Civil rights champion Bob Moses died yesterday at age 86. EJI honors his lifetime of teaching and organizing in the pursuit of social justice and racial equality.
Born in New York City in 1935, Robert Moses had an early passion for learning that grew into a love of teaching. He majored in philosophy and French at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and after earning a master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University, he taught math at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx.
In 1960, after images of Black people protesting segregation in the South struck him powerfully “in the soul as well as the brain,” he later wrote, Mr. Moses left New York City for Mississippi, where he spent the next five years organizing thousands of Black residents to vote—and being targeted by white supremacists.
During one voter registration drive, The New York Times reports, he was hit in the head with a knife handle. Bleeding, he refused medical help until the Black farmers who had come with him to the courthouse were registered to vote. He ultimately needed nine stitches, which he had to get in another town that had a Black doctor.
When he tried to file charges against the white man who attacked him, an all-white jury acquitted the assailant and it was Mr. Moses who needed police protection to safely leave the county, NPR reported.
In 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan shot at a car in which Mr. Moses was riding with two other activists in Greenwood, Mississippi. Mr. Moses managed to take the wheel and stop the car when the driver, James Travis, was shot. “We all were within inches of being killed,” Mr. Moses said in a press release from SNCC.
His office was burned. He was beaten, arrested, and jailed many times and, The New York Times reported, he “developed a reputation for extraordinary calm in the face of horrific violence.” He also became known for listening and working closely with local residents, and he spoke about how civil rights workers needed to earn the trust of the people who were putting their lives on the line to challenge segregation.
“You had to earn the right for the Black population in Mississippi to decide that they were going to work with you because why should they risk everything to work with you if you were somebody or a collection of people who were just not serious?” he said in an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project.
Mr. Moses continued organizing voter registration drives across Mississippi as a member of the staff of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and he helped start the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project to bring college students from the North to join local Mississippi residents in those campaigns. Freedom Summer registered 75,000 Black voters. He also served as director of the Council of Federated Organizations, another Mississippi civil rights organization.
But in 1964, he resigned from both SNCC and the Council of Federated Organizations because he thought his growing celebrity was endangering the movement, which he believed should be led by “ordinary people.”
Bob Moses “pioneered an alternative style of leadership” that involved “going door to door, listening to people, letting them lead,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch told Mother Jones in 2002. “He is really the father of grass-roots organizing.”
When he arrived in Mississippi, Mr. Moses started with small workshops where farmers and workers talked about the problems they faced and brainstormed solutions. ”Bob never set us down and said, ‘This is what you should do, or this is how you should do it,”’ L.C. Dorsey, a former sharecropper who attended the meetings, told Mother Jones. ”He kept putting the questions out: ‘Why do you think that is? What do you think we ought to do about that?’ He’d listen to what you said and force you to think about it. That was his genius. He could hold his own ideas in abeyance and wait for you to finally develop the picture.”
Mr. Moses’s development of local grassroots leaders “forever shaped SNCC’s organizing style,” the organization said, noting his talent for tapping the potential of local residents who spoke up at meetings and participated in voter registration efforts. ‘‘Leadership is there in the people,’’ Mr. Moses said. ‘‘If you go out and work with your people, then the leadership will emerge.”
“He exemplified putting community interests above ego and personal interest,” Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, told the Times. “If you look at his work, he was always pushing local leadership first.”
After speaking out against the war in Vietnam—and being drafted even though he was past the age limit—Mr. Moses returned to teaching. He spent eight years teaching in Tanzania, where he lived with his wife and children in the 1970s.
In 1982, Mr. Moses had resumed work toward a Ph.D. in the philosophy of mathematics at Harvard and received a MacArthur “genius” grant when, frustrated that no algebra class was offered at his daughter’s school, he started the Algebra Project. Over the decade that followed, his “second chapter in civil rights work” spread across the country and reached 9,000 children with a curriculum he’d designed to help students succeed in math.
Mr. Moses wrote in the book “Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project,” which he wrote with Charles E. Cobb Jr., that teaching “math literacy” was directly related to his civil rights work in Mississippi. “I believe that the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered Black voters in Mississippi was in 1961,” he wrote.
Last summer, Mr. Moses spoke to The New York Times about a new “level of consciousness” of systemic racism emerging around the country.
“It is revelatory that the pressure now is coming from within. It’s been sparked by this one event, but the event really has opened up a crevasse, so to speak, through which all this history is pouring, like the Mississippi River onto the Delta,” he said. “And the question is, can the country handle it?”
“I certainly don’t know, at this moment, which way the country might flip. It can lurch backward as quickly as it can lurch forward.”