Bob Moses: A Civil Rights Leader With a Second Act

Ironically, Moses didn’t even take part in the historic 1960 lunch break sit-ins that led to the creation of SNCC. He read about it in the newspaper in his Harlem apartment. But he drew his inspiration from the courage and zeal of the students, who were only a few years younger than him, and who put their bodies at risk. He quit his job teaching math at an elite New York school and went south to join the movement. In the summer of 1960 he appeared in Atlanta, where the newly formed SNCC was housed in the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization of Martin Luther King Jr. Moses took a small desk and went to work without a clear assignment. “I licked envelopes one by one and spoke to Jane Stembridge about Niebuhr and Tillich,” he said in an early interview, referring to a Union Theological Seminary student who had just been hired as temporary director of the new group.

For all his intellectual inclinations and airs, Moses soon left Atlanta to become one of the first SNCC organizers in the field. Under the guidance of on senior Mississippi activist named Amzie Moorehe ventured into rural Mississippi, where the white order of domination resisted change harder than anywhere else in the country. In slow, very personal work, he has teamed up with local African Americans to secure the right to vote for them. For the next several years, SNCC activism would stretch well south, but the Mississippi campaign would be its largest and most difficult. Moses’ friends and co-workers were often beaten, brutally treated, and even murdered. In 1961, Billy Jack Caston, a white racist and cousin of the local sheriff, attacked Moses himself on the steps of the courthouse in a town called Liberty, opening a bloody cut in his skull that required eight stitches. On another occasion, Moses was shot and nearly killed when bullets ripped through his head.

The so-called Mississippi Project, which culminated in the Freedom Summer 1964, was in the end a mixed success. On the one hand, the SNCC activists viewed it as a cruel defeat when the party refused to use a delegation from its Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi to replace the state’s traditional all-white, segregationist representatives at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. But if SNCC lost the battle, it won the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Democrats campaigned for national suffrage legislation, and the suffrage bill went into effect the following summer. The organization in Mississippi by Moses and others also stimulated a generation of activists for whom it would remain a formative and inspiring experience.

After the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement broke up. After the civil rights and suffrage laws were passed, the limelight turned to persistent economic and social issues on which there was no clear political consensus and which could not be resolved by a decision of Congress or a ruling by the Supreme Court. SNCC itself split over politics, non-violence and black power. The Vietnam War increasingly absorbed the energy of young demonstrators.

Always an independent spirit, Moses found himself somewhat alone during this realignment period. Along with integrationist leaders like Lewis and Bond, he left SNCC as they turned towards militancy. But for a while he also embraced black separatism, even dropped his last name (he went under “Robert Parris” for a while) and moved to Tanzania. However, he eventually abandoned his flirtation with separatism as he viewed it as a phase of his intellectual development that he could leave behind.

The challenge for many exercise veterans – who achieved so much when they were 20 or 30 – was what to do next. Some never found a calling. Others found their fulfillment in science, journalism or social policy work and kept activism a part of their lives. Some, like Lewis and Bond, have had stellar careers in politics. Moses’ chosen path for his last four decades has been more unusual and perhaps more difficult in some ways: an effort to expand and improve the teaching of mathematics, especially for disadvantaged students, called The Algebra Project.

Just as Moses saw his civil rights work as an outgrowth of his philosophy studies, so he saw his commitment to what he called “mathematics” as an extension of his commitment to the freedom struggle of the 1960s. The poor level of math education in urban neighborhoods and rural communities, he liked to say, was as urgent as the Black Mississippi’s inability to secure the right to vote in the early 1960s. A similar type of community organization was required to address the problem. Moses built a staff, trained teachers in innovative pedagogical methods, and started an organization whose staff worked closely with students, parents, teachers, and community leaders in cities across the country. After a 2002 Mother jones Profile of Moses, research into the effectiveness of the Algebra Project found that it helped students improve their math skills, measured by standardized tests, and likely boosted graduate enrollment.

This wasn’t glamorous work, but Moses knew it meant a shift in focus, building on the accomplishments of the civil rights movement in the decades following its glory days. While protests and marches would always play a role, tackling inequalities in areas like education required a different type of solution – one that got into the very essence of people’s life, work and learning. Not only did Robert Moses lead a long and productive life, his second act made sure the civil rights movement did so.

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