“Well, I don’t think that the Democratic Party to this day has confronted the issue of bringing into its ranks the kind of people that were represented by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. That is the real underclass of this country. The Democratic Party primarily has organized around the middle class. And we were challenging them not only on racial grounds but we were challenging them on the existence of a whole group of people who are the underclass of this country, white and black, who are not represented. And they weren’t prepared to hear that; I don’t know if they heard.”
1961: Named head of SNCC’s Mississippi Project.
1964: Founds the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
1982: Awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and founds The Algebra Project
1997: Receives War Resisters League Peace Award
2000: Receives Heinz Award for the Human Condition
2001: Awarded the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship
2002: Receives the Margaret Chase Smith American Democracy Award
2002: Receives the James Bryant Conant Award
2005: Awarded an Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship
In a 2013 interview, the historian Taylor Branch explained Bob Moses’s significance to the American civil rights movement. “To this day he is a startling paradox,” Branch said. “I think his influence is almost on par with Martin Luther King, and yet he’s almost totally unknown.” Through his many years as a civil rights organizer, Moses was self-effacing, observant and sensitive. These characteristics kept him out of the spotlight, but made him a highly effective leader.
Robert Parris Moses was born on January 23, 1935 in New York City’s Harlem. The son of a janitor, Moses grew up in a Harlem housing project but received a high-quality public education, which he turned into a productive, meaningful career. Because he did well in school, he was admitted to Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s best public school. He went on to earn a scholarship from Hamilton College and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. He spent the early years of his career teaching math at Horace Mann School, an exclusive prep school in New York, and later taught math in Tanzania.
Despite his quiet demeanor, he became an important figure in the civil rights movement, working with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In 1961, Moses, then field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, became the head of the SNCC’s Mississippi Project. Moses organized voter registration drives, sit-ins, and Freedom Schools, which led to significant gains in voting rights for Black Mississippians. As an organizer, he was heavily influenced by Ella Baker, who believed civil rights movements should belong to the people, not to the leaders. In order to put victory in the hands of citizens, she believed, organizers should stay in the background, developing trust in communities, helping people define what they want, and then guiding them to their goals.
In 1964, Moses, along with Fannie Lou Hamer, founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The party challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 presidential convention. Although the MFDP didn’t win any seats, they forced the integration of the mainstream Democratic Party. They also brought representation to people who were usually ignored because of racism, class, and poverty. Fannie Lou Hamer, who later became the voice and face of the MFDP, was one of the delegates.
For this work, Moses was awarded the MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1982. Not content to rest after past achievements, Moses moved forward with a new civil rights agenda: education. He used the MacArthur grant to start the Algebra Project (AP), helping the lowest-performing students to prepare for college math and twenty-first-century careers.
According to Moses, his work in education is a natural continuation of his work in Mississippi: “The civil rights work in the 1960s culminated in the national response to protect a fundamental right: the right to vote. Our current work seeks a national response to establish a fundamental right: the right of every child to a quality public school education.” Moses travels the United States, teaching and lecturing about how he has used the civil rights protest model to transform schools and communities.
Through his adulthood, Moses saw more and more poor and minority children whose futures were limited by low-quality education. He developed the Algebra Project “to demonstrate how students who enter high school performing in the lowest national quartile in mathematics can accelerate their learning, pass state and national (ACT/SAT) exams, and be prepared for college mathematics.” The Algebra Project began at one school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and expanded to more than two hundred middle schools nationwide by the late 1990s. Later, the program expanded to high schools, as well as middle schools, and it is now present in thirteen states.
“AP’s unique approach to school reform intentionally develops sustainable, student-centered models by building coalitions of stakeholders within the local communities, particularly the historically underserved population. Since 2000, we have continued to provide the context in which students, schools, parents and communities maximize local resources and take ownership of their own community building and mathematics education reform efforts.”
In 2001, Moses published a book, Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project. There he explains how the principles of the civil rights movement can be applied to the fight for equitable public education. “…everyone said sharecroppers were apathetic until we got them demanding to vote. That finally got attention. Here, where kids are falling wholesale through the cracks – or chasms – … people say they don’t want to learn. The only ones who can dispel that notion are the kids themselves. They … have to demand what everyone says they don’t want.” In the book, Moses explains how community involvement is the key to successfully changing schools and communities for the better.
In addition to the MacArthur Fellowship, Moses has received several awards for his work, including the War Resisters League Peace Award (1997), Heinz Award for the Human Condition (2000), Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship (2001), Margaret Chase Smith American Democracy Award (2002), James Bryant Conant Award (2002) and Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship (2005). At an age where most are retired, Moses continued teaching in Algebra Project schools and traveling, sharing his model for community-building and improving education all over the United States.
Moses has called for a constitutional amendment establishing quality public school education as a civil right.
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