August 1, 2021 (Sunday)
Last Sunday, educator and civil rights leader Dr. Robert Parris Moses died at 86.
Born in New York City in 1935, the son of a homemaker and a janitor, Moses was working on a PhD at Harvard when his parents’ health brought him back to New York City. There, he began to teach math in 1958.
In 1960, images of Black Americans in the South picketing for their rights “hit me powerfully, in the soul as well as the brain,” he later said. He moved to Mississippi and began to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”). In 1961, he began to direct SNCC’s Mississippi Project to promote voter registration in Mississippi, where, although about 40% of the state’s population was Black, most Black Americans had been frozen out of the polls through poll taxes, subjective literacy tests, and violence. In his quest to get people registered to vote, Moses endured attacks from thugs wielding knives, white supremacists wielding guns, and law enforcement officers wielding power. He earned a reputation for being quiet and calm in times that were anything but.
By 1964, Moses was one of the key leaders in the effort to register Black voters in Mississippi. In April, working with Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, he helped to found the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge Mississippi’s all-white Democratic Party.
That summer, Moses led the Freedom Summer Project to bring together college students from northern schools to work together with Black people from Mississippi to educate and register Black voters. On June 21, just as the project was getting underway, Ku Klux Klan members working with local law enforcement officers murdered three organizers outside Philadelphia, Mississippi: James Chaney, from Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner from New York. The white supremacists buried the bodies in an earthen dam that was under construction. When the men disappeared, Moses told the other organizers that no one would blame them for going home. His quiet leadership inspired most of them to stay.
On August 4, investigators found the bodies of the three missing men. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party met on August 6 and decided to challenge the Mississippi Democratic Party to represent the state at the Democratic National Convention. And yet, when the Democratic National Convention met, the Democratic National Committee leaders and President Lyndon B. Johnson chose to recognize the all-white Democratic Party rather than the integrated ticket of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
At the end of 1964, Moses resigned from his leadership position in Mississippi, worried that his role had become "too strong, too central, so that people who did not need to, began to lean on me, to use me as a crutch." Key to Moses’s leadership was that he did not want to be out front; he wanted to empower others to take control of their own lives.
Civil rights historian Taylor Branch told reporter Julia Cass in a story Mother Jones published in 2002: “Moses pioneered an alternative style of leadership from the princely church leader that [the Reverend Martin Luther] King [Jr.] epitomized…. He was the thoughtful, self-effacing loner. He is really the father of grassroots organizing—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.”
Moses was disillusioned when the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party did not win the right to represent the state in the Democratic National Convention. For all the work that individual sharecroppers and hairdressers and housewives had done in Mississippi, national leaders had let them down. “You cannot trust the system,” he said in 1965. “I will have nothing to do with the political system any longer.”
Moses turned to protesting the Vietnam War. He and his wife, Janet, moved to Tanzania when he was drafted despite being five years over the cutoff age. After 8 years in Africa, the Moses family moved back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Moses resumed his doctoral work in the philosophy of mathematics.
Back in America, Moses turned his philosophy of empowerment to the schools, advancing the idea that mathematical literacy is central to the ability of young people to participate in the twenty-first-century economy. In the 1980s, he launched The Algebra Project to give young Americans access to higher mathematics. “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. “In the 1960s, we opened up political access…. The most important social problem affecting people of color today is economic access, and this depends crucially on math and science literacy, because the American economy is now based on knowledge and technology, not labor.”
Moses’s focus on empowerment and self-determination was very much in keeping with the original concept of American democracy.
And yet, his efforts, along with those of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, to turn to national politicians to cement gains at the grass roots were not in vain. In 1965, Congress passed and Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, protecting the rights of Black Americans to vote, focusing on states with historical voter suppression.
Just fifteen years later, in 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan spoke at Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he defended state’s rights, and the unwinding of the civil rights advances of the post–World War II years began.
Now, in 2021, we seem to be headed back to the one-party society Moses fought. In response to record voter turnout in the 2020 election, 18 states have passed 30 new laws that make it harder to vote. At the same time, Republican-dominated legislatures are gathering into their own hands the power to override the voters.
In Louisiana on Friday, Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder removed three Democrats and one unaffiliated member from committee leadership positions in retaliation for their unwillingness to override the Democratic governor’s veto of a bill banning transgender girls from participating in school sports. They will be replaced by Republicans.
In Georgia, legislators have begun the process of transferring control of the elections in Fulton County, one of the most reliably Democratic counties in the nation, from county officials to Republican state officials.
Public schools are also under attack, with Republicans threatening to cut funding to schools that require masks to stop the spread of coronavirus or that teach “divisive concepts” that make students uncomfortable, usually topics that involve race.
Republican lawmakers have proposed attaching funding to students rather than to schools, enabling parents to use tax dollars to enroll their children in private schools. This sounds like a revival of the all-white “segregation academies” that sprang up in the South after the Supreme Court required desegregation of public schools. Those academies, funded with public money, were so successful that, according to Professor Noliwe Rooks, an Americanist who specializes in issues of race and education and who chairs the Africana Studies department at Brown University, in 1974, 3,500 academies in the South enrolled 750,000 white children. As white students left the public schools, funds available to educate the many Black and few white children left behind fell drastically.
Unequal educational options were hallmarks of the one-party state systems Moses worked to undermine. When he explained The Algebra Project, Moses called the historically limited educational opportunities for Black children in America “sharecropper schooling.” “[Y]ou went through it, but your options were you were going to chop and pick cotton or do domestic work….”
In 1965, Congress and the president finally recognized that all the organizing in the world couldn’t overcome the apparatus of a rigged system. They used the power of the federal government to turn the work of individuals like Bob Moses, scholar and visionary, organizer and teacher, into the law of the land.
But watching the turbulence in American life last year, Moses warned that the nation “can lurch backward as quickly as it can lurch forward.”