A dedicated activist whose thoughtfulness and integrity match his courage and tenacity, Robert Parris Moses was one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement Perhaps more than anyone else, he shifted the movement's emphasis from sit-ins and freedom rides to voter registration Over a two-to-three year period with a handful of fellow volunteers, he led by example, helping to awaken black Mississippians to their moral and legal rights "In Mississippi, Bob Moses was the equivalent of Martin Luther King," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch told the New York Times Moses's dedication and personal strength is epitomized in an anecdote from his years in Mississippi Late at night on August 17, 1962, several carloads of angry white segregationists armed with chains and shotguns invaded and ransacked the Greenwood, Mississippi, office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Three SNCC workers inside had to climb atop the roof to escape harm When he heard of the attack, Moses immediately drove 40 miles to the scene to survey the damage Despite the danger involved, Moses then made up a bed in a corner of the destroyed room and went to sleep This celebrated nap added to the young black New Yorker's growing mythic stature among black Mississippians and his fellow civil rights workers during this violent era.
"I just didn't understand what kind of guy this Bob Moses is, that could walk into a place where a lynch mob had just left and make up a bed and prepare to go to sleep, as if the situation was normal," a new SNCC worker recalled in Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch's account of those years Robert Moses's paternal grandfather, William Henry Moses was a well-educated and distinguished Baptist preacher who provided everything for his wife and children Serious illness and the Great Depression, however, brought hard times that prevented Reverend Moses from supporting or educating his younger children Robert's father, Gregory, a janitor at the 369th armory in Harlem, New York, retained a lifelong bitterness and frustration about his lack of education or professional accomplishment compared with his brother, a college professor This resentment was passed on to Robert He was born in 1935, in New York City and raised in the Harlem River Houses Together with his wife, Louise Parris, Robert's father encouraged his three sons to study hard and succeed After scoring highly on competitive citywide examinations, Robert Moses was admitted to Stuyvesant, a high school for gifted students He enjoyed the school's liberal environment and was elected senior class president and captain of the baseball team before graduating in 1952 Both parents wanted Moses to attend a small white liberal arts college instead of the more traditional black schools that they considered too social.
They were thrilled when he won a scholarship to enter Hamilton College in upstate New York As one of three black students among a school of upper-middle class whites, Moses gained a reputation for being quiet, thoughtful, and introspective Excluded by race from the campus fraternity system, he gravitated toward a largely fundamentalist Christian study group, driving to New York City on many weekends to preach in Times Square, a city landmark Moses became a philosophy major, reading Albert Camus in the original French, studying Eastern philosophers, and examining pacifist thinking Encouraged by some of his professors, he attended Quaker workshops abroad, spent one summer working and living in France among pacifists who had survived Hitler's occupation, and lived in Japan to study with a Zen Buddhist monk Graduating in 1956, Moses entered the philosophy doctoral program at Harvard University He concentrated on analytic philosophy, a discipline that focuses on mathematical precision instead of the traditional questions of truth and being Receiving his master's degree in 1957, he left school the following February after his mother's sudden death and his father's subsequent mental breakdown To pay for his father's care, he became a mathematics teacher at Horace Mann, a prestigious private high school Moses was still teaching at Mann in 1960 when Southern blacks began sit-ins, demanding to be seated and served alongside whites at lunch counters.
A racial awakening had begun Watching on television and reading the newspapers, Moses recalled in The Promised Land: "Before, the Negro in the South had always looked on the defensive, cringing This time they were taking the initiative They were kids my age, and I knew this had something to do with my own life It made me realize that for a long time I had been troubled by the problem of being a Negro and at the same time being an American" In June of 1960, Moses took a bus south to work for Dr Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Arriving at the SCLC's Atlanta office, the idealistic 25-year-old came face to face with the hard reality of the civil rights struggle Expecting a room full of volunteers who would train, organize, and direct a nationwide movement, he found instead an understaffed and underfunded church office with constantly ringing telephones and three workers One of these workers--Jane Stembridge, a fellow New Yorker--was a member of the recently- formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
This new organization, more democratic in nature and less hierarchial and preacher-dominated than the SCLC, had been created to recruit and train students as nonviolent civil rights demonstrators In King's absence, nobody knew what to do with Moses He and Stembridge prepared fund-raising packets for the SCLC and spent hours debating philosophy, nonviolence, and the best way to achieve equal rights for black America In his spare time, he joined the picket lines outside Atlanta supermarkets that refused to hire black clerks When Stembridge suggested he undertake a recruiting trip throughout the deep South as an SNCC field representative, he quickly volunteered Nothing in his background and experience had prepared him for the grinding poverty, racial animosity, and subhuman conditions under which rural Southern blacks lived But in Cleveland, Mississippi, in the midst of this heart of darkness, Moses met Amzie Moore, a local activist and the head of the town's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter Through long talks, Moore convinced Moses that the key to achieving black empowerment and addressing the intolerable inequities of Southern life was not by the more popular and direct action of sit-ins or picketing, but by the quiet and steady, behind-the-scenes work of voter registration and the consequent power of the ballot box Moore also believed that in Mississippi such a course of action would be safer in the short run than direct public confrontation even though it was ultimately more radical in its effect Working with Moore, Moses soon developed a plan to begin registering black Mississippians to vote.
Both believed that outside help would be necessary to aid local blacks in overcoming the years of intimidation and enforced segregation Under protection of the new civil rights laws, they recruited a workforce of SNCC student workers to spark awareness of, and education about, voter registration Returning to New York City that September to complete his teaching contract at Horace Mann, Moses vowed to return and begin this campaign the following spring That same spring of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began its Freedom Rides in order to test the previous year's US Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v Virginia that required the desegregation of facilities used in interstate travel Two buses with anti-segregation volunteers left Washington, DC, only to encounter increasing antagonism and violence the further south they traveled One of the buses was attacked and burned near Anniston, Alabama, while riders on the other were beaten in nearby Birmingham In response, SNCC student activists joined the original riders as one bus continued to Jackson, Mississippi Everyone aboard that bus was jailed This was the emotionally charged, racially tense atmosphere that greeted Moses on his return to the "middle of the iceberg," as he later described Mississippi in a letter written during one of his jail stays.
No other state so defiantly promulgated segregation nor used the burning cross, the lynch mob, the sheriff's badge, and the local court system to enforce it "Mississippi set itself up to be our destiny," Moses later told the New York Times "And so it attracted what it eventually got: us" Because of the heightened tension, Moore was reluctant to begin registering voters in the towns around Cleveland in the state's Delta region He suggested, instead, that Moses begin activity in McComb, a town in the state's southwestern corner Newly appointed as SNCC's Mississippi field secretary, Moses spent his weekdays walking door-to-door to meet McComb's black citizens He spent Sundays speaking in the churches about his voter registration project He cultivated some local high school students to help him and began voter education classes to begin psychologically preparing the town's historically disenfranchised blacks to take the giant step--registering to vote On August 7, 1961, four blacks accompanied Moses to the county registrar's office and were registered After a few days of similar successes, blacks in neighboring counties asked for his assistance as well.
This was too much for the local segregationists, however Moses was arrested, tried, and found guilty on vague charges Instead of paying his fine, though, he called the US Justice Department in Washington, DC, alerting them to this violation of federal civil rights laws His ability to overcome such a misuse of local authority made Moses an immediate hero in the black community After two days in jail, local NAACP officials paid his bail Two weeks later he was badly beaten while escorting more blacks to the courthouse to register.
Bleeding profusely from head wounds that later required eight stitches to close, he calmly continued to the registrar's office, only to be turned away By pressing charges against his assailant, despite a quick acquittal, Moses further demonstrated his policy of quiet perseverance His determination encouraged local residents-- particularly young people, many of whom became SNCC volunteers--to begin asserting their rights and attend his registration classes White Mississippians countered violently, murdering several blacks and continually arresting others, including Moses Throughout the winter of 1961 and into 1962, Moses continued his work among the rural poor, rarely leaving Mississippi Exhibiting almost mystical calm amidst the terrible violence and constant harassment, the soft-spoken Moses was becoming a legend Besides his celebrated nap, he survived a vicious attack by a police dog outside the Greenwood City Hall and a highway ambush that riddled his car with machine-gun fire and wounded a fellow SNCC worker Discussing this event years later in an interview for Emerge magazine, he said: "The issue was whether you were going to commit to the work and what that meant was that they would have to gun you down to [get you to] leave Once you get that clear in your mind, then it isn't hard to go on It becomes your whole life".
Despite his work and determined presence, by the spring of 1963, only 6,700 of the more than 60,000 black Mississippians who had made the attempt to vote had been registered Moses began to realize that only the federal government confronting Mississippi and enforcing national voting rights laws would initiate greater progress Nevertheless, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a collection of civil rights organizations, appointed him its program director in charge of voter registration The murder of Medgar Evers, Mississippi's NAACP field secretary, in June of 1963 shocked the country, bringing national attention to the state Many white northern liberals, including Allard Lowenstein, began seeking ways to correct the state's abysmal civil rights record That fall, Lowenstein recruited liberal northern white students to work along with Moses and his fellow SNCC volunteers to organize nonregistered Mississippi blacks to vote in a "parallel" freedom election At least 75,000 blacks, more voters than in the official Democratic state primary, participated in Freedom Vote, demonstrating their desire for ballot box equality Seeking to build on this success, Moses asked COFO and SNCC to build a coalition with northern white students in Mississippi He realized the need for middle-class white students, not only to bolster the number of volunteers but also to focus national attention on the state and make the overall effort more safe for everyone involved He hoped their presence would force the federal government into action.
Again, with Lowenstein's help, more than 1,000 white volunteers headed south in June of 1964 for Freedom Summer They worked alongside black volunteers; to register voters; staff Freedom Schools; and help to create community centers with libraries, arts, crafts, and literacy programs White Mississippians reacted in their usual manner The most publicized of many incidents was the disappearance of three white civil rights workers and their subsequent discovery, dead and buried in an earthen dam The final toll that summer was awesome: six killed, 80 beaten, 1,000 arrested, and 68 black churches and homes destroyed The success of Freedom Summer, however, as Moses had hoped, was in exposing white supremacy in all its abhorrence, to a summer-long national media audience The weight of popular opinion slowly forced the federal government into action Moses's final effort that summer was in the political arena Denied the chance to register in the state's Democratic party, many black Mississippians enrolled in the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) At the Democratic party's national presidential convention that August, Moses attempted to have the MFDP delegates seated in place of the state's all-white delegation, but the party's northern white liberals sided with the regular delegates to defeat the MFDP's appeal.
Greatly disillusioned with the continuing violence and growing factionalism between black and white in the civil rights movement, Moses wearied from the struggle "That summer, people who were talking to each other stopped [communicating with one another," he later told the New York Times "People who had been working together left The whole spectrum of race relations compressed, broke down and washed us away" Tired of being viewed as a leader, he announced in December of 1964 that he was dropping his surname and would use only his middle name, Parris Shortly thereafter he resigned as head of COFO, took a leave of absence from SNCC, and began shifting his concern from civil rights to the Vietnam War With his divorce from Dona Richards, a fellow SNCC worker, Moses's personal life was coming undone, too Denied conscientious objector status, he received a draft notice in July of 1966 and fled to Canada at the end of the month He spent two years there, working odd jobs, before marrying Janet Jemmott, a former SNCC field secretary The couple moved to Africa in 1968 and settled in a small village in Tanzania the following year.
For the next eight years Moses taught mathematics while his wife taught English Following President Carter's amnesty program, Moses and his wife returned to the United States in 1976 Moses resumed his doctoral studies in philosophy at Harvard and his wife entered medical school Increasingly he grew concerned that the children of minorities were failing to achieve the mathematical skills necessary for college entrance and future job placement Abandoning academia once again, he became a volunteer tutor in the school system In 1982, using funds from a five-year "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Moses established the Algebra Project, a math-science program for inner-city and minority school children centered in Cambridge, Massachusetts "If the current technological revolution demands new standards of mathematics and science literacy," he was quoted in the Utne Reader, "will all citizens be given equal access to the new skills, or will some be left behind, denied participation in the unfolding economic and political era]" He applied many of the same principles used successfully in Mississippi: making families central to the work of organizing; empowering people at the grass roots and recruiting them for leadership; and organizing in the context of where you live and work During the 1960s, Moses and his fellow civil rights volunteers used examples from poor black sharecroppers' experiences to teach them history and writing In the 1990s, the Algebra Project students learned to think and speak mathematically through tackling problems that arose in their daily lives There is still insufficient data to assess the project's success, but in its first 12 years the program helped more than 10,000 students master fundamental algebraic skills in cities across the country.
In 1992, Moses returned to Mississippi to start the Delta Algebra Project "It's our version of Civil Rights 1992," Moses would later tell the New York Times "But this time, we're organizing around literacy--not just reading and writing, but mathematical literacy The question we asked then was: What are the skills people have to master to open the doors to citizenship? Now math literacy holds the key".