On this dayAug 29, 1961

Bob Moses Brutally Beaten by White Assailant While Registering Black Voters in Mississippi

Danny Lyon/SNCC

On August 29, 1961, a white man named Billy Jack Caston, who was the first cousin of the Amite County Sheriff, attacked Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Bob Moses as he accompanied two Black residents, Curtis Dawson and Reverend Alfred Knox, to register to vote. Two other white men stood by and witnessed the brutal beating.

In the early 1960s, approximately 70% of white adults in Mississippi were registered to vote, but only 6.7% of eligible Black Mississippians were registered. These rates lagged behind even other states in the Deep South, such as Alabama (23%) and Louisiana (32%), and were an intentional consequence of Mississippi’s efforts to disenfranchise Black people in the state over the prior decades.

During Reconstruction, Black Mississippians participated in state politics in large numbers, and comprised a majority of the state’s electorate by 1870. However, white Mississippians quickly resorted to violence and discriminatory legislation to deprive Black citizens of their voting rights. As early as 1875, armed groups intercepted Black people as they attempted to register to vote. From 1876 through the 1960s, Mississippi enacted a series of targeted voter suppression measures that disenfranchised Black people. These measures included publishing the names of Black registrants in the local paper to incite violent reprisal, all-white primary elections, a poll tax, stringent residency requirements, and a voter registration test administered at the complete discretion of local white registrars. The test required that Black people prove literacy, knowledge of state law and government, and “good moral character.” These laws maintained the voting rights of white people by exempting those already registered (and their children) from burdensome registration requirements. Further, in 1960, Mississippi adopted legislation providing for the destruction of voter registration records to insulate its discriminatory practices from federal review. 

In the 1960s, civil rights activists in Mississippi were working to get Black voters registered. At the time he was attacked, Mr. Moses was working as a vote tutor, training Black applicants to pass Mississippi’s discriminatory registration test. 

As Mr. Moses, Mr. Dawson, and Reverend Knox approached the Amite County Courthouse, Mr. Caston, the sheriff’s first cousin, demanded that Mr. Moses disclose the group’s intentions. Without waiting for a response, he slammed Mr. Moses onto the ground and kneeled over his body for several minutes, beating him with a blunt instrument. Several white men stood nearby watching, but did nothing to intervene. Mr. Moses sustained lacerations to his head and required several stitches. 

The day he was beaten, Mr. Moses attempted to seek redress from the local authorities for the violence committed against him. The county sheriff refused to help Mr. Moses, and directed him to the local justice of the peace, who was “out of the office” that day. 

Mr. Moses finally succeeded in filing a formal complaint. However, an all-white jury acquitted the white man who attacked him. Mr. Moses’s complaint marked the first time that a Black person prosecuted a white person for violence in Amite County, Mississippi. 

To learn more about the ways that voter suppression preserved white supremacy and perpetuated racial inequality in the South, read EJI’s report, Segregation in America.

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