The Ku Klux Klan hung a wanted poster in Mississippi in the early 1960s, offering a reward for Bob Moses, dead or alive, an African American civil rights worker. Moses defied his would-be assassins, and went on to transform the South and the country as a whole with his brilliant work as a grassroots organizer, registering voters while training people at the local level to lead themselves. His practical approach coupled with a deep embrace of nonviolence has changed the lives of millions. His passing should be mourned, but should also serve as a call to action, as the voting rights for which he and so many risked their lives, and for which many died, are once again under assault.
Working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, Bob Moses recognized that the civil rights movement had to be centered in the Jim Crow South, but also had to be a national movement. He also saw that education was the key to liberation, and later, in the 1980s, launched the Algebra Project, using the teaching of math in marginalized communities as a tool for organizing.
“In the civil rights movement,” he said on the Democracy Now! news hour, “we were able to get Jim Crow out of three very distinct arenas in the country: First, public accommodations; second, voting rights and access to the political structures of the country, and third, and not well known,” he added, referencing the remarkable attempt in 1964 to seat the diverse Mississippi Freedom Party delegation at the Democratic National Convention, in place of the all-white Democratic Party delegation, “access to the national party structure itself.”
Moses was born and raised in Harlem, living in public housing and attending public schools. He left his graduate studies at Harvard to return home to care for his ailing father, after his mother died of cancer at the age of 43. Inspired by media reports of student sit-ins at lunch counters across the South, at 25 Moses moved to Atlanta, and was soon appointed SNCC’s field secretary, then director of its Mississippi operations.
In 1961, 70 per cent of Black Mississippians were rural and poor, with, on average, only five years of schooling. Only seven per cent were registered to vote, and most who were registered didn’t vote, fearing violent retaliation. Moses and others from SNCC trained local African Americans how to challenge the literacy tests, poll taxes, violence and intimidation that confronted them when attempting to register.
Moses himself was badly beaten on the courthouse steps while helping people register to vote, and later, with others from SNCC, was jailed for over a month facing felony charges. A Ku Klux Klansman fired a shotgun into a car Moses was in, badly injuring the driver.
In 1964, Bob Moses was a lead organizer of Freedom Summer, when hundreds of mostly white Northern college students came south to help African Americans register to vote. On June 21st, three of the activists were murdered: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner. They were killed by local white supremacists and buried in an earthen dam, not found until 44 days later.
Moses’ focus shifted from civil rights to the growing anti-war movement. In 1966, to avoid the military draft, he took his family first to Canada, then later to Tanzania. There, he taught schoolchildren, returning to the U.S. after President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to those who refused to participate in the draft.
He resumed studies at Harvard, then, concerned that his children’s school didn’t offer algebra, became a math teacher. He founded the Algebra Project to bring quality math education to all children, receiving a MacArthur Genius Grant. The Algebra Project seeks to turn each curious math student into an organizer.
“In our country, we run sharecropper education,” Bob Moses explained on Democracy Now! “In the Mississippi Delta, sharecroppers were assigned a certain kind of work, so the idea was you only needed a certain kind of education. Carry that forward into the Information Age; we have serfs in our cities, just like we had serfs in the Mississippi Delta…We need a constitutional amendment which simply says every child in the country is entitled to a quality public school education.”
Voter suppression laws are sweeping the country, yet President Joe Biden resists widespread calls to help end the racist filibuster, which would enable national voter rights legislation to pass through Congress.
“In the ’60s,” Moses said on Democracy Now!, “We force[d] the country to live up to its ideals…and this generation is going to have to do the same.”
Bob Moses, Rest in Power.
Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!