Rogelio V. Solis / AP
Robert Paris Moses, a civil rights activist who was shot, beaten, and imprisoned while leading black voter registration campaigns in the American South during the 1960s, later helped improve the education of minorities in mathematics, died. He was 86 years old.
Moses, who was widely referred to as Bob, worked on desegregation as the Mississippi field director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement and was pivotal in the 1964 “Summer of Freedom” as hundreds of students went south for voter registration.
Moses began his “Semester Two in the Work of Civil Rights” with the founding of the Algebra Project in 1982 thanks to the MacArthur Fellowship. The project included a curriculum developed by Moses to help struggling students succeed in mathematics.
Ben Moynihan, director of operations for Project Algebra, said he spoke with Moses’ wife, Dr. Janet Moses, and she said her husband died Sunday morning in Hollywood, Florida. No information was provided on the cause of death.
Moses was born in Harlem, New York, on January 23, 1935, two months after race riots left three dead and 60 wounded in the neighborhood. His grandfather, William Henry Moses, was a prominent Southern Baptist preacher and supporter of Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist leader at the turn of the century.
But like many black families, the Moses family moved north from the south during the Great Migration. Once in Harlem, his family sold milk from a black-owned co-op to help increase the family’s income, according to Robert Paris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassrootsby Laura Visser-Maessen.
While studying at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he became a scholar in Rhodes and was deeply influenced by the work of French philosopher Albert Camus and his ideas of rationality and moral purity for social change. Moses then participated in a Quaker-sponsored trip to Europe and cemented his beliefs that change came from the bottom up before he earned a master’s degree in philosophy at Harvard University.
Moses didn’t spend much time in the Deep South until he went on a recruiting trip in 1960 to “see the movement for myself.” He sought out the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, but found little activity in the office and soon turned his attention to the SNCC.
Moses later said, “I learned about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe.” “I never knew there was a denial of the right to vote behind a cotton curtain here in the United States.”
The young civil rights advocate attempted to register blacks to vote in rural Amite County, Mississippi, where he was beaten and arrested. When he tried to bring charges against a white assailant, an all-white jury acquitted the man and the judge provided Moses protection for the county line so he could leave.
In 1963, he and two activists — James Travis and Randolph Blackwell — were driving in Greenwood, Mississippi, when someone opened fire on them and injured 20-year-old Travis. In a press release from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Moses described how bullets roared around them and how Moses took the lead when Travis was hit and stopped the car.
“We were all inches away from being killed,” Moses said in a 1963 press release.
A recurring theme in Moses’ life and work was the need to listen and work with local residents as activists were trying to influence change whether it was to register black voters in some of the more anti-integration parts of Mississippi or after years of working with them. Students and teachers to devise ways to improve math knowledge.
In an interview with the National Insight Leadership Project, he spoke about the need for civil rights workers to gain the trust of Mississippi locals in order to bring about change.
“You had to win the right for the black residents of Mississippi to decide they were going to work with you because why should they risk everything to work with you if you were a person or a group of people who weren’t serious?” he said.
He later helped organize the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party, which sought to challenge the all-Democratic delegation from Mississippi in 1964. But President Lyndon Johnson prevented the group of Rebel Democrats from voting at the convention and instead let Jim Crow Southerners remain, drawing attention.
Disillusioned with the white liberal reaction to the civil rights movement, Moses soon began participating in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and then severed all ties with whites, even former SNCC members.
Moses worked as a teacher in Tanzania, Africa, returned to Harvard University to earn his Ph.D. in philosophy and taught high school mathematics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He then taught mathematics in Jackson, Mississippi, while commuting back and forth to Massachusetts on weekends.
The shy Moses in journalism began his “second chapter in civil rights work” by founding the Algebra Project in 1982 using money he received through the MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program—often referred to as “genius” grants—to improve mathematics knowledge among underserved populations . Ben Moynihan of the Algebra Project said Moses saw the work in improving math literacy as an extension of the civil rights work he had begun in the 1960s.
“Bob really saw giving hope to young people through access to math literacy … as an issue of citizenship, as important as the right to vote,” Moynihan said.
Historian Taylor Branch, who parting water A Pulitzer Prize winner, he said, Moses’ leadership exemplifies a paradox.
“Apart from attracting the same kind of adoration among young people into the movement as Martin Luther King did in adults,” Branch said, “Moses represented a separate concept of leadership” that arises from and does “ordinary people.”