Remembering Bob Moses, 1935–2021Breaking News
tags: civil rights, African American history, Robert Moses, educational equity, SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
Margaret Burnham is University Distinguished Professor at Northeastern University. She was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Trained in law, she works in the field of historical injustice and directs the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice program at Northeastern.
After the 1963 March on Washington in August and the church bombing in Birmingham in September, I knew that at that particular moment what I, then a college student, needed to learn would not come in a college course. Later that fall, I attended a meeting in Harlem where three young men, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Charles Cobb, and Bob Moses, were describing their programs in Mississippi and their plan to invite college students to join them in the summer of 1964. They were staffers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As they concluded the talk, I made my way to the front of the room and asked Bob whether I could help. He “hired” me on the spot, and a few weeks later, after a long bus ride, I was glued to a typewriter at the Freedom Summer office in Jackson, Miss.
In telling this personal anecdote, I violate what Bob Moses taught us—not didactically but by his example. The first-person singular pronoun, a dangerous thing, should be used sparingly by those who seek to break the deafening silence of the subordinated.
Bob Moses’s storied life is the stuff of myth, told in scores of books, films, and archives, and crowned with a “genius” award. Perhaps less well-rehearsed is what he imparted to those of us who worked with him about how to move around in communities that were not ours but were of us, how to learn from the unschooled, how to be a charismatic follower rather than an acclaimed leader. Inducted into the movement when he attended SNCC’s founding meeting at Shaw University in 1960, that August Bob was sent to Mississippi by former NAACP youth leader Ella Baker to scout out prospects for movement-building in the Deep South. At that point the sit-ins had hit the Upper South; Bob and other SNCC field representatives were sent down to test the waters in the Confederate strongholds.
Baker’s longtime NAACP contacts—Amzie Moore in Cleveland and C.C. Bryant in McComb—welcomed Bob into their state. Moore told Bob that integrated hamburger stands were one thing, but what was really on their minds was voter registration, and with that, in July 1961, C.C. Bryant’s place in McComb became, in effect, the first SNCC headquarters in Mississippi. Terrorism and federal neglect ensued, toughening but not breaking Bob, and convincing him and his partners that only an influx of outside agitators could push Mississippi’s obscene story out beyond its borders. SNCC joined forces with the Mississippi NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality to launch the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, bringing students from all over the country into the state to set up schools, take people to the polls, and report on the near-servitude prevailing in the state’s colored quarters and cotton rows. While 17,000 people attempted to sign up, Mississippi registered just 1,600 Black voters that summer. But the word was out; Freedom Summer opened up the state, emboldening local leaders who brought fresh organizing practices that favored the mass meeting over the Robert’s Rules of Order–style NAACP branch meetings, and found in freedom songs a more cohesive message than the de rigueur Sunday sermon.
At the tail end of that summer, busloads of Black Mississippians, members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, headed to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, intent on confronting the state’s all-white delegation and the nation with the Black voices and bodies of the “other” Mississippi—the non-voting one-third of the state descended from slavery. To Lyndon Johnson’s offer of two at-large seats, the Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to replace the all-white delegation, retorted, “No, thanks.” They got back on the bus for the long ride back to Jackson.
Bob was 31 when in 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War, he was drafted. With his wife, Janet, he departed for Tanzania, where he would remain until 1977, when Jimmy Carter pardoned him and 100,000 other men who fled the country or hid within it. The family—Janet, Bob, and their three kids, came back home. They moved to Cambridge so that Bob could pick up where he left off before Baker sent him to Mississippi: graduate work in the philosophy of mathematics at Harvard with Willard Van Orman Quine, with whom he had studied in 1957. Classrooms intrigued Bob—yes, the rarified seminar rooms at Harvard, but equally so the Cambridge neighborhood schools where his children were enrolled. He became a frequent visitor, overseeing the math education of his kids and their classmates. And because he sensed the stench of what he would come to call sharecropper education behind the racial chasm in math education in the People’s Republic of Cambridge, just as he had in Mississippi, Bob set out to interweave this local crisis and national politics. Launched by Moses in 1982, the Algebra Project sought to foreground students and their parents as the leaders of a movement to make equal, quality education a constitutionally guaranteed right.
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