Robert Moses: An Equal Rights Militant in a Land of Unfulfilled Promises

Robert Parris Moses died last week. He was a champion of civil rights through voter registration in the American South in the 1960s and later through his Algebra Project.  He was also my teacher.

A brief summary of his life and achievements is a reminder of how the United States has changed in the past seventy years. Republican attacks on voter registration and the voting process are the exact opposite of all Bob Moses worked for.

Born in Harlem, Bob was an excellent student who easily made his way through the selective public Stuyvesant High School, Hamilton College and a master’s at Harvard Graduate School in Philosophy. He was working towards his PhD when he returned to New York City because of family illness.

His day job was to teach mathematics at the Horace Mann School. Bob was not an inspirational teacher. (I was never an inspired Math student and certainly don’t hold Bob responsible for that.) Nor was he an inspirational orator. He later lost to the charismatic Stokely Carmichael as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And there is some irony that the revered civil rights champion had taught at an elite private school. But it was his advocacy after leaving Horace Mann that was inspirational.

Bob left New York to go South to help voter registration in Mississippi. He was influential in starting the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project which enrolled college students from the North to join Blacks in recruiting voters. Bob’s life was in constant danger. He was beaten and jailed several times. Among the most notorious instances of the level of violence against voter registration, three volunteers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were savagely killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June 1964. The 1988 film “Mississippi Burning” is based on the investigation of the murders.

Bob’s calm determination and outstanding organizing skills made him a unique activist. A true democrat, he could speak to people on all levels. His charisma was recognized not by his self-importance, but by the determined strength of his mission. He was sometimes compared to the Biblical Moses leading his people, something he refused to acknowledge, preferring to be called Parris instead of Moses to avoid the limelight.

Bob left the United States for several years and taught school in Tanzania in the 1970s. (I recently learned through The New York Times and my classmate Andy Tobias that “soon after he spoke out against the Vietnam War, he received a draft notice – five years past the age limit for the draft.”) When he did return, he realized, through his children, that the Black failure in algebra and Math was hindering them just as not voting had hindered Blacks in the South in the 1960s. Well before discussions of the lack of female participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, Bob understood that without mathematical basics, uneducated children would remain marginalized.

“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 voter registered Black voters was in 1961 in Mississippi,” he wrote in Radical Equations with Charles E. Cobb Jr. Both voter registration and his Algebra Project sought to empower ordinary people to improve their lives and the larger society.

His Algebra Project continues to carry on on many of his ideas from the civil rights movement; community involvement, horizontal authority structures, pragmatic experiences. Radical Equations can be read as a textbook on how to organize at the grass roots level. The Algebra Project was educationally path-breaking. Bob was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard, a MacArthur genius award and numerous other prizes.

I was fortunate to have known Bob Moses for a short period of time. Several of my classmates and I were able to establish a scholarship in his name at Horace Mann at the celebration of our 50th reunion in 2014. Later, he was invited back to speak at the school, and impressed all by his openness and sincerity.

I wonder if all that Bob Moses strived for is ancient history. In 43 states, Republicans have introduced over 250 bills to try to restrict access to voting. Whether by increasing identification requirements or restricting absentee and mail-in ballots, the Republican goal is the same; limiting minority voting. These efforts are a concerted attempt to eviscerate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement.

Is Bob’s death a symbol of the end of a movement? Bob Moses went South because he had a calling. He believed in American democracy and the importance of the right to vote for all citizens. His Algebra Project has the same foundation; equality for all.

Bob Moses came back to the United States. After all he had been through in the 1960s, he started the Algebra Project because he saw it as another way of helping to fulfil America’s promises. Fifty-six years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Republicans are attempting to turn back the clock and all that Bob Moses strove to achieve.

How to reconcile this humble man’s achievements with the venal attempts to limit voter registration today? Was the utopia of the 1960s only a passing fade? Is the life of Bob Moses merely an historical anecdote, a footnote of a past era?

“There’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections,” President Joe Biden said in defending his proposed federal legislation to block Republican attempts at restricting voter registration. “An assault on democracy, an assault on liberty. An assault on who we are.” 

Some of Bob Moses’ achievements may be overturned. The right to vote for all, like basic mathematical skills for all were his vision of what the United States could be. The United States remains of land of many unfulfilled promises; Bob Moses’ efforts to fulfil those promises merit enduring admiration.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.