Robert Moses

Robert Moses

Robert Moses was born in Harlem, New York, on 23rd January, 1935. A brilliant student he studied philosophy at Harvard University and then taught mathematics at the Horace Mann School in New York (1958-1961).

Moses left teaching to work full-time in the civil rights movement. He was field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was director of SNCC's Mississippi Project.

In 1961 Moses became a member of the Freedom Riders. After training in non-violent techniques, black and white volunteers sat next to each other as they travelled through the Deep South. Local police were unwilling to protect these passengers and in several places they were beaten up by white mobs and Moses endured numerous beatings and jailings.

Moses emerged as one of the leading figures in SNCC and in 1964 was the main organizer of the Freedom Summer project. Its main objective was to try an end the political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the Deep South. He also organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the Mississippi regulars at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City.

After Stokely Carmichael was elected chairman of the SNCC in 1966, the organization became a supporter of black power. Disillusioned by this change, Moses left and after working as a teacher for the Ministry of Education in Tanzania (1969-75).

In 1976 Moses returned to Harvard to complete his doctorate in philosophy. In 1982 Moses was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and over the next five years he developed the Algebra Project. Moses currently teaches algebra and geometry to high school students at Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi.

Robert Moses has received several college and university honorary degrees and honors, including the Heinz Award for the Human Condition (2000), the Nation/Puffin Prize for Creative Citizenship (2001), the Mary Chase Smith Award for American Democracy (2002) and the James Conant Bryant Award from the Education Commission of the States (2002).

Primary Sources

(1) Robert Moses, Liberation Magazine (January, 1970)

I first came South July, 1960, on a field trip for SNCC, went through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana gathering people to go to the October conference. That was the first time that I met Amzie Moore. At that time we sat down and planned the voter registration drive for Mississippi. I returned in the summer of 1961 to start that drive. We were to start in Cleveland, Mississippi in the delta. However, we couldn't; we didn't have any equipment; we didn't even have a place at that time to meet. So we went down to McComb at the invitation of C. C. Bryant, who was the local head of the NAACP. And we began setting up a voter registration drive in McComb, Mississippi.

What did we do? Well, for two weeks I did nothing but drive around the town talking to the business leaders, the ministers, the people in the town, asking them if they would support ten students who had come in to work on a voter registration drive. We got a commitment from them to support students for the month of August and to pay for their room and board and some of their transportation while they were there. This means that we went around house-to-house, door-to-door in the hot sun everyday because the most important thing was to convince the local townspeople that... we were people who were responsible. What do you tell somebody when you go to their door? Well, first you tell them who you are, what you're trying to do, that you're working on voter registration. You have a form that you try to get them to fill out.

Now we did this for about two weeks and finally began to get results. That is, people began to go down to Magnolia, Mississippi, which is the county seat of Pike County and attempt to register. In the meantime, quite naturally, people from Amite and Walthall County, which are the two adjacent counties to Pike County, came over asking us if we wouldn't accompany them in schools in their counties so they could go down and try to register also. And this point should be made quite clear, because many people have been critical of going into such tough counties so early in the game. The problem is that you can't be in the position of turning down the tough areas because the people then, I think, would simply lose confidence in you; so, we accepted this.

(2) Fannie Lou Hamer, To Praise Our Bridges (1967)

My life has been almost like my mother's was, because I married a man who sharecropped. We didn't have it easy and the only way we could ever make it through the winter was because Pap had a little juke joint and we made liquor. That was the only way we made it. I married in 1944 and stayed on the plantation until 1962 when I went down to the courthouse in Indianola to register to vote. That happened because I went to a mass meeting one night.

Until then I'd never heard of no mass meeting and I didn't know that a Negro could register and vote. Bob Moses, Reggie Robinson, Jim Bevel and James Forman were some of the SNCC workers who ran that meeting. When they asked for those to raise their hands who'd go down to the courthouse the next day, I raised mine. Had it up as high as I could get it. I guess if I'd had any sense I'd a-been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.

Well, there was eighteen of us who went down to the courthouse that day and all of us were arrested. Police said the bus was painted the wrong color - said it was too yellow. After I got bailed out I went back to the plantation where Pap and I had lived for eighteen years. My oldest girl met me and told me that Mr. Marlow, the plantation owner, was mad and raising sand. He had heard that I had tried to register. That night he called on us and said, "We're not going to have this in Mississippi and you will have to withdraw. I am looking for your answer, yea or nay?" I just looked. He said, "I will give you until tomorrow morning. And if you don't withdraw you will have to leave. If you do go withdraw, it's only how I feel, you might still have to leave." So I left that same night. Pap had to stay on till work on the plantation was through. Ten days later they fired into Mrs. Tucker's house where I was staying. They also shot two girls at Mr. Sissel's.

I've worked on voter registration here ever since I went to that first mass meeting. In 1964 we registered 63,000 black people from Mississippi into the Freedom Democratic Party. We formed our own party because the whites wouldn't even let us register. We decided to challenge the white Mississippi Democratic Party at the National Convention. We followed all the laws that the white people themselves made. We tried to attend the precinct meetings and they locked the doors on us or moved the meetings and that's against the laws they made for their ownselves. So we were the ones that held the real precinct meetings. At all these meetings across the state we elected our representatives to go to

the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. But we learned the hard way that even though we had all the law and all the righteousness on our side - that white man is not going to give up his power to us.

(3) Robert P. Moses, Struggle for Citizenship and Math Literacy, Journal of Mathematical Behavior (1994)

The main goal of the Algebra Project is to impact the struggle for citizenship and equality by assisting students in inner city and rural areas to achieve mathematics literacy. Higher order thinking and problem solving skills are necessary for entry into the economic mainstream. Without these skills children will be tracked into an economic underclass.

(4) Julian Bond, chairman of the board, National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Radical Equations (2001)

An almost legendary civil rights organizer in Mississippi during the 1960's, now blazing trails in education, Bob Moses tells a powerful and compelling story, paying tribute to a grassroots organizing tradition that is often ignored. As we enter the twenty-first century, he shows that the lessons of the civil rights movement have important application today.

(5) Marian Wright Edelman, president, Children's Defense Fund, commenting on Radical Equations (2001)

Bob Moses, one of the most important voices in the civil rights movement, is now on the creative edge of leadership again. In this innovative new book, he shares stories from the civil rights movement and the Algebra Project to show us why math literacy for all children is a key next step in the ongoing fight for equal citizenship.

(6) Algebra Project Mission Statement (2002)

The Algebra Project is a national mathematics literacy effort aimed at helping low income students and students of color - particularly African American and Latino students - successfully achieve mathematical skills that are a prerequisite for a college preparatory mathematics sequence in high school full citizenship in today's technological society.

Founded by Civil Rights activist and Math Educator Robert P. Moses in the 1980's, the Algebra Project has developed curricular materials, trained teachers & trainers of teachers, provided ongoing professional development support, and community involvement activities to schools seeking to achieve a systemic change in mathematics education.