Bob Moses (1935–2021)

Legendary civil rights champion Bob Moses died over the weekend at age eighty-six. He was a brilliant organizer who believed deeply in the capacity of ordinary people to change the world.

Bob Moses in New York, 1964. (Robert Elfstrom / Villon Films / Getty Images)

At a time when voting rights are under assault, it is important to study the legacy of Bob Moses, a brilliant community organizer who died last Saturday at age eighty-six. Moses was a key architect of the movement to enlist Southern black workers and sharecroppers to register to vote, a campaign that eventually pressured Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Moses attended his first civil rights rally in Newport News, Virginia in 1960. The fiery Rev. Wyatt Walker had just delivered a rousing speech extolling the virtues of Martin Luther King Jr as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Moses, then twenty-five, made his way to the front of the crowd. As Taylor Branch reports in the first book of his King trilogy, Parting the Waters, Moses asked Walker, “Why do you keep saying one leader? Don’t you think we need a lot of leaders?”

Moses recalled that after participating in that demonstration, he had a “feeling of release” after a lifetime of accommodating himself to constant racial slights. “My whole reaction through life to such humiliation was to avoid it,” Moses recalled, “keep it down, hold it in, play it cool.”

Moses was soon working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi, devoting himself to cultivating bottom-up organizing and challenging the top-down style practiced by King and others who emerged from the black church tradition. Moses saw himself as a catalyst, not a leader. Many students and Mississippi residents, inspired by Moses’s example, joined SNCC’s voter registration campaign.

From Harlem to Mississippi

Born in 1935, Moses grew up in a Harlem housing project. His father, a post office worker, instilled in his son a belief in the basic dignity of “the common person.” The gifted Moses passed a citywide examination to gain admission to Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious public school in Manhattan.

In 1952, he earned a scholarship to Hamilton College in upstate New York, where he was one of three black students. There he was attracted to the writings of French philosopher Albert Camus, who stressed that individuals should refuse to be victims of circumstance and instead act as agents of change. After his junior and senior years, Moses worked at summer camps in Europe and Japan sponsored by the pacifist group American Friends Service Committee.

Moses went to Harvard for graduate school in philosophy. He earned his master’s degree in 1957 but dropped out of the PhD program after his mother died and his father suffered a nervous breakdown. He moved back to New York and found a job teaching math at the Horace Mann School, an elite private institution.

In 1959, Moses visited veteran civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, hoping to find an outlet for his idealism. Rustin put Moses to work as a volunteer. While working with Rustin, Moses saw the newspaper stories about the student sit-ins that began in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960. He was impressed by the defiant looks on the students’ faces, seemingly fearless and unflinching. “They were kids my age,” he later said, “and I knew this had something to do with my own life.”

Student sit-in at Woolworth in Durham, North Carolina on February 10, 1960. (Wikimedia Commons)

Moses was keen to go to the South, so Rustin introduced him to Ella Baker, who was running the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1960, Moses moved to the city, found a room at the YMCA, and reported to the SCLC office. Baker had allowed the SNCC volunteers to use the SCLC office, and Moses found the SNCC students more interesting than the SCLC ministers. Baker taught Moses about organizing, sharing her belief in the power of ordinary people to transform their own lives if they gained the self-confidence to do so.

Following the sit-ins, some SNCC leaders wanted to continue the direct action protest, including the Freedom Rides. Baker and others believed that the next stage should be voter registration. To outsiders, this may have seemed a tamer approach, but in fact it was fraught with danger.

Mississippi’s constitution imposed steep hurdles for voter registration, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. The tests were administered by white voter registrars, who asked would-be black voters arbitrary and arcane questions, so that even well-educated blacks were typically refused registration on literacy grounds. Most blacks did not bother to try to register. In at least a dozen Mississippi counties, not a single black citizen was registered to vote.

If blacks, who represented a majority of adults in many Mississippi counties, had voted in large numbers, they would have controlled the schools, the police, the courts, and the other levers of government. Reactionary whites would have done almost anything — inside and outside the law — to make sure that did not happen. Over the next four years, the quiet, philosophical Moses would be shot at, attacked, imprisoned, and beaten as he led the voter registration fight. His calm and courage inspired others to take a stand.

Tom Hayden, who worked with Moses in the South, said that Moses’s greatest traits were his humility and his ability to listen. “When people asked him what to do, he asked what they thought,” Hayden wrote in a 2005 essay about Moses. “At mass meetings, he usually sat in the back. In group discussions, he mostly spoke last.”

“Some say Bob was more a mystic than an organizer,” Hayden recalled. “If so, he was the most practical mystic I ever met. He was an organizer of organizers who organized people to free themselves of organizers.”

The Fight for Voting Rights

Moses used McComb, Mississippi, a town of thirteen thousand people near the Louisiana border, as his base, establishing an SNCC office in the black Masonic Hall. Word soon spread about SNCC’s voter registration classes, and residents of nearby counties began asking for similar workshops.

On August 15, 1961, Moses accompanied three prospective voters to the Amite County Courthouse in Liberty, Mississippi, and stood by as they filled out forms. Driving back to McComb, he was arrested by police on a bogus charge. He was convicted, given a ninety-day suspended sentence, and imprisoned for two days. Moses’s calls to the US Justice Department to protest this harassment went unanswered.

On August 22, after bringing two other black prospective voters to the Liberty courthouse, Moses was attacked with a knife handle by Billy Jack Caston, a cousin of the local sheriff, and wounded badly enough to need nine stitches. Refusing to back down, Moses continued to the courthouse, covered in blood, where he was promptly arrested and jailed. Moses then did something almost unheard of: he pressed charges against Caston. (An all-white jury acquitted Caston.)

Other SNCC staffers and volunteers faced similar violence in retaliation for their voter registration efforts. Local high school students responded by stepping up their resistance. After participating in SNCC’s workshops on nonviolence, they began sitting in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, tried to register to vote, marched, and got arrested.

In October, after the high school principal refused to readmit several students involved in the protest, more than one hundred of them organized a prayer vigil in front of the city hall. As police began arresting the high schoolers and as white thugs began attacking them, Moses and two other SNCC staffers, Bob Zellner and Charles McDew, tried to protect the students. Police handcuffed the three SNCC workers and sentenced them to four months in jail.

SNCC staff and volunteers found it increasingly difficult to persuade rural Mississippians to register to vote. Blacks in Mississippi knew that their homes could be burned and that they could be shot and killed by white segregationists while local law enforcement officials — some of whom belonged to the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils — sided with the vigilantes.

Between 1961 and 1963, seventy thousand Mississippi blacks tried to register. Only forty-seven hundred — 5 percent of the state’s voting-age blacks —succeeded. In December 1962, Moses told the Voter Education Project, “We are powerless to register people in significant numbers anywhere in the state.”

The Road to the Civil Rights Act

John F. Kennedy’s administration told SNCC that it supported its voter registration efforts, but when SNCC staffers called the US Justice Department appealing for protection or for prosecution of white vigilantes and local police, who assaulted and intimidated civil rights workers, they were ignored. FBI agents in Mississippi looked the other way when local cops abused civil rights workers.

During the first half of 1963, it was clear that SNCC’s voter registration campaign had stalled.

With the support of Allard Lowenstein, a professor at North Carolina State University, Moses expanded the program. In 1964, with the initiative renamed Freedom Summer, Lowenstein and Moses recruited about a thousand volunteers — most of them white college students from prominent universities — to Mississippi.

White segregationists retaliated with vicious violence. In June 1964, three SNCC volunteers were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, just as hundreds of new recruits were being trained at a college in Ohio. On the last night of training, Moses spoke to the volunteers and urged anyone who might be uncertain to go home. Only a handful did.

Fannie Lou Hamer, cofounder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1964. (Wikimedia Commons)

Their primary task was organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The Freedom Summer volunteers mobilized African Americans to participate in “freedom schools” (where they discussed black history and current issues, and learned about the Mississippi Constitution so they could pass the literacy test) and to vote in order to send an integrated delegation to the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The murders and the presence of white Northern college students drew significant media attention to SNCC’s efforts. But President Lyndon B. Johnson, worried about alienating Southern whites in the November 1964 presidential election, refused to seat the MFDP delegates instead of the segregated delegation. (Johnson offered the MFDP delegation only token seats in the delegation, which the MFDP rejected.)

At the end of 1964, Moses resigned from SNCC. He left Mississippi uncertain whether it, or the broader civil rights movement, had made a dent in the state’s white political power structure.

It had. SNCC’s efforts, along with King’s March from Selma to Montgomery, pushed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. That year, only 6.7 percent of Mississippi blacks were registered to vote. But four years later the number had jumped to 66.5 percent.

The act, which outlawed literacy tests and other obstacles to voting, was an important tool for civil rights activists to challenge other barriers to black political participation, such as gerrymandering. By 2000, Mississippi had 897 black elected officials in local and state offices, plus Congress — the largest number of any state in the country. The number of black officials in other Southern states also increased dramatically during that period.

Life After the Civil Rights Movement

In 1966, Moses moved to Canada to avoid the military draft during the Vietnam War. In 1969, he moved to Tanzania, where he taught math. After President Jimmy Carter declared amnesty for draft resisters in 1976, Moses returned to the United States.

He picked up where he had left off at Harvard, completing his PhD. Then he joined his organizing work with his math expertise. When he discovered that his daughter’s middle school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, did not offer algebra, he became a volunteer math teacher at her school and began to develop techniques for teaching the subject to low-income students, modeled on SNCC’s freedom schools.

In 1982, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (the MacArthur Genius Award), which he used to establish the Algebra Project. The effort focuses on bringing high-quality public education to students who live in poor areas throughout the nation. In 1996, Moses, who viewed math literacy as a civil rights issues, returned to Mississippi to teach math at Lanier High School in Jackson, using its classrooms as a laboratory for developing the project, including mobilizing parents and black community members to support the students, and training teachers in its techniques. The project takes students with low scores on state math tests and prepares them for college-level math by the end of high school. Three of Moses’ children joined him as Algebra Project teachers.

By the 1990s, the Algebra Project’s model had reached ten thousand middle school students and three hundred teachers a year in twenty-eight cities, but its efforts were partly undermined by President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, which emphasized teaching to and preparing students for state tests. With support from the National Science Foundation, however, the Algebra Project rebounded and expanded its work. In 2001, he and Charles Cobb coauthored Radical Equations: Civil Rights From Mississippi to the Algebra Project.

Today, teachers in several hundred schools around the country use the Algebra Project’s methods. Moses continued to teach at Lanier High School as well as at Cornell, Princeton, and NYU, using the same organizing techniques he developed in Mississippi.

In 1999, Moses came to Los Angeles’s Occidental College, where I teach, to receive an honorary degree and get faculty and students involved in his Algebra Project. At a packed meeting of about a thousand people, a student asked him, “What do you think we should do to deal with racism in America?”

Moses replied: “What do you think we should do?”

“Bob Moses was a moral visionary,” said Heather Booth, a long-time organizer and veteran of Freedom Summer. “He inspired and guided so many of us, based on his belief in local people’s ability to change the world if we organize. Especially now, in the face of a new Jim Crow attack on our freedoms, we need to commit to carry on the struggle. We’ll never turn back.”