies Association

Promotie Laura Visser-Maessen

Donderdag 10 oktober 2013 om 11.15 in de Senaatskamer van het Academiegebouw, Rapenburg 73, Leiden.

cover laura

A Lot of Leaders?

One of the most dynamic, path breaking social movements in American history undoubtedly was the Civil Rights Movemnet of the 1960s. Since its occurence historians have tried to capture its origins, significance, accomplishments, and failures to understand how effective, long-term social change can be brought about. In this, early historians have emphasized the period between 1955-1965, highlighting political and legislative achievements prompted by proffesional organizations and charismatic black leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. More recent studies, however, evaluate it as part of a long process of social change with no clear beginning or end point, instigated by ordinary citizens and characterized by a multitude of agents, objectives, and voices.

The civil rights activism of legendary black organizer Robert Parris Moses (b. 1935) complicates both these interpretations of what the Movement was, what it srifed for, and what role civil rights organizations and ordinary citizens played in it. Within the collective leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, 1960 – early seventies), one of the Movement’s most productive and dynamic organizations, Moses was the most prominent individual between 1961 and 1965. He pioneered SNCC’s voter registration and political education work in Mississippi, making the state the centerpiece of the organization’s strategy for social change. Exemplifying the SNCC’s philosophy of establishing powerfull local black leadership but not seeking to dominate that leadership, he presented himself as a mere facilitator of grassroots activism rather than a figure of authority. This self-effacing demeanor emphasized his humility as a leader but at the same timeenhanced his moral influence, giving him an unwanted reputation of mythical proportions. “Jesus Christ in the flesh”or “prophet”are only a few of the hero-worshipping epithets admiring blacks and whites bestowed on him. Moses’style of not posing as a leader proved to be an effective addition to Martin Luther King’s public media campaigns in the realization of social change for the southern blacks. Although historians acknowledge his significance for the Civil Rights Moevement, he has never been the subject of intense study.


In A Lot of Leaders? Laura Visser-Maessen finds a balance between ‘classical’ and ‘revisionalist’interpretations of the movement by analyzing the interaction between Robert Parris Moses and the grassroots movement in Mississippi. By doing so, new insight is obtaint into the process, or the nuts and bolts, of how ‘facilitating indigenous leadership’ worked in practise, and the role that SNCC’s singular organizational hero emphasized in earlier historical accounts nor the unassuming faccilitator prominent in later ones. Her analysis, uniquely written with Moses’rare personal cooperation and based on new primary source material, fills the gap in historical knowledge concerning his activities, leadership style, and legacy, making it the most detailed account of his activism to date. It also provides fresh perspectives on questions regarding the nature of social movements, such as: What constitutes a “movement”:? Is it organizational presence or is something else needed? When does “facilitation”become “influencing” ? Moreover, examining the daily activities of Moses, a new-York-bred match teacher with an Ivy League training in philosophy, exposes the complezity of the relationship between the North and South and between the origins of ideas and subsequent activism in the direction and success of the movement.