Bob Moses: Civil rights activist who used maths to fight inequality

After turning his attention to helping black people vote, Moses focused his efforts on ensuring minorities received an education

Paul W Valentine
Monday 02 August 2021 00:00 BST
<p>Bob Moses at a national youth summit in the Old Capitol Museum, Jackson, Mississippi in 2014</p>

Bob Moses at a national youth summit in the Old Capitol Museum, Jackson, Mississippi in 2014

Bob Moses, a towering but self-effacing leader of the civil rights movement who, after enduring beatings and imprisonment to register Black voters in Mississippi in the 1960s, picked up the civil rights torch 20 years later by founding the Algebra Project, a maths education initiative aimed at rural and inner-city students, has died aged 86.

Bespectacled, owlish and bearing a master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard, Moses was an unlikely frontline activist – much less an obvious candidate to quit his comfortable prep-school teaching job in the Bronx in 1960 and immerse himself in the most violently segregationist precincts of Mississippi.

A janitor’s son raised in New York public housing, he showed precocious talent for academic fields involving logic, especially mathematics and philosophy. He found kinship with Quaker friends in college, and he submerged himself in the writings of Albert Camus, the French-Algerian Nobel laureate whose books explored universal questions of human existence and justice.

As the civil rights movement gained momentum, Moses felt at a certain intellectual remove. “Words are more powerful than munitions,” his early intellectual lodestar, Camus, once wrote. But a turning point for the 25-year-old Moses was reading news accounts of the nascent sit-in protests in the South. He studied the newspaper dispatches for weeks, mesmerised and finally ready to engage.

“Before, the negro in the South had always looked on the defensive, cringing,” he once said. “This time they were taking the initiative. They were kids my age, and I knew this had something to do with my own life.”

Mentored by civil rights veterans Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), sidestepped the sit-ins and initiated voter-registration drives instead as a more direct way to gain political power for black people.

He chose rural southwest Mississippi, the most intransigent region of the state, as his target. There, in “freedom schools”, he taught African Americans how to register and pass the stringent voter literacy tests. Often working alone or with one or two SNCC organisers, he was repeatedly threatened by white mobs and law enforcement officials as he accompanied black people to courthouse registration offices.

They were suspicious of the educated black man from New York who seemed impervious to threats or brute force. In front of a courthouse in Liberty, Mississippi, in August 1961, where Moses was leading a few men to register, an assailant came from the crowd and smashed a knife handle on Moses’s head.

With blood dripping from his skull, Moses continued into the courthouse, only to find the registrar’s office closed. Moses, whose wound required eight stitches, pressed charges against Billy Jack Caston, the man who injured him. Caston, a cousin of the sheriff, was acquitted by an all-white jury on self-defence grounds, after claiming that Moses had brushed against his shoulder and assumed a threatening stance.

Moses remained in the thick of danger for four years. His office was burned. He was jailed at times and reported being shot at by whites in a passing car near Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963.

In 1964, he helped organise the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, bringing hundreds of white college student volunteers to help with the voter drive as a way to generate national publicity and pressure Congress to enforce black voting rights. (President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act the following year.)

It had been an exhausting battle. By the late 1960s, he was pulling away from SNCC, not only because of its increasing black nationalist radicalism under leader Stokely Carmichael, but also because of his own shift in focus from civil rights to opposing the Vietnam War.

In 1966, he decamped for Canada after being denied conscientious-objector status by the US draft system. He also spent years as a teacher in Africa with his wife before returning in 1977 after President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to draft evaders. Moses soon began building his second enduring legacy, the Algebra Project.

‘He is really the father of grass-roots organising – not the Moses summoning his people on the mountaintop as Martin Luther King did but, ironically, the anti-Moses, going door to door, listening to people, letting them lead’

Though less dramatic and harrowing than getting black voters to the polls in Mississippi, the Algebra Project marked a pivotal shift in his civil rights vision from political to economic equality.

The project has instructed thousands of middle-school students in what Moses called “math literacy” as a crucial stepping stone to college and employment.

Low maths achievement among minority students is “the nation’s dirty secret”, he often told educators. He urged them to avoid the tendency to neglect the subject and instead help students escape their “serf-like communities” within hi-tech society, just as sharecroppers earlier sought release from the serfdom of the plantation.

“Math literacy,” he said, “is a civil right. Just as black people in Mississippi saw the vote as a tool to elevate them into the first class politically, math is the tool to elevate the young into the first class economically.”

His pedagogical method focused on bottom-up reliance on the initiative and will of students to spark their own enthusiasm and was similar to the grass-roots approach of his earlier voter-registration work.

That approach – in which he shunned personal leadership, prompting individual rank-and-file people to initiate actions and ideas – also caused him to clash with the more mainstream and hierarchical organisations in the civil rights movement.

“Moses pioneered an alternative style of leadership from the princely church leader that [ Martin Luther] King epitomised,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch told Mother Jones magazine in 2002. “He is really the father of grass-roots organising – not the Moses summoning his people on the mountaintop as King did but, ironically, the anti-Moses, going door to door, listening to people, letting them lead.”

Over the years, the project has served more than 40,000 students in hundreds of schools throughout America. Its students’ performance has generally exceeded that of other peer groups, and the project has won national awards and the praise of numerous academics.

Robert Parris Moses was born in New York City’s Harlem neighbourhood on 23 January 1935. While his father was emotionally erratic and limited largely to janitorial work, there was a tradition of education in the family. His grandfather, William Moses, was a prominent Baptist minister, and an uncle was a college professor.

Urged by his father to seek a fuller education, Moses gained entrance to New York’s Stuyvesant High School for gifted students, where he scored in the middle of his class. But it was enough to win a scholarship in 1952 to Hamilton College, a small, virtually all-white liberal arts school in upstate New York.

There, he sharpened his already established aptitude for mathematics and in 1956 majored with honours in philosophy. Drawing on his reading of Camus, he began developing concepts of pacifism, nonviolence and the use of power, especially in the context of race relations.

In 1957, he obtained a master’s degree in philosophy at Harvard but interrupted his doctoral studies there when his mother died the next year. He returned to New York to be near his father, who suffered a mental collapse. Moses quickly found work teaching mathematics at the prestigious Horace Mann private school. After a few years, he joined SNCC and became its Mississippi field secretary.

His first marriage, to SNCC worker Dona Richards, ended in divorce. In Canada, living under an assumed name, he married Janet Jemmott, a former SNCC activist.

In 1968, they moved to Tanzania where for eight years they taught secondary-school maths and English. They had four children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

After Carter’s blanket pardon, Moses and his wife settled in the Boston area. He resumed doctoral studies at Harvard in the philosophy of mathematics, and his wife entered medical school.

Appalled by his daughter Maisha’s poor grounding in grade-school maths, he abandoned his doctoral work and founded the Algebra Project in 1982, winning a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant to fund its first five years. By 2001, it was serving 10,000 students in 28 cities with a $2.5m annual budget, expanding beyond that in following years.

Friends described Moses as a quintessential loner, friendly but reserved, soft-spoken, reflective, equally unflappable in a crowded classroom in Boston or a hostile voter-registration office in backcountry Mississippi.

Moses returned to Mississippi in the early 1990s to help launch the Delta Algebra Project as a direct continuation of his civil rights work.

“But this time, we’re organising around literacy – not just reading and writing, but mathematical literacy,” he told The New York Times. “The question we asked then was: ‘What are the skills people have to master to open the doors to citizenship?’ Now math literacy holds the key.”

Bob Moses, educator and civil rights activist, born 23 January 1935, died 25 July 2021

© The Washington Post

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in