On July 25 we lost the quiet and brilliant educator, scholar, and civil rights hero Bob Moses, a great man and a dear friend. For me and my generation of young civil rights workers, Bob was, after Dr. King, the most influential person in our movement lives. We all looked up to him although he was just a few years older. I and all of us would do anything for Bob and follow anywhere he led because we knew he would do anything for us and sacrifice all to win justice for the poor disenfranchised people of Mississippi.
A Harlem-born graduate of Hamilton College who had studied philosophy at Harvard, Bob Moses left a job teaching mathematics at the Horace Mann School in New York City in 1960 to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He set up a voter registration project in Mississippi, which had the lowest Black voter registration of any southern state. I first met him while I was a student at Yale Law School. Bob would occasionally come north to recruit students for SNCC and to raise money, and listening to his stories of white intimidation and violence directed against Black adults attempting to register to vote did not change my mind about getting myself to Mississippi as soon as my legal training was finished.
His unshakable calm, quiet leadership style, unquestionable integrity, and incredible courage and perseverance in the face of grave dangers inspired us again and again. He encouraged us to tap wellsprings of inner strength and possibility we did not know we had and helped us be so much better and braver than we realized we could be. He led by example and was prepared to give absolutely everything he had to the freedom struggle, including his life.
I was not afraid when I was with Bob in Mississippi even when forced to crouch on the floorboard of a car’s backseat to avoid snipers while traveling to then notorious Amite County. Bob did not let a split-open head wound keep him from walking on into the registrar’s office in McComb, Mississippi with his scared fellow citizens, determined to show local officials and his white assailants that violence would not turn him or the movement around. He knew he had to break the paralysis of fear among would-be voters and let Mississippi and the world know he would not turn back until Black citizens could vote.
As patient as Job and determined to keep hope alive among his fractious and often unpaid band of SNCC workers, his quiet but steely will kept them and me carrying on and pushing on the heavy door to open Mississippi’s closed society. He knew how hard and how important it was and how much time it would take to build the trust of local citizens who too seldom had seen leaders who stuck by them when times got rough.
He devised the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer and helped recruit hundreds of idealistic white college students to come into the state to bring visibility to the constant denial of human and civil rights of Mississippi’s Black citizens. Sadly, often only when middle-class and privileged whites feel threatened does a movement reach critical mass and attract enough media attention to mobilize public opinion. I saw and shared his wrenching soul-searching at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio when the horrible news of James Chaney’s, Andrew Goodman’s, and Mickey Schwerner’s disappearance swept through training sessions designed to prepare the white college students for Mississippi’s realities. I saw this leader shoulder the burden of life and death consequences not just for himself but, at that moment, for so many others. I felt him struggle to determine what price others could be asked to pay to uphold one’s ideals.
Bob Moses led us through the very difficult Mississippi Freedom Summer and through a mock election in which 80,000 Black citizens showed they wanted the right to vote denied them by Mississippi’s Jim Crow Democratic Party. He led us to Atlantic City where the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) unsuccessfully sought to persuade the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention to unseat the racist Mississippi Party regulars. Eventually, Bob, human and not saint after all, was worn out from the cumulative struggles to register Black voters and the white violence it provoked, from the MFDP defeat in Atlantic City, and by the willingness of civil rights allies to compromise on what he, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and the majority of the MFDP delegation thought was a matter of principle and right. I watched with profound sadness this wonderful man leave Mississippi burnt out and temporarily disillusioned about interracial coalition building. Soon afterwards, my deeply loved and admired friend went off to Tanzania via Canada to regroup, renew, and wait out the Vietnam War.
When he came back to the United States, he resumed his philosophy studies at Harvard and then returned to his calling as a teacher when he founded the Algebra Project to help Black and poor children get onto the college track. As Bob explained in his book Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights, he believed the struggle for math literacy is connected to the struggle for voting rights and math literacy for all children is a key step in the ongoing fight for equal citizenship. The Algebra Project’s ongoing mission is to use math literacy as an organizing tool to guarantee quality public school education for all children in the United States of America. Our own CDF Freedom Schools® program is also rooted in the model of empowerment on which he helped organize the 1960s Freedom Schools during Freedom Summer and are still driven by that same understanding that education and civic participation must function hand-in-hand. The Algebra Project’s success in hundreds of classrooms over nearly forty years is now Bob’s living legacy.
I bristle when I hear careless know-nothing media and political pundits and self-righteous ideologues excoriate the 1960s as a time of undisciplined behavior. Not my Sixties. Not Bob Moses’ Sixties. Bob Moses was a principled, fiercely committed, and deeply disciplined leader and role model whose quiet and determined strength inspired everyone around him. He will be dearly missed.