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B’more About Peace: An Interview with Ralph E. Moore Jr. (Part 1)

28 February 2013 No Comment

Ralph E. Moore Jr.

Nawal Rajeh interviewed Ralph E. Moore Jr., Community Organizer in Baltimore, MD, about his service to the community during a volatile time in US history. Read part 2 of this interview here.

As a lifelong activist and community advocate, tell us how you got started.

I first started doing service to the community when I was very young.  My mother made us go and do things for the neighbors for nothing. You’d be sitting out front and she’d say, “Get up, Boy, and help them to their door with their groceries.” The neighbor would give you a quarter or something. I’d come back and brag and my mother always said, “Take it back!” I would take it back and the neighbors would be thrown. She also asked us to go and work for the nuns, every day, all day long during the summer. We painted every room in the school building, the classrooms, and the convent.  This was around when I was about 11 and 12. I learned a lot of stuff. The maintenance man there showed us how to tile the floor, replace a broken window, I taught myself how to use a buffing machine- all these practical things. And that’s how I met Frank Fischer, a teacher and Jesuit priest who integrated Loyola High School in Baltimore City. I was buffing the floor one day and he was in the chapel praying.

I remember the nuns would say, no matter where you go, what you do-don’t forget to come back to the community you came from.

Loyola High School is a leading high school in Baltimore City run by Jesuits. At one time, only white students could attend. They eventually created a scholarship fund exclusively for African American students. The money came from property they owned that used to hold slaves, which they sold and used the money for the fund. I got one of the first ones. There were five African Americans in my freshman class and four of us graduated in 1970.

While I was there I interacted with the Jesuits but I also interacted with men from the community who were active. I had the benefit of some strong women, like my mother, and then the influence of these men who were fighting for civil rights issues. I walked the picket line with them throughout high school. The overall message was “Be involved.”

Well, I would join these men on the picket line every Saturday morning from 10-12 on a number of issues pertaining to civil rights, including block-busting. Block busting was a move where realtors would buy houses from whites for much less than their worth and then turn around and sell to them to African American for higher than their worth. At a certain point, the whole neighborhood would flip. We did anti-war stuff too. One of my heroes at the time was Muhammad Ali, who refused to go to the Vietnam War and was sentenced to five years in prison.

What was the climate of the city during this time?

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while I was a sophomore in high school. The great contrast between where I lived and the 10 miles that I traveled every day to go to high school was amazing. In the city we had the riots, the National Guard with tanks rolling up and down the street. It was a war zone right after King’s assassination. There was a curfew as well. You had to be in the house by 6 or 6:30, so we would have to leave school and go right home. But going out to the high school you couldn’t tell anything was happening.

I took three buses to get to school every day.  I left West Baltimore at 6:30 am for classes that began at 9 am. The bus driver wouldn’t speak to me. In those days the driver would give you change to put in the machine. I would hand him my money and say, “May I have change please,” and he would ignore me for blocks and blocks. Once we got to the white area of town he was very talkative and nice to the passengers getting on. And I would just be standing there with my hand out all that time.

Ralph Moore at the "Full Employment Baltimore" Rally, advocating for more summer jobs for youth.

How did your involvement in your early adulthood proceed?

It carried over through college; I attended Johns Hopkins University. I organized students to make a statement at commencement to criticize the university for not having any professionals of color on staff. The academic and administrative staff was overwhelmingly white. So we made a statement at graduation about this and what the experience of African Americans was at the school. We were the largest group of African Americans admitted to JHU in a class yet- 27 admitted and 23 graduated. I drafted the statement for the most part. It was easier to get female students on board. I’ve always thought working with women is easier than working with men. The women also drafted their own statement. My freshman year was the first year the school admitted women. We also wore arm bands on our clothes at commencement that were a symbol of being in opposition to the war.

Later I became a teacher at the high school. When I taught at Loyola, I got into some trouble because I invited the anti-war priests to speak to my students. I taught tenth graders and was supposed to teach around conflict, love, and change. I was the first African American teacher they had ever had. For change I wanted to talk about the war. I invited Phil Berrigan (of the Catonsville 9) to come and speak to them. When the headmaster found out he told me to un-invite him.  Phil laughed at the situation and was very gracious about it. A column was written about it that went out all across the country. We opposed the war in every way we could.

Today Ralph Moore Jr. continues his work on Civil Rights issues as well as advocacy for the community. He has spent the past ten years as Director of the St. Frances Community Center in Baltimore. Part 2 of his interview continues with his take on how the city and movements have changed since the African American Civil Rights Movement.

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Click here to read part 2 of Nawal Rajeh’s interview with Ralph E. Moore Jr.

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