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Activist Spike Moss honored for activism
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Moss often has a serious look on his face. But his friends say he likes to laugh and joke around. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
Civil rights activist Harry "Spike" Moss is best known as a frequent critic of poor police treatment of African Americans. Moss, 59, has spent much of his adult life helping disadvantaged African Americans find jobs, housing and education. But his blunt rhetoric and unwavering attitude toward police behavior have drawn the ire of many police officials -- and the praise and respect of others. But for all Moss' appearances in the Twin Cities media, he has another side that most people don't see.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Several hours before Spike Moss will be honored by a host of friends and colleagues, he's in a south Minneapolis church, talking to the media about the investigation of a black teenager who was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer last October.

"We want to make sure that justice takes place when his case goes to the grand jury in February," he says.

Moss is talking about Courtney Williams. The police say Williams was shot after he pointed a pellet gun at the officer. They say the boy's fingerprints were found on the gun. But Moss disagrees with the police account.

"This young man is dead," says Moss. "We've got to be that voice that represents him. We've got to clearly say, 'No, he did not have that weapon.'"

This is the Spike Moss most people know -- at odds with the police over the shooting of a young black person, with microphones and television cameras pointing at him.

On the 6 p.m. news, the video will show a dark-skinned black man, with the aggressive jawbone and posture of a drill sergeant. He looks like he's angry all the time. But those who know Spike Moss say he likes to laugh and joke. Moss was born in Paris, Missouri, a small farm town, one of nine children. Moss got the nickname Spike from his mother. Everybody in his family has a nickname. His father's nickname was Jet.

Anytime a child doesn't have the rites of passage into manhood, you see what you see on the streets of Minneapolis. You see somebody coming down the street ... their pants are sagging. You think he's a teenager -- and he's 35. No one has taught him the rites of passage.
- Spike Moss

Moss' parents moved the family to Minnesota to find work. He says he learned about racial segregation when he was 8 years old.

"I was in Missouri with my mother. She was holding my hand and we were going uptown. It was a hot day. I just wanted some water, and I went to go to the water and she pulled me away. She said, 'That's for whites, we gotta find a coloreds only.' And I said, 'But mom, I want a drink of water.' You know, you're a child, you don't understand," says Moss.

"She said, 'You can't drink there,' and I said 'Why?' She said, 'Because we're colored.' I said, 'Well, mom, when I get big I'm going to do something about that. I'm going to drink where I want to drink.' She said, 'Boy, be quiet before you get killed,'" Moss recalls.

When they got to Minneapolis, Moss found that Jim Crow segregation was alive and well above the Mason-Dixon Line. Department store lunch counters in downtown Minneapolis barred black customers. Moss says police officers also regularly stopped African Americans if they crossed into exclusive white neighborhoods.

"And I think all of that played a very serious role in who I am and what I do," he says.

Over the years, Moss has used that familiarity with racism to call it out where ever he sees it. Moss says racism and poverty have led to the weakening of the black family.

But while he calls on the powers that be to do their part to rectify those problems, Moss says the black community has to do its part as well. He says older black men need to teach youth how to become responsible male citizens.

"Anytime a child doesn't have the rites of passage into manhood, you see what you see on the streets of Minneapolis," he says. "You see somebody coming down the street with gear on. Their pants are sagging. You think he's a teenager -- and he's 35. No one has taught him the rites of passage, and he doesn't know how to move to next level."

Moss' own family life has been far from perfect. He's fathered 17 children. The oldest is 40. He loves his children, but says having children out of wedlock is the only thing in his life he's regretted.

"The experience for me -- with a house full of kids with no woman -- was devastating, because I could never be a mother and I could never be a woman," says Moss. "And it was most difficult for me. And I raised them myself. That's ridiculous. But I deserved, it because of what I did to myself when I was a teenager."

Moss has been married for the last six years. He says the married life has helped calm him down.

As for the future, it appears Moss' long-time position with the City Inc. has disappeared. The nonprofit social service agency has lost thousands of dollars in funding and can't afford to pay Moss anymore.

A ceremony to honor Moss is scheduled for Jan. 21. It's billed as a roast, where speakers can poke fun at their friend -- and give everyone else the chance to see the less serious side of Spike Moss.