There is not a lot written about Edwina Hudson Smith Moss. There’s not even a Wikipedia page. Yet, Moss worked for the first Executive Directors (first Wyatt Tee Walker, then Andrew Young) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1961 – 1966. She sat in on strategy sessions, and with the other women of the movement, she took notes, and planned and implemented the organization needed to carry forth the movement. But when you google Edwina Moss (or any combination of her names), you find a sentence or two about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr officiating the wedding between Edwina Hudson Smith and Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr, and perhaps about the children they had. You find two clips on YouTube of Edwina Moss talking about leaders of the movement- And that was just about it, until now. What follows is a short history of Moss’ work with SCLC, gained from a phone interview April 4, 2018.
Edwina Hudson was born in Atlanta GA, and while her family lived in the housing projects, University Homes was located in the middle of Clark College, Morehouse College, and Spelman College, “where it was like a playground,” Moss explains, “I was in a very supportive and educational environment. …That was my early life. Being exposed.” Education and the Church were the cornerstones of Moss’ childhood. When her mother and father broke up when she was 13 or 14, and she moved to Vallejo CA, the racism she was exposed to in that city led her to join the Youth Council of the local NAACP chapter, and become its President, building supervision and direction.
Edwina Hudson Smith moved back to Atlanta GA after a failed marriage and the birth of her first child. She took a job working for her uncle’s insurance company, Alexander & Co., where she met Wyatt Tee Walker, the Executive Director of SCLC, whose offices were in the building owned by Moss’ uncle’s company. Walker would pick up SCLC’s mail from the insurance company’s office, and, after a short time asked Moss to come work for the SCLC. Moss recalls attending a rally “where the students were really upset with the adult community” over an agreement with a local department store. “The place was packed,” Moss recalled, “students were hanging off the rafters- and when [MLK] walked in, and started talking, the whole church calmed down. And he was the only speaker who was able to redirect the anger in that crowd. And it was after that that I went to work for the organization.”
Moss focuses on her “strong feeling about unfairness, and racism” gained in her girlhood as her impetus for working with SCLC. “I guess I was kind of a militant from a little girl,” she said. “When I look back on it,” she explained, “it seems like the natural order of my life, and I didn’t necessarily make the decisions to do what I did- it must have been a part of me. Being around a grandmother, who started a school in Atlanta, and also was very militant, and so was my mother. So I think it was just the natural order of things.” What also came naturally was the kinship between the women who made the backbone of the Civil Rights movement. Women like Jean Young, Elizabeth Knox Blackwell, Coretta Scott King, Juanita Abernathy, Dorothy Cotton, Septima Clark, and Ella Baker were the organizers, logistics experts, sometimes the spokespeople. And all the while, they were also the support group knitting the families and the movement together, stepping in to care for each other’s children as naturally as it was necessary. “So it was like a family, a close-knit family, to all of us. That was our survival.”
“It really brought me back to the Church,” Moss said of her work with SCLC, “…listening to the real meaning of the life of Jesus. And then, getting in an environment with a Martin Luther King Jr, who didn’t just talk about it, he was implementing it- this non-violence. That was what, I think, drew me into the center of the organization.” Her relationship with the Church brought her something else, as well, “It led me to the marry the man I am married to today- which has been the greatest blessing of my life. What is it? 50… 52 years this year. I have to stop and add up!” Otis had that one quality Edwina prized above all- “a person with the same spirit of a Martin Luther King Jr. Steeped in the holy issue of non-violence.”
The full transcript of the phone interview April 4, 2018 for the Johns Hopkins Black Faculty Staff Association Newsletter follows:
My question is actually about what brought you to work in Civil Rights, what brought you to work for the SCLC?
I don’t know whether I need to start early in my life, or at the very point of going to work for the organization. But to give you a little bit of background, I was born in Atlanta Georgia- and I am going to say this, a lot of this will not be relevant, but you will be able to listen to it, and decide what information is critical, important, would be good to know, for the article- But, I was born in Atlanta, which was really a very different time to be one of these folks, with many many young people who grew up in the South. And I was born in the 30’s. At that time, I lived in an area- I lived in the housing projects, University Homes, right in the middle of Clark College, Morehouse College, Spelman College, where it was like a playground for me. I was in a very supportive educational environment. And I went to Spelman Nursery School. That was my early life. Being exposed.
And a Church- Wheat Street Baptist Church, with the Rev. William Holmes Borders, who would invite people in to speak, like a Mary McLeod or Lillian Smith, who wrote Strange Fruit, a white woman, and Du Bois, and as a kid, these are the kinds of voices I heard. With the messages coming from these kinds of voices. And all of that has an impact on you over time. I was in a family that really valued being a part of an educational community. And I see that in really a kind of a backdrop of giving me strength.
And my mother and father broke up when I was about 13 or 14 years old, and we moved to a little town in California called Vallejo – it’s spelled VALLEJO, it’s spelled like Valley-Joe, but it’s really Vah-le-ho- And it was a very different kind of community, very racist, and my experience in that town was not a good experience. And I got involved with the Youth Council of the NAACP, and became president of that Youth Council. It was very good; I built supervision and direction. Even going to some retreats with leaders like, Franklin Williams- you may never have head of some of these names, but these were key people, early on in my life, who took me in, and kind of mentored me.
Well, I later, after a failed marriage and a child, I moved back to Atlanta GA, and I went to work for my uncle who owned an insurance company, Alexander & Co. They were a very well-off part of my family. They were considered black millionaires of the South. He owned an insurance company, and I went to work for him. And working there, he owned a building- the insurance company owned the building- and Wyatt Tee Walker was the Executive Director of SCLC, and he would come in our office and pick up SCLC’s mail every day. And one day he approached me, and asked if I would come to work for SCLC. Well that was really the beginning of my relationship.
I had heard of Dr King when I first went back to Atlanta. I went to a rally where the students were really upset with the adult community because they felt that they had agreed to something with the Rich’s Department store and they were not happy about it. That was my first observation of Dr. King. And I saw how he managed those students. The place was packed, students were hanging off the rafters- and when he walked in, and started talking, the whole church calmed down. And he was the only speaker who was able to redirect the anger in that crowd. And it was after that that I went to work for the organization, working for Wyatt Tee Walker who was the Executive Director of SCLC. Wyatt later left and moved to NY. In the meantime, Andy Young came to SCLC, and he became the Executive Director, and I worked with Andrew Young, until I married and left the organization in 66, before Dr. King was murdered.
So that was my introduction into the organization, and my responsibility was working with Andrew Young, who was the number 2, just like working with Wyatt- the number 2 person. So I was in on many of the meetings. I would travel with the organization -not on all trips- but on many. To Birmingham, to Albany CA, down to Florida, St Augustine; because they needed staff to work with them at that time. And there were a couple of us that went in order to help with news releases, keep in contact with the staff- so you are really a part of the core- the intimate part of the organization- so that’s how I got involved.
I don’t consider myself one of those brave soldiers who got out and marched, even though I did in St Augustine- which was one of the worst experiences of my life! But, that is my entry into the organization and I worked there from 61 until 66, when I got married.
Why was it important for you to go to work for SCLC?
Well, that’s why I wanted to give you the backdrop- I had, I guess, a strong feeling about unfairness, and racism, because all the experiences that I had had in Vallejo CA- we had to challenge them because they were painful, and I didn’t like it. I guess I was kind of a militant from a little girl- and wanted to challenge what was, and wondering why it had to be. So this was really predictable, even though at that time, none of that was my design. It wasn’t something that I figured out. When I look back on it, however, it seems like the natural order of my life, and I didn’t necessarily make the decisions to do what I did- it must have been a part of me. Being around a grandmother, who started a school in Atlanta, and also was very militant, and so was my mother. So I think it was just the natural order of things. And why I chose it- if I had to think about it- at that time, I probably would not have- because of the danger- because my family was not happy about it. They thought it was too dangerous, because I had a child, from my first marriage, and he was just a year old. You know, mothers are supposed to be at home with their kids- because, what kind of life would your child have, if you weren’t going to come back?
And how would you answer them, when that was their question?
You know, I really don’t know… I can’t think of any way of really answering then. I guess I didn’t answer them. Because I kept doing what I was doing. Because I guess they were afraid for me. Not knowing sometimes, I was afraid for me, too. But, I think they were afraid. And they just felt that I should be at home. And I was at home. My child was with me. I just didn’t take him whenever I went on these trips.
I had a very good friend- Fortunately, I had a very close relationship with Jean Young, Andy young’s wife. We were very close. Like sisters. And whenever I had to travel- because my son was very close to their family, he would stay there.
That’s what a lot of women do today- they find partnerships, where they can lean on each other for childcare.
All of us did that. All of us did that. We had a guy with the organization, his name was Blackwell, and his wife- it was the same thing. Whenever I had to work late, one of them would see to it that he was picked up from the nursery school. So it was like a family, a close-knit family, to all of us. That was our survival.
So women, even while they were in the background, where very much a backbone to the movement, for that reason?
Without a doubt. And they weren’t necessarily in the background- I think the media, the way it views stuff, often, they miss where the real strength is. Jean Young was a very powerful woman. Quiet. And so was Coretta Scott King. And so was Juanita Abernathy. And we had a woman on the staff; Dorothy Cotton from Ithaca NY, now- she ran our citizenship education program along with Septima Clark, who was from South Carolina. And those women were very important in helping to develop strategies around voting. They were the ones who had to organize. The men just- everybody focused on them- but the people doing the work were the women.
And I think it was because of the time- you know, you live in your time, and you do the best you can. But I don’t think there were many women who wanted to be out front- Ella Baker did- but many of them- being in the role where they could organize, put together news releases, pamphlets that needed to be produced so they could be distributed among the staff- Somebody had to do that. And that was part of my job, working with the field staff.
So, were you in more of like a director sort of role?
No. I was in a supportive role, and as the assistant to first Wyatt Walker, secondly Andrew Young.
So, you were organizing—
I organized – when I sat in with Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy, Andrew Young, Randolph Blackwell- when they would sit, I would sit in along with them, and make strategies. And my job, along with some of the other women- it was our job to put it on paper. To get the letters out. To do whatever. And that is a lot of work. That’s not front page work.
You did a lot of implementation behind the scenes?
I wouldn’t say implementation. Because the implementation really was done by Dr. King, Wyatt, and Andrew Young. They were the ones in the forefront. We just gave them the kind of support system that was necessary for them to do what they did.
Would you say that you naturally excelled at providing that sort of support? …How some people have natural abilities, like they are very artistic, or very musical, or they are very good with numbers or money- maybe other people are very good at providing this type of support, at being able to come up with the organizational details you need to make things happen…
I think so. I think so. When we would have our national convention, it was my task- they didn’t ask me- because a lot of things– We were working in the moment, because none of us had a play book on how this was to be done. There was no direction. Every day was a new day. And, I developed a pamphlet, an organizational tool on how to run a convention. It was just coming to me as I did it, and recorded it with groups, so we would have something to follow- How to get the mail out, How to get the registration done, How to communicate with people who were coming into the city, How to handle when the FBI came in, asking a lot of questions- How do you handle that? Who’s responsible for it? That kind of thing. But in terms of doing the strategy of whether or not they were going out to get the young people to come and participate in the marches in Birmingham- that was our field staff, like James Bevel and those who were out there in the community every day.
What was your favorite part of working for SCLC?
It really brought me back to the Church. Which I consider important. Because I had not really developed an appreciation for the Church. When you are in college- a lot of times, all that stuff- you push that in another direction. But, being exposed to many of the leaders in the movement- really, it’s like finding your home of where you’re supposed to be. Like I said, I was probably a militant all my life, but I was comfortable in Wheat Street under a Rev. Borders and listening to the messages about the real meaning of the life of Jesus. And then, getting in an environment with a Martin Luther King Jr, who didn’t just talk about it, he was implementing it- this non-violence. That was what, I think, drew me into the center of the organization.
How did you then use that newfound experience with religion through the rest of your life?
Well, it led me to marry the man I am married to today- which has been the greatest blessing of my life. What is it? …52 years this year. I have to stop and add up! It’s been since 66. And, a person with the same spirit of a Martin Luther King Jr. Steeped in the holy issue of non-violence.
And being able to work with a Jesse Jackson- I was on the staff with Jesse, I gave notes to Jesse, a lot- because he was in Chicago, he was running action in an out, I had to commune with them. Plus, there were the checks and everything that needed to get paid- so I was there. Be sure and tell Jesse I was responsible for him.
We really covered a lot. If there is anything you would like to add-
The only thing that I can say- that this was one of the greatest experiences in my life. And I wish every young person could have, number 1, the exposure to the mind of a Martin Luther King Jr, the mind of a Andrew Young, the mind of a rebel like James Bevel, the mind of an organizer like Jesse Jackson. If they just had that expose, they would see life in a different way. And make them very determined to change things. And to not be fooled.
Can I ask you one more question now, based off that response? What would you say to all those kids who are now, I guess, kind of becoming their own Martin Luther King, as they are really stepping into the leadership positions of protesting, whether it is BLM, or gun control and school safety?
I love it, I love it, I LOVE IT! I love IT!! I think it’s absolutely wonderful! And I sit up and I watch it them tv and sit and clap in the room by myself! And say, thank God! They are coming up- popping up out of the ground!
What would your advice to them be?
Not to give up, but to stay non-violent. Because they are putting people in the midst of those young people- who will do anything to create confusion. That is the way opposition works. And they did it to us. Many many times.
What’s the best way to combat that? How do we keep that from really affecting us?
I don’t have an answer to that. I really don’t know. I wish I did. That would be really important. But, you can talk to people- oftentimes they don’t understand. And, then, it’s -you know- a sign of the times, it doesn’t seem like you all can get fixed up the way we were able to get fixed up. You know, you have to use different strategies, but I think the violent way is just not the way. I feel strongly about that. Because I have seen what it does to the organization- I saw what they tired to do with Dr. King. And you just don’t want to see that. You have to keep your ears propped up, your eyes open, your heart open, your head alert, because it will come from every direction.