Lesson 112:
Robert P. Moses

An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 2/4/2023

Prelude | 108 | 109 | 110 | 111 | 112 | 113 | 114 | 115 | 116 | Email

Bob Moses - watercolour with colored pencil, 2.5 in. x 3.5 in.

"I was taught about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe. I never knew that there was (the) denial of the right to vote behind a Cotton Curtain here in the United States."

Today we look at the remarkable life of Robert "Bob" Parris Moses, who recently passed on July 25, 2021. A major force in the emerging civil rights movement of the 1960s, Bob was born in Harlem, New York and graduated from Hamilton College, and later taught mathematics at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx.

An advocate for integration, Bob joined the SCLC and made the acquaintance of Ella Baker (Lesson #51 in this series), and was present during the founding meeting of the SNCC. In 1964 (Freedom Summer), Moses had become a leader for voter registration, and is named along with Hamer as a co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. During that year in Mississippi Moses was on the receiving end of multiple threats, intimidation, arrests, and outright violence --Moses holds the dubious distinction of being the first Black person to directly challenge white violence, specifically on August 29, 1961 in Amite County court, filing formal assault charges against his attacker, who had assaulted Moses and others while he was helping to register local Black citizens to vote. Unfortunately his attacker, being a cousin of (naturally) the then-sheriff, was later acquitted by an (of course) all-white jury.

A conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, Moses unfortunately had to flee to Canada to escape the draft, and afterwards lived with his wife Janet in Tanzania, where he continued to teach mathematics. The Moseses at last returned to the U.S. in 1976 and Bob completed his long-postponed graduate studies at Harvard, earning a PhD in Philosophy.

Perhaps Moses's most meaningful impact came in the form of The Algebra Project, a 1982-1987 NSF-sponsored initiative designed to bring "math literacy" to low-income citizens. Arising out of his brief stint as an eighth-grade algebra tutor and drawing on his grassroots experiences in the civil rights movement, Moses argued that greater literacy in math (and all of STEM, in fact) offered a true gateway to improved social and economic conditions, and ultimately to racial justice. Moses's focus on algebra was rooted in his theory that algebra was the critical "gatekeeper" subject. Mastery was necessary in order for middle school students to be able to advance in math, technology, and science; without it, college --and by extension, informed citizenship-- was often out of the question.

Among Moses's many publications are Radical Equations --Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (co-authored with Charles E. Cobb, Jr.); and Quality Education as a Constitutional Right (co-edited with Theresa Perry). Today the Algebra Project continues to further Bob Moses's vision of supporting mathematics literacy for all K-12 students, particularly for students performing in the lowest quartile on various state standardized exams. The Project provides curriculum materials, teacher training, and professional development opportunities and community involvement activities for schools, with a particular focus on the southern states.

Moses has been a member of the faculty at Princeton University (Center for African American Studies), taught as adjunct faculty at NYU School of Law, and has served on numerous academic advisory committees over the years, significantly the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. Barack Obama named Moses in his memoir as one of the "young leaders of the civil rights movement" who inspired him.

Next page - Lesson 113: July Perry

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