Bob Moses: Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement

Moses was born in 1935 in Harlem, New York, into a family he said had “come down in the world”. His paternal grandfather was an eminent Baptist minister, an uncle was a professor and a cousin had been an architect. But Bob’s father, Gregory Moses, worked as a janitor during the Depression and eventually became an alcoholic, leaving his mother, Louise (nee Parris) to pick up the pieces.

Bob went to Stuyvesant high school and on a scholarship to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, a small institution that was conservative in many ways but liberal on race. There he was introduced to the writings of Albert Camus: a dog-eared copy of The Rebel stayed with him during dangerous times in Mississippi.  

He did well enough at Hamilton to be accepted as a student at Harvard, where in 1957 he took a course in mathematical logic under the great philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine. But he had to drop out in 1958 when his mother died and his father had a breakdown. He taught maths briefly at the Horace Mann school in the Bronx. Then, visiting a cousin in Virginia, he witnessed a sit-in and decided to devote his life to the African American cause.

In 1960 he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known colloquially as Snick, which sent him to Mississippi as its first field secretary. He focused on voting behavior, reasoning that no amount of opening-up of segregated lunch counters would give poor black people in Mississippi the respect they needed from white politicians.

It was hard, lonely and dangerous work. According to one source, 63 African Americans were killed in voting-related situations in Mississippi during the early 60s. It was not long before Moses, too, experienced violence. A car he was in was machine-gunned. He was badly beaten, and had the temerity to sue his alleged assailant, who was acquitted. He was also arrested and imprisoned, usually briefly, on a number of occasions.

He became a field secretary for SNCC and began work in the civil rights movement in Mississippi in 1961, helping organize voter registration, sit-ins, Freedom Schools and finally Freedom Summer, where college students from the North came to change Mississippi. He served as co-director of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the umbrella civil rights organization.

In 1964, he helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with Fannie Lou Hamer to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, leading to the integration of the Democratic Party. He became involved in the anti-war movement and left COFO and SNCC.

In 1982, he used his MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant to create the Algebra Project, which improved math skills among minority students. “The civil rights work in the 1960s culminated in the national response to protect a fundamental right: the right to vote,” Moses explained. “Our current work seeks a national response to establish a fundamental right: the right of every child to a quality public school education.”

In 2001, Moses’ book on the work, Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project, outlined how this new project represented the same work. “Everyone said sharecroppers were apathetic until we got them demanding to vote. That finally got attention,” he wrote. “Here, where kids are falling wholesale through the cracks — or chasms.”

Moses dispelled critics who claim the students 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.” When Moses died in 2021, Barack Obama tweeted, “Bob Moses was a hero of mine. His quiet confidence helped shape the civil rights movement, and he inspired generations of young people looking to make a difference.” Historian Taylor Branch called Moses’ influence “almost on par with Martin Luther King, and yet he’s almost totally unknown.”

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