Civil Rights Leader Bob Moses
Soft-spoken and self-effacing grassroots organizer, Robert “Bob” Moses, died last week at the age of 86. A Civil rights leader, Moses championed Black voting rights and went to the South to join the nascent fight for civil rights in the early 1960s. Born and raised in Harlem, N.Y., Moses, ultimately becoming a central figure in the movement.
As a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in deeply segregated Mississippi, Moses worked to hand political power to Black people through voting education and voter registration drives. In 1964, Moses orchestrated the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which drew hundreds of students from Northern colleges to Mississippi to help register voters across the state.
Moses’ enfranchisement efforts were often met with violence and threats from white residents and law enforcement officials and local officials. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, it’s estimated that more than 1,000 people were arrested — many of whom were beaten — and 67 black owned businesses, churches and homes were bombed or set ablaze for their participation in that summer’s movement; additionally, four civil rights workers were killed and at least three Black Mississippians were murdered.
The Freedom Summer initiative drew national awareness to the inequalities faced by Black Mississippians, helping to persuade President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act that summer and, the following year, the Voting Rights Act.
From 1969 to 1976, he taught mathematics in Tanzania in East Africa. Upon returning to the United States, he went on to get his doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University, where he’d also earned his master’s degree in the same field before heading to Mississippi.
Believing in math literacy as a critical part of a child’s education, Moses continued to push education to the forefront of the civil rights agenda. In the ’80s he founded the Algebra Project, a math training program focused on empowering students from underfunded public schools and poor communities. He started the project with funding from a MacArthur Fellowship. This was viewed as his latest civil rights crusade, this time against the inequalities baked into the public education system. In an interview with NPR in 2012, Moses said, “Education is still basically Jim Crow as far as the kids who are in the bottom economic strata of the country. No one knows about them, no one cares about them.”
Taylor Branch, a civil rights-era historian, previously told NPR that Moses’ Northern background, quiet demeanor and philosophical education made him a “startling paradox” among the movement’s well-known Southern and evangelical leaders: “I think his influence is almost on par with Martin Luther King, and yet he’s almost totally unknown,” said Branch. “He spoke quietly, he didn’t give big sermons like Martin Luther King, he didn’t seek out dramatic confrontations like the Freedom Riders and the sit-ins, but he did inspire a broad range of grassroots leadership.”