Bob Moses: a civil rights leader with a second act

Ironically, Moses didn’t even take part in the historic 1960’s meal-bar sit-ins that led to the creation of the SNCC. He read about them in the newspaper in his Harlem apartment. But he was inspired by the courage and eagerness shown by the students, barely a few years younger than him, putting their bodies in danger. He quit his job as a math teacher at an elite prep school in New York City and headed south to join the movement. In the summer of 1960 he showed up 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. is put to work without any clear assignment. “I was licking envelopes, one at a time, and I was talking about Niebuhr and Tillich with Jane Stembridge,” he said in an initial interview, referring to a student at Union Theological Seminary who had just been hired as temporary director of the new group.

Despite all his intellectual inclinations and airs, Moses quickly left Atlanta to become one of the first SNCC organizers in the field. Under the tutelage of an older Mississippi activist named Amzie Moore, he ventured into rural Mississippi, where the white supremacist order resisted change more fiercely than anywhere else in the country. In slow and very personal work, he teamed up with local African Americans to help them gain the right to vote. Over the next several years, SNCC activism would spread widely across the South, but the Mississippi campaign would become the biggest and most difficult. Friends and colleagues of Moses were often beaten, brutalized and even murdered. In 1961, Billy Jack Caston, a white supremacist and cousin of the local sheriff, attacked Moses himself on the steps of the courthouse in a town called Liberty, opening a bloody gash in his skull that would require eight stitches. On another occasion, Moses was hit and nearly killed as bullets shot through his head.

The Mississippi Project, as it was called, which culminated in the Freedom Summer of 1964, was ultimately a mixed success. On the one hand, SNCC activists saw it as a cruel defeat when, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the party refused to sit on a delegation from their Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party instead of the traditional all-white segregationist representatives. of State. But if the SNCC lost the battle, it won the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson and Democrats backed the fight for national voting rights legislation, and the voting rights law became law the following summer. The organization in Mississippi by Moses and others also galvanized a generation of activists, for whom it will remain a formative and inspiring experience.

After the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement fractured. After the adoption of civil rights and voting rights laws, the spotlight turned to intractable economic and social issues around which no clear political consensus existed and which could not be resolved by an act of Congress or a government. Supreme Court decision. The SNCC itself is divided over politics, non-violence and black power. The Vietnam War increasingly absorbed the energies of the young demonstrators.

Always of independent spirit, Moses found himself a little alone during this period of realignments. Along with integrationist leaders like Lewis and Bond, he left the SNCC when it switched to activism. But for a time he also embraced black separatism, even dropping his last name (he went by “Robert Parris” for a while) and settling in Tanzania. He finally gave up his flirtation with separatism, seeing it as a phase of his intellectual development that he could leave behind.

The challenge for many veterans of the movement – who accomplished so much in their twenties and thirties – was figuring out what to do next. Some have never found a vocation. Others flourished in academia, journalism or social policy work, continuing to keep activism in their lives. A few, like Lewis and Bond, had important careers in politics. The path Moses chose for his last four decades was more unusual and perhaps in some ways more difficult: an effort to expand and improve the teaching of mathematics, especially for underprivileged students, called The Algebra Project.

Just as Moses saw his civil rights work as an outgrowth of his study of philosophy, he saw his commitment to what he called “math literacy” as an extension of his involvement in the struggle for freedom. 1960s. The low level of math education in urban neighborhoods and rural communities, he liked to say, was as urgent as the inability of black Mississippians to get the vote in the early 1960s. problem, it took a similar type of community organization. Moses then built staff, trained teachers in innovative teaching methods, and created an organization whose staff interacted closely with students, parents, teachers and community leaders in cities across the country. According to a 2002 Mother Jones Moses’ profile, research into the effectiveness of the Algebra project found that it helped students improve their math skills, as measured by standardized tests, and likely boosted college enrollment among its graduates.

It wasn’t glamorous work, but Moses knew that building on the achievements of the civil rights movement in the decades after its heyday meant a shift in focus. While there would always be a role for protests and marches, tackling inequalities in areas like education required a different kind of solution – one that got to the heart of the matter of how people lived, worked and learned. Robert Moses not only led a long and productive life but, through his second act, ensured that the civil rights movement did the same.

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