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Bob Moses: A Civil Rights Leader With a Second Act

During the 1960s, scores of social activists burned brightly and then passed from the scene — rating a mention in the history books or maybe a bit more, but living out their lives in relative privacy. A small number of these young leaders, however, created for themselves second acts, finding ways to continue the work for freedom and equality even after the political energies of the era had dissipated. One giant of the civil rights movement who pulled off this feat was the philosopher-turned-organizer-turned-educator Robert Parris Moses, who died in July at age 86.

Who was Bob Moses? His name might be well-known, but his life’s work is somewhat less so. During the second impeachment hearing of former President Donald Trump early this year, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) repeatedly misidentified Moses as the former chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — the 1960s civil rights group — which he, alas, was not. But Raskin’s confusion was understandable. Although Moses would later be eclipsed in celebrity by other SNCC members like Rep. John Lewis, Julian Bond and even Stokely Carmichael, the activist for a time enjoyed a special mystique.

A Harlem-born graduate of New York’s storied Stuyvesant High School, a Rhodes Scholar who pursued doctoral work at Harvard in philosophy, Moses had a deep interest in Albert Camus, existentialism and theology, which made him unusually alluring to the journalists covering the Black student movement in the South. He carried himself, moreover, with an unprepossessing air that contrasted starkly with the flamboyance of the charismatic Black preachers who led the movement.

Ironically, Moses didn’t even take part in the historic lunch-counter sit-ins of 1960 that led to the creation of SNCC. He read about them in the newspaper in his Harlem apartment. But he drew inspiration from the courage and eagerness exhibited by the students, just a few years younger than he was, putting their bodies on the line. He quit his job as a math teacher at an elite New York prep school and headed south to join the movement. In the summer of 1960, he showed up in Atlanta, where the newly formed SNCC was housed in the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization. Moses took a small desk and set to work without any clear assignment. “I was licking envelopes, one at a time, and talking Niebuhr and Tillich with Jane Stembridge,” he said in an early interview, referring to a Union Theological Seminary student who had just been hired as the new group’s temporary director.

For all his intellectual inclinations and airs, Moses soon left Atlanta to become one of SNCC’s first organizers in the field. Under the tutelage of an older Mississippi activist named Amzie Moore, he ventured into rural Mississippi, where the white supremacist order resisted change more fiercely than anywhere else in the country. In slow, highly personal work, he joined with local African Americans to help them secure the right to vote. Over the next few years, SNCC’s activism would extend widely across the South, but the Mississippi campaign would become its biggest and most difficult. Moses’ friends and coworkers were often beaten, brutalized and even murdered. In 1961, Billy Jack Caston, a white supremacist and cousin of the local sheriff, attacked Moses himself on the courthouse steps in a town called Liberty, opening a bloody gash in his skull that would require eight stitches. On another occasion, Moses was shot at and nearly killed as bullets whizzed by his head.

The Mississippi Project, as it was known, which culminated with the Freedom Summer of 1964, was in the end a mixed success. On the one hand, the SNCC activists considered it a cruel defeat when, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the party refused to seat a delegation from their Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party instead of the state’s traditional all-white, segregationist representatives. But if SNCC lost the battle, it won the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Democrats got behind the fight for national voting rights legislation, and the Voting Rights Act became law the following summer. The organizing in Mississippi by Moses and others also galvanized a generation of activists, for whom it would remain a formative and inspiring experience.

After the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement fractured. Following the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, the spotlight turned to intractable economic and social issues around which no clear political consensus existed and which could not be remedied by an act of Congress or a Supreme Court ruling. SNCC itself split over politics, nonviolence and Black Power. The Vietnam War increasingly absorbed the energies of young protesters.

Always an independent spirit, Moses found himself somewhat alone during this time of realignments. Along with integrationist leaders like Lewis and Bond, he left SNCC when it swung toward militancy. But for a time, he also embraced Black separatism, even dropping his surname (he went for a while by “Robert Parris”) and moving to Tanzania. He eventually renounced his flirtation with separatism, though, considering it a phase in his intellectual evolution that he could leave behind.

The challenge for many movement veterans — who achieved so much while they were just in their 20s or 30s — was what to do next. Some never found a calling. Others found fulfillment in academia, journalism or social policy work, continuing to keep activism a part of their lives. A few, like Lewis and Bond, had prominent careers in politics. Moses’ chosen path for his final four decades was more unusual and perhaps in some ways harder: an effort to expand and improve mathematics education, especially for disadvantaged students, called The Algebra Project.

Just as Moses had seen his civil rights work as an outgrowth of his study of philosophy, so he considered his commitment to what he called “math literacy” an extension of his involvement in the 1960s freedom struggle. The poor level of math education in urban neighborhoods and rural communities, he liked to say, was as urgent as the inability of Black Mississippians to secure the vote in the early 1960s. Addressing the problem called for a similar kind of community organizing. Moses went on to build a staff, train teachers in innovative pedagogical methods and create an organization whose staffers interacted closely with students, parents, teachers and community leaders in cities across the country. According to a 2002 Mother Jones profile of Moses, research into the Algebra Project’s efficacy found that it helped students raise their math skills, as measured by standardized tests, and likely boosted college enrollment among its graduates.

This was not glamorous work, but Moses knew that to build on the gains of the civil rights movement in the decades after its glory days meant a shift in focus. While there would always be a role for protests and marches, addressing inequalities in areas like education required a different sort of solution — one that got into the nitty-gritty of how people lived, worked and learned. Robert Moses not only led a long and productive life but, through his second act, saw to it that the civil rights movement did so as well.

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