Tributes to Dr. Robert Parris Moses (1935-2021)

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By Dr. James E. Sulton, Jr.
Jackson Advocate Higher Education Correspondent

“Let others hail the rising sun: I bow to those whose course is run.” –David Garrick

Regrettably, we realized that Bob Moses made his transition on Sunday, July 25th, 2021. Few people have lived a more meaningful life than he did. Bob Moses defined the title “Civil Rights Warrior.” At the same time, he maintained a low profile. The spotlight did not shine on him a lot. However, everyone knew that without this man the Civil Rights Movement would never have been as fruitful as it became. This held especially true for those who segregationists had disenfranchised in the Deep South. Yet, without Bob Moses there may not have been a Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964. Neither would Freedom Schools or Freedom Rides have become historical markers. At least, they would not have been as meaningful or indelible memories as those endeavors became.

Moses served SNCC as its field secretary at a time when that newly founded organization was forging itself into the tip of the spear in the civil rights struggle. Moses became the leader of the Mississippi Project as people blazed a trail for voter registration deep into the Delta and gradually throughout eleven states in the South. He persevered during an era when interactions with white segregationists became fraught. In his inimitable way, Bob Moses infused energy into voter registration enthusiasts including college students from the North as well as local citizens in the South. His endeavors accelerated the momentum voter registration drives attained. Sit-ins and boycotts still happened, but under the guidance of Bob Moses they were complemented by direct grassroots activities with the people. Racial hatred continuously fed criminal behavior among cowards like the people who firebombed homes, burned crosses in yards, lynched people, and otherwise ripped lives apart. None of that made any difference because the registration drive had a leader like Bob Moses at the helm.

Through it all, Moses had the kind of drive that chafed at top-down management approaches, a style that had become ingrained in some civil rights organizations during the 60s. He transcended this through his work. He came to Mississippi following the instruction of Ella Baker when he was teaching at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx borough of New York. Impatient and motivated as he was, Bob Moses exemplified to Ella Baker and others that he would not be satisfied doing clerical work in the office of the SCLC or anywhere else. Baker could see that readily for herself, and she connected him with the movers and shakers in Pike, Amite and McComb counties in Mississippi. Into the fray went Moses. The rest became history.

Although the body of work of Bob Moses amply illustrates the importance of voting rights, his life also demonstrated or reflected his belief that above all else education is the most fundamental of civil rights. After all, slave owners did everything they could to prevent slaves from learning how to read because they feared where it would lead: toward freedom. Despite their efforts, revolutionaries like Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass all became literate. Of course, they all of elevated their learning far above that bar.

Bob Moses understood this. He arrived in Mississippi after working at the Horace Mann School in New York City as a teacher of mathematics. He viewed math literacy as, at once, an essential element and a remote prospect for educationally disadvantaged students. Moses graduated from Hamilton College in the mid-1950s and earned a master’s degree from Harvard. He was working toward his doctorate when family concerns altered his course. He had to deal with life related matters first and advancing his own education later. Eventually, Moses returned to Harvard where he earned a doctoral degree.

During the 1960s, federal government operatives worked stealthily to suck Bob Moses into the military. Like many other people, he opposed the war in Vietnam and refused to fight in it. Eschewing the draft, he first moved to Canada and later to Tanzania. He and his wife began a family while he was in Africa. He returned to the states at the end of the 1970s after President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to conscientious objectors and others who had avoided the war. In 1982, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, an honor widely known as the genius award. He utilized this fellowship to initiate the Algebra Project, an undertaking designed to open doors for students with economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds who were not being furnished the tools needed to succeed as they tried to move upward.

For all his work as a bulwark of the voter education and registration during the civil rights struggle, it is impossible to review the life of Bob Moses without acknowledging his equally crucial role in spreading math literacy throughout the world. As the founder of the Algebra Project, Moses disseminated math literacy from the Same School in Tanzania to Lanier High School in Jackson, MS. Before anyone else, Bob Moses combatted the dynamics of institutionalized racism in American secondary and postsecondary education. He knew that it was wrong to advance students through a system that ill-prepared them to make academic progress. He understood that it was wrong to place someone in college level math courses if they did not have the appropriate math learning they needed in high school. He concentrated on algebra as the most illustrative index of educational inequality. However, he was not content with merely highlighting the problem. Rather, he dedicated his life to correcting it. We are all better for having him among us. To honor his life, we must carry on.

By Whitney Brakefield
Jackson Advocate Guest Writer

I met Dr. Moses in 9th grade at Lanier High School in Jackson, MS, where I was a part of the Algebra Project’s first cohort. Dr. Moses impacted my life from the first day we met. As an African American growing up in a socio-environmental, disadvantaged area, there are many obstacles I’ve encountered on this educational journey as well as in life. Dr. Moses saw the bigger picture of the educational struggle and showed patience, care, understanding, and concern. Being engulfed in a world of traditional education and socially-disadvantaged areas, there were imposed limitations that could negatively impact the vision of a future great leader.

Dr. Moses exposed me to the “real world” of mathematics, the universal language while incorporating history, philosophy, and American government into our studies. This exposure helped expand my vision. He took myself and others across the country to present at different conferences, as he would stand-by and watch us lead discussions about our knowledge and experience in mathematics-centered youth education in some of the most disenfranchised populations in our country. In retrospect, Dr. Moses was preparing us as leaders. Dr. Moses didn’t give us rules; he allowed us to govern ourselves in what he referred to as a “democracy”. We would gather and develop standards in which we would uphold to prevent disruption in gaining the knowledge he delivered.

There were times I encountered issues along my journey; however, long conversations with Dr. Moses in-person and/or over-the-phone equipped me with different problem-solving skills. I could pick up the phone anytime and call Dr. Moses, and I knew by the end of the conversation we would formulate a solution. He showed me how to navigate spaces and emphasize the importance of standing up as a leader and demanding rights. I’m very grateful for the time I spent with Dr. Moses, the knowledge he has instilled, and the laughter we shared. He inspired me to leave this world in a better condition than it was in before I came.

The Moses family has always treated me as family. Just hearing Doc and Momma Moses’ voices makes me happy. They always believed in me. Dr. Moses was much more than a teacher to me. I was grateful to have him as a mentor and as an additional father figure present in my life. Great leaders, cultivate great leaders. You will forever live on!!!