How Bill Moss went from radio DJ to the most controversial elected official in Columbus
Editor’s note: Fourteen years ago this week, Bill Moss—radio DJ, singer, record label owner and rabble-rousing five-term member of the Columbus Board of Education—died at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital while being treated for a stroke. In 1981, during his first term on the school board, Columbus Monthly profiled the contradictory and charismatic public official.
At first glance there's nothing to distinguish the tiny, nondescript storefront church at the corner of Champion Avenue from dozens of others scattered through Columbus’ older neighborhoods. “The House of the Redeemed,” says the two flaking painted signs on the ramshackle building’s outside walls, “Elder Andrew Russell, Pastor.” Inside, the yellow walls of the church’s single room are scuffed and peeling, too, though the rows of plain wooden chairs are clean and the white wooden lectern looks freshly painted.
There are nine people in Elder Russell’s congregation this Sunday morning; five of them are children. It’s hard to get people out of their homes in cold weather, Russell tells a visitor. Sometimes when it’s very cold he just shuts down for a couple of weeks. This Sunday, though, the weather is mild, the church is open and Russell even has an assistant to help him preach his “New Gospel.”
Indeed it is the assistant, not Russell, whom the visitor has come to see. A meticulously groomed, handsome black man who looks younger than his 45 years, the assistant is just starting out in his ministry, ordained last fall, he says, by the pastor of a small church on the West Side. This Sunday the assistant wears a well-tailored, carefully pressed three-piece blue suit—the same suit he will wear the following Tuesday to a meeting of the Columbus Board of Education. There he will be Bill Moss, the most outspoken member of an embattled, frequently dissension-ridden school board.
As a school board member and five-time political candidate, Moss has established himself as something of an enigmatic black iconoclast. At board meetings he's a bitter opponent of desegregation who has frequently found himself a minority of one on key votes. Politically he's a self-professed Democrat who's become anathema to the local party and now prefers to run as an independent. He's run unsuccessfully for both the U.S. House of Representatives (twice) and the Ohio House, losing badly in all three efforts, but playing an important "spoiler" role once. He's won election to the Board of Education in 1977 and the Franklin County Democratic Central Committee in 1980.
In his public role, Moss can be alternately harsh and charming, bombastic and persuasive, sullen and effusive. It's impossible to predict from one week to the next how he'll behave, what issue he'll sink his teeth into, what political office he'll decide to run for next. At his best, he's a powerful speaker with excellent recall for facts and figures; there aren't many politicians around who can whip Bill Moss in a head-to head debate if Moss has done his homework. And because his school board seat gives him a guaranteed weekly media forum, Moss has become a pivotal figure on the board. One reason school superintendent Joe Davis and other board members are hesitant about putting a tax levy on the ballot this year, for example, is that they fear that if Moss opposed it, that alone might be enough to defeat a levy at the polls.
Politically Moss is a lone wolf, with no organization to speak of and little financial backing. Personally he is said to be an isolated man, currently without a full-time job and with few close friends outside his family; he admits he's sometimes a hard man to get along with. Yet Moss remains an important public figure, even when he's swimming against the tide. As long as he sits on the school board (and he's presently circulating nominating petitions to run for a second term in November), Moss will be a man to be reckoned with in Columbus. It's a public role he seems to relish.
But in the little storefront church on Oak Street, the blue-suited man with traces of gray in his black hair has cast himself in quite a different role. Here he is Elder Moss, and he has joined Elder Russell to preach a gospel of black pride, black morality, faith in a God who caused Ethiopia to be mentioned in the second chapter of Genesis, ahead of any white man's country, "This is not Christianity," Russell says, though he uses the Christian Bible. "This is not Islam. This is a New Gospel, a Gospel for us!"
Russell makes a point of telling his parishioners, who include Moss' wife Ruth and their four children, that they'll find no crosses, no pictures of Jesus in his church. Instead there's a map of the world; a small lamp illuminates the continent of Africa; another map shows the migrations of the descendants of Noah; a complicated chart chronicles the progress of the True Word of God from the creation of the world to the birth of Jesus. It's all information, Russell says, to unlock black minds.
"What are we walking around here with such an inferiority complex for?" Russell demands. “Why are we walking around like we've stolen something; shamed, humiliated, afraid? ... The blind cannot lead the blind, and it so happens that most black preachers—that's why I say this is new —they are still following the blind. ... The so-called Jewish people don't. care anything about us. The so-called Christian people don't care anything about us. Fifteen years ago you would almost be locked up going into a white church. ... We hope some of the black people will come here and find some truth."
Now it is Elder Moss' turn to preach. He seems completely at ease, almost born to the pulpit, his voice rising and falling in the rhythmic cadences familiar in black churches everywhere. Moss takes as his text a Biblical parable about a vineyard owner who hires idle workers to harvest his grapes, then pays each the same amount, a penny, whether they worked one hour or 12. When those who worked all day complain, the vineyard owner rebukes them for worrying about their fellow workers' pay instead of their own commitments. Moss sides with the owner.
"Your decision is to do your work," Moss says. “You don't have anything to do with how much the boss pays the next guy, because he has his purposes, and you don't know what they are. ... You didn't counsel with him, and you really have no right. Why are we so busy worrying about what somebody else has, instead of thanking God for what He gave us? ... If I have five pennies and my neighbor has 20, praise the Lord that I've got five!"
Moss is rolling now, on into a litany of problems plaguing the black community. “Dope is killing our people," he says, his voice rising almost to a shout. “Young women are walking the streets disgracing themselves. The divorce rate now is something alarming! ... I'm looking out my window at 2 o'clock in the nighttime, and there's gangs of little children running up and down the street, many of them barefoot. Where are the parents? Where is the commitment? Who gave their word about these children? You want to know why we are having difficulty? Because of our sinfulness. It is that simple.
"One's word should be one's bond," Moss goes on. “A deal is a deal. A Deal is a Deal! ... You know an idle mind and idle hands are the devil's workshop. Isn't that the truth? When men are idle and without work they find all kinds of mischief to get into. ... Why is there such a high crime rate? Why is it that men are robbing and stealing? ... We are idle and without direction."
It is a fierce, Old Testament kind of morality Moss is preaching. Hard work. Obedience. Loyalty. Women and children off the streets. A deal is a deal. Alternately calm and impassioned, Moss seems totally sure of the rightness, the righteousness of his message. He speaks for a little more than 10 minutes, and when he has finished, Elder Russell wraps the service up quickly. “I am very happy to have Elder Moss find a place that he can feel comfortable," Russell says. "I hope that many more will find their way here."
A place to feel comfortable. Sometimes it must seem to Bill Moss that he's spent most of his life looking for just that. And now he believes he's found his comfort in an uncompromising religious dedication, a total commitment. Not to the House of the Redeemed, necessarily; indeed within a few days after his "Deal is a Deal” sermon Moss will feud with Elder Russell and break off that relationship. No, Moss' commitment is more personal, more self-contained, more ... visionary. He believes he's been receiving divine guidance for years, but only now, when others say he's walking the wrong way down a dead-end street, does Bill Moss believe God is really taking control of his life.
"I'm just starting with my ministry," Moss says, "and it's very serious with me. It's the highest calling I could have.” So far it's also a calling without financial reward, one which does nothing to answer a question that's been asked with some frequency for the last couple of years: What does Bill Moss do for a living?
Moss's career is full of used-to-bes. He used to be a radio disc jockey. Used to be a radio news director. Used to own a recording studio. Used to own a barbecue restaurant. Used to work for a roofing company. And now? Moss is purposefully vague. "I have several ventures," he says. “I sell African imports. And there are other things."
Whatever the "other things" may be, it seems unlikely that they add up to a lot of cash flow. Indeed the primary source of income in the Moss household at the moment may be the $42 a day his wife Ruth earns as a substitute teacher in the Columbus schools. Since Mrs. Moss doesn't work full-time, she receives no health insurance or other fringe benefits from the school district and gets paid only for the days she actually teaches. Yet the family lives comfortably in a well-furnished brick double on Franklin Avenue; they dress well, eat well, and the four kids—ages 12, 9, 7 and 3—all seem bright and well-adjusted. The school-aged children, one at Franklin Middle School and two at Indianola Informal Elementary, are said to be articulate, perhaps even a bit precocious. A Moss family portrait would have a solid, middle class look, not the aura of desperation that surrounds people who struggle to make it from one day to the next.
All of which continues to give rise, as it has for years, to rumors that Bill Moss has some secret source of income, some cash pipeline that pumps enough money to keep him from needing a full-time job. Back in 1976, When Moss first leaped into politics by running against Sam Devine and Fran Ryan for the 12th District congressional seat, the rumor was that the Republicans were paying Moss to run on the theory he would siphon black votes from Ryan, who was considered Devine's strongest Democratic challenger in years. And indeed Ryan almost certainly would have beaten Devine if Moss hadn't been in the race.
But the Democrats spent considerable time and effort checking those rumors, and came up empty. Nobody has produced a shred of evidence that Bill Moss has ever taken money under the table. What seems much more likely is that Moss and his family simply don't need much money. They live comfortably, but modestly. The double they live in is owned by Ruth Moss' mother. Between Ruth Moss' teaching income and her husband's part-time ventures there seems to be enough money to get by. Enough, at least, that Bill Moss has never asked for the $480 he's entitled to receive from the school board in yearly meeting fees. Like the other board members, Moss turns the money into a special fund for the board's travel and other expenses.
Even today, four years after the fact, Moss still gets visibly angry when someone mentions the possibility of collusion between him and the Devine camp. "It was in the interest of the real powers in this town to make me look good," he acknowledges. "But none of those rumors are true. None of them. People believed me because I made sense. The real powers Downtown knew that nobody had me in their pocket. Nobody has ever had Bill Moss in their pocket.”
“The real powers Downtown." Moss says the words carefully, staring unblinkingly into his listener's eyes as if he's trying to impart some extra meaning. It is a phrase that comes back several times as he talks about his past, his present role on the school board, his future. The real powers Downtown have never trusted him, Moss says, because he's never been under control. He's always been, as his 31st Ohio House District campaign literature put it last fall, "Unbought and Unbossed."
His independence, Moss believes, has led the Real Powers to do everything they can to make sure his business, professional and political efforts end in failure. His radio career, for example. In the mid 1960s, Moss moved from Miami to Columbus and became, in relatively short order, a popular disc jockey on WVKO, Columbus's only black-oriented station. Moss and his one-time protégé (now state representative) Les Brown were the on-the-air heart of Columbus' soul station through the turbulent late '60s, and Moss was promoted to program director. But as both he and Brown gradually became more outspoken on racial issues, Moss found himself frequently at odds with WVKO's white owner and general manager, Bert Charles.
Moss quit WVKO in 1970 and not long thereafter launched his own firm, Capsoul Recording Co. While still at WVKO, Moss had started, operated and eventually closed a pit barbecue restaurant at Fifth Avenue and North Fourth Street, called Nassau Daddy's after his radio nickname. Moss still believes the restaurant would have been successful if it hadn’t been for a badly designed exhaust fan system which kept catching fire and forcing him to shut the place down for weeks on end. By the time he left the radio station he believed he knew enough about business and music to make money in the recording industry.
Moss won’t discuss Capsoul today, saying only, “That’s in the past. Why does anybody care about that?” But others who followed the venture say Capsoul was undercapitalized, and Moss was probably in over his head managerially. Whatever the reasons, the business turned south, and in 1974 Capsoul and Moss defaulted on a $30,000 loan from City National Bank (now Bank One). The bank foreclosed, padlocked Capsoul’s Franklin Avenue studios, and eventually sold off the company’s recording equipment and some land Moss owned near Naples, Florida, to satisfy the foreclosure judgment.
Moss may not have realized it at the time, but Capsoul would be his last entrepreneurial venture. At about the time the company collapsed, he says, he began to realize there was more to life than money. “When I left WVKO in 1970,” Moss said last January, “I went in pursuit of personal wealth. I went after a record company. I had some money, and that’s what I wanted. … I didn’t want to see what I saw at first, but I kept coming back, and then I realized that I was having a spiritual experience. … I had long, clear experiences with God.”
From Capsoul the increasingly religious Moss went back to WVKO, this time as news director. Despite their battles, station owner-manager Bert Charles says he still respects Moss’ abilities: “He’s a great speaker, a great debater. … I thought he’d make a good newsman.” Not long after Moss rejoined the station, he and Les Brown, who by that time was WVKO’s program director, developed and began promoting a high-pressure voter registration drive, designed to turn out the maximum black vote in November 1975, when Dr. John Rosemond, a black city councilman, was running against Mayor Tom Moody. But shortly after Brown ordered registration promotional spots aired on WVKO every 15 minutes, Charles ordered the frequency cut back to twice an hour. When Brown complained about that decision on the air one morning in September 1975, Charles drove to WVKO’s studios in Upper Arlington, ordered him off the air and fired him. Moss and several other WVKO employees walked out in protest.
To this day Moss believes Charles was ordered “by people Downtown” to cut back the registration drive and get rid of him and Brown because they had become too influential. Charles says he made his own decisions to reduce the number of registration spots and, later, to fire Brown, and that Moss’ decision to quit in protest was entirely voluntary.
After he left the station Moss formed the “WVKO Project Committee” to challenge the station’s license before the Federal Communications Commission. Although the FCC did later slap WVKO on the wrist with a small fine, Moss’ committee reportedly had trouble raising money for legal fees, and its license challenge eventually petered out.
It was about that time, Moss later told a number of people, that God instructed him to enter the 1976 congressional race between Ryan and Devine. Jerry Hammond and other local Democrats supporting Ryan personally appealed to Moss to drop out, but he hung on tenaciously. “He’s not,” Hammond says, “an easy man to reason with.” Although he finished a badly beaten third, Moss got considerable publicity as the “spoiler” in the race and ran reasonably well in predominantly black wards. A few months later he declared himself a candidate in the 1977 race for Columbus Board of Education.
Only then did Moss, whose image previously had been primarily pro-black and antiestablisment, begin to make an issue of his vehement opposition to busing for integration. “At first it shocked the hell out of me,” says one person who’s active in local politics. “But then I decided it was a very clever move. He'd get some black votes just by being black, and he'd get some white votes by being against busing. I thought he was an opportunist.”
That kind of accusation makes Moss furious. He sees it as one more example of how the Real Powers try to destroy his credibility. "The truth is always a menace to society," Moss contends. “Nobody can refute the things I say, so they attack me rather than my arguments . ... The government has no business forcing the races apart or together. It's unconstitutional and immoral. . . . The purpose of desegregation is to insure that there are no predominantly black schools. Is there some kind of subsconscious threat about the predominance of blacks in any situation? Desegregation, as it's being implemented, makes it illegal for blacks to go to school with blacks."
Dr. David Hamlar, a black dentist who served as school board president during the beginning of Moss' term, recalls that Moss “made the same speech about three times in a row, about a conspiracy on desegregation. ... He got hung up on desegregation, and I think he was blinded by some things that weren't very important. ... It's important that people have respect for you, and I think by being so negative Bill lost some respect. ... Some board members he could have made allies of just stayed neutral, and the others stayed negative."
Les Brown, who says he knows Moss as well as anyone outside Moss' family, agrees with Hamlar that Moss has damaged his effectiveness by taking absolute, unyielding stands. "He feels very strongly, and he's absolutely sincere," Brown says. “He says he's unbought and unbossed, and that is the truth. I have been vehemently opposed to most of the things he's talking about. We have had some bitter disagreements that have damaged our personal relationship. But I have never known him to waffle. I don't agree with him [about desegregation], but I have to respect him."
If Moss is against forced integration, does that make him a black separatist? “I know some people say that," he says. "The way to destroy a man's credibility is to build a false image of him. How do you turn people off? You say, 'He's a black militant.' Or, 'He's a black segregationist.' … These people are playing games on the people, but they’re not playing games on me."
Whether opportunistic, divinely inspired or purely ideological, Moss' antibusing stand struck a responsive chord with voters. While campaigning in the summer of 1977, he became a plaintiff, on behalf of his two school-age children, in a suit challenging the authority of federal courts to override the neighborhood school concept. The suit was thrown out, but the accompanying publicity almost certainly helped Moss' campaign. He ran a strong third in a field of nine, finishing behind only incumbent board members Virginia Prentice and Steve Boley, who has since moved on to the Columbus City Council. Since taking his seat on the board in January, 1978, Moss has consistently voted against anything connected with the district's court-ordered desegregation plan.
Perhaps partly because of his increasing religious fervor and partly because desegregation seems to be here to stay, Moss has recently begun to concentrate his invective at board meetings on what he sees as moral problems confronting the schools—sex, discipline and administrative corruption. Last Jan. 5, in a bitter speech which began with an attack on other board members for not electing him president for 1981, Moss also lashed out at “teachers going with students and married teachers going with other teachers." In the same meeting he accused Columbus school superintendent Joe Davis of making "a corrupt deal” to rehire Charles Hall, whom Moss dislikes intensely, as the district's labor negotiations consultant upon Hall's retirement from his full-time position as assistant superintendent.
Response from Davis and the district's teachers was swift. Davis, for the first time in his career, walked out of a board meeting, saying he didn't have to listen to such personal attacks. And the Columbus Education Association, representing the teachers, publicly blasted Moss and threatened to take him to court if he didn't either shut up or back up his charges with proof.
Moss did back away from his allegations of rampant sexual misconduct, later saying he'd either been quoted out of context or misunderstood. But he continued to hammer at his belief that many students—especially black students—"are being brutalized, psychologically and physically.” And on that point Moss scored at least a minor victory last February, when the board's new president, Carole Williams, announced that Davis would have copies of the board's restrictive policy on corporal punishment distributed to every teacher, and the policy would be discussed at meetings in every school. In a rare show of harmony, both Moss and Gary Holland, the board's other black member, praised Williams for the move. "I appreciate your own demonstrated concern," Moss said. "The system is being well served."
At the rows of tables on both sides of the school board meeting room, where reporters and higher-level school administrators sit, Moss' remarks raised eyebrows. Since being defeated for the board presidency in what he still contends was "a fix, a deal to keep me from a position where my views could be more fully heard," Moss had been in a generally sullen mood at board meetings.
But now he had apparently decided to take a more conciliatory tack, at least temporarily. He's said all along that he and Davis agree 99 percent of the time, but that somehow the noise surrounding their occasional disagreements gets all the ink. It's mainly the fault of the media, Moss implies, just one more example of the way people controlled by the Real Powers try to distort his views and undermine his credibility.
Are there powerful people who want Bill Moss silenced because he's not under control? Did they squeeze him out at WVKO? Force him to quit his new job as a disc jockey at WBBY-FM in order to stay in the school board race in 1977? Cause him to be arbitrarily laid off from two jobs in 1980? Try to keep him off the ballot as an independent in the 31st Ohio House District last year because he'd been elected a Democratic ward committeeman in June? Bill Moss thinks all those acts were carefully planned, all part of a long-term effort to ruin him or drive him out of Columbus. "The power structure is the power structure," Moss says, his gaze fixed intently on the listener. “It doesn't matter whether it's Republican or Democrat. It appears to be about controlling those persons who are too far out front. ... If I were a kid in school now, being as outspoken as I am, they'd test me and put me in a crazy group.”
Indeed, though nobody's suggesting that Moss ought to be sent to a funny farm, there are people—including some who say they used to know him pretty well—who wonder about a lot of what he's been saying lately. The diatribes about sex and discipline in the schools, for instance. Or Moss' occasional, unpredictable outbursts of anger during otherwise routine private conversations. His increasing references to "divine guidance" and "holy visions." His seeming insouciance about not having a full-time job, and his repeated statements that "God will provide." People wonder.
"Bill got on a couple of tirades while I was board president," recalls Hamlar, "that sounded almost like his was speaking in tongues. Later he told me that was his soul talking. ... I believe he's sincere, but that kind of thing puts a lot of people off."
Joe Davis, who says his private conversations with Moss have always been models of reason and civility, believes Moss is "a driven man. And religion seems to be the motive force." And Moss himself says that as he's been drawn farther and farther into his new convictions, he's had correspondingly less time for people outside his family. These days he rarely sees even Les Brown, who used to be one of his closest friends.
A few people argue that Moss is simply using religion as a convenient smokescreen to mask his own shortcomings, to explain his inability to hold a job, to rationalize his increasing alienation. If so, it's a masterful disguise. It doesn't take many conversations with Moss to convince one that, whether he's right or wrong, he's at least sincere in his belief that God has somehow taken charge of his life.
Late in February Moss began circulating his nominating petitions for a second term on the school board. If he does run again, some people think the voters will give him a rude surprise. "I think voters can tell the difference between sense and nonsense," says another board member. “And a lot of what he [Moss] says is just nonsense."
Even Moss himself accepts the possibility that he'll lose his school board seat in November. "If I don't get reelected," he says, “I won't be defeated, because my answer is to my conscience. … I don't care what anybody writes. I don't care what anybody says. I have to answer to God."
This story originally appeared in the April 1981 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine, as well as our weekly newsletter so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.