Saturday, January 4, 2014

Bob Moses on my mind

Robert P. Moses is much on my mind these days. He was a fearless and unrelenting civil rights organizer in rural Mississippi in the early 1960s when this was extremely hazardous duty, and he subsequently served as the lead organizer of Freedom Summer which brought hundreds of northern college students to Mississippi in the Summer of 1964 to help register disenfranchised Blacks. Many years later, he became famous again as the creator of the Algebra Project, a nation-wide program to teach math to students of color so that they might pursue careers in engineering, technical and a variety of scientific fields. He has, in fact, called access to algebra and higher mathematics the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

He is much on my mind, because he is emblematic of the quiet, humble, bottom-up leadership I have been studying over the last few years. And he is coming to Wagner College in February! Where he will be our second Black History Month Scholar in Residence.

Interestingly, Bob Moses grew up in New York City, as a resident of the Harlem River Projects at 151st Street and Harlem River Drive, where he attended public school and periodically worshipped at St. Marks Church on 138th Street before being admitted to one of New York's most selective public secondary schools - Stuyvesant High.

He was not a particularly outstanding student at Stuyvesant, but he did well enough to earn a scholarship to Hamilton College in Upstate New York where he studied analytic philosophy and developed a taste for mathematics. He graduated from Hamilton in 1956 and then completed an M.A. in philosophy at Harvard in 1957. Although he wanted to go on to pursue his Ph.D., this dream was interrupted when his mother tragically succumbed to cancer and his father also took ill. He left Harvard and accepted a position teaching math at the Horace Mann school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx to care for his Dad.

In the spring of 1960, the student sit-in movement was spreading rapidly, and as Moses himself has said, these demonstrations "hit me powerfully, both in the soul and the brain." What especially appealed to him was the courageous leadership shown by thousands of young people who were willing, despite considerable danger, to challenge white supremacy head-on. He signed up initially with Dr. King's organization - the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - and for a few weeks spent most of his time stuffing envelopes in SCLC's Harlem office. But when one of Dr. King's top advisors, Bayard Rustin, learned about Moses's background, he was sent to Atlanta where he spent long afternoons talking philosophy with Jane Stembridge and got to know the legendary leader Ella Baker, then the outgoing Executive Director of SCLC and "Founding Mother" of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Sensing that SCLC did not have much of a program, he conferred with Ella Baker about working with SNCC, and on her advice went to see a local NAACP organizer named Amzie Moore who had been combatting discrimination and prejudice in rural Mississippi for decades. Moore introduced Moses to the ins and outs of racial politics in Mississippi and eventually recommended him to another local organizer, C.C. Bryant in McComb, Mississippi, who got Moses started in his campaign to register Black voters.

Moses was in Mississippi in June 1963 when the KKK shot NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers in the back while he was standing in his own driveway, and Moses was right there again when the discarded bodies of three civil rights workers were found just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi in early August of the same year. These were only the most celebrated deaths. The toll of casualties, infamous and forgotten, was much higher. Through it all, Bob Moses maintained his composure and his courage, despite many close calls, and pushed on to organize 1964's Freedom Summer, which in many ways was the beginning of the end for the cruelest forms of white supremacy in Mississippi.

In the wake of these successes, Moses worked with Fannie Lou Hamer to create the Mississippi Free Democratic Party and attempted to have those representing the MFDP supplant the regulars of the Democratic party at the 1964 convention. This maneuver met with failure and its lack of success contributed to Moses's increasing disillusionment. Not long afterwards, he would leave for Africa for a time, and then later left the United States to escape the military draft during the Vietnam War. He not return to the U.S. again until 1977 when Jimmy Carter issued a general amnesty.

In 1982, Moses received a large MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" and used it to create the Algebra Project, which he oversees to this day. It represents the second stage in his civil rights work and is, by far, his most sustained and focused effort to promote equal opportunity for all Americans.

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