Rogelio V. Solis / AP
Robert Parris Moses, a civil rights activist who was shot and beaten and jailed while leading black voter registration campaigns in the southern United States in the 1960s and then helped to improve the education of minorities in mathematics, has died. He was 86 years old.
Moses, who was widely known as Bob, worked to dismantle segregation as the Mississippi field director of the Nonviolent Student Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement and played a central role in the “Freedom Summer “of 1964 in which hundreds of students went down South to register voters.
Moses began his “second chapter in civil rights work” by founding the Algebra Project in 1982 with a MacArthur Fellowship. The project included a program developed by Moses to help struggling students succeed in math.
Ben Moynihan, the director of operations for Project Algebra, said he spoke with Moses’ wife, Dr Janet Moses, and she said her husband died Sunday morning in Hollywood, Florida. No information was given on the cause of death.
Moses was born in Harlem, New York on January 23, 1935, two months after a race riot left three people dead and 60 injured in the neighborhood. His grandfather, William Henry Moses, was a prominent Southern Baptist preacher and a supporter of Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist leader at the turn of the century.
But like many black families, the Moses family moved from south to north during the Great Migration. Once in Harlem, his family sold milk from a black-owned cooperative to help supplement the household income, according to Robert Parris Moses: A Life of Civil Rights and Grassroots Leadership, by Laura Visser-Maessen.
While attending Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he became a Rhodes Scholar and was deeply influenced by the work of French philosopher Albert Camus and his ideas of rationality and moral purity for social change. Moses then went on a Quaker-sponsored trip to Europe and reinforced his belief that change came from the grassroots before earning a master’s degree in philosophy at Harvard University.
Moïse didn’t spend much time in the Deep South until he went on a recruiting trip in 1960 to “see the movement for myself”. He attended Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, but found little activity in the office and quickly turned his attention to SNCC.
“I was taught the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe,” Moses said later. “I never knew there was (the) denial of the right to vote behind a cotton curtain here in the United States.”
The young civil rights activist attempted to register black people to vote in rural Amite County, Mississippi, where he was beaten and arrested. When he tried to press charges against a white assailant, an all-white jury acquitted the man and a judge protected Moses all the way to the county line so he could leave.
In 1963, he and two other activists – James Travis and Randolph Blackwell – were driving in Greenwood, Mississippi, when someone opened fire on them and Travis, 20, was shot. In a press release from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Moses described how bullets whistled around them and how Moses got behind the wheel when Travis was hit and stopped the car.
“We were all within inches of being killed,” Moses said in the 1963 press release.
A recurring theme in Moses’ life and work was the need to listen to and work with local people where activists were trying to make changes, whether it was to register black voters in some of the parties. most staunchly anti-integration in Mississippi or years later working with students and teachers to find ways to improve their math skills.
In an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project, he spoke about the need for civil rights activists to gain the trust of local Mississippi people in order to effect change.
“You had to earn the right for the black people of Mississippi to decide that they were going to work with you because why should they risk everything to work with you if you were someone or a group of people who just weren’t not serious? ” he said.
He then helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to challenge the all-white Mississippi Democratic delegation in 1964. But President Lyndon Johnson prevented the rebel Democratic group from voting at the convention and instead left Southerners to Jim Crow, calling the nation’s attention.
Disillusioned with the reaction of white liberals to the civil rights movement, Moses quickly began participating in protests against the Vietnam War, then cut all relations with whites, even former SNCC members.
Moses worked as a teacher in Tanzania, Africa, returned to Harvard to earn a doctorate in philosophy, and taught high school math in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He later taught math in Jackson, Mississippi, while commuting to Massachusetts on weekends.
The shy Moses began his “second chapter in civil rights work” by founding the Algebra Project in 1982 using money he received through the MacArthur Foundation Fellows program – often referred to as “genius” grants – to improve math literacy among underserved populations. Ben Moynihan of the Algebra Project said Moses viewed the work of improving math literacy as an extension of the civil rights work he started in the 1960s.
“Bob really saw the issue of giving hope to young people through access to mastery of mathematics … as an issue of citizenship, as critical as the right to vote has been,” Moynihan said. .
Historian Taylor Branch, whose Separate the waters won the Pulitzer Prize, said that Moses’ leadership embodied a paradox.
“In addition to attracting the same kind of worship among the youth in the movement that Martin Luther King did among the adults,” Branch said, “Moses represented a distinct conception of leadership“ as emanating and exercised by ” ordinary people “.