1960s African American civil rights activist Robert Moses dies at 86
African American civil rights activist Robert Moses, who was shot at and suffered beatings and jail while leading Black voter registration drives in the US during the 1960s and later helped improve math education for Blacks, has died at the age of 86.
Moses, who was widely referred to as Bob, worked to dismantle segregation as one of the directors of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement and was central to the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in which hundreds of students went to Southern US states to register voters.
Moses started his “second chapter in civil rights work” by founding in 1982 the Algebra Project thanks to a MacArthur Fellowship. The project included a curriculum Moses developed to help struggling students succeed in math.
Ben Moynihan, the director of operations for the Algebra Project, said Moses’ wife, Dr. Janet Moses, told him her husband passed away Sunday morning in Hollywood, Florida. Information was not given as to the cause of death.
Moses was born in Harlem, New York, on January 23, 1935, two months after a race riot left three dead and injured 60 in the neighborhood. His grandfather, William Henry Moses, has been a prominent Southern Baptist preacher and a supporter of Marcus Garvey, a Black nationalist leader at the turn of the century.
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 cooperative to help supplement the household income, according to “Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots,” by Laura Visser-Maessen.
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 SNCC.
“I was taught about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe,” Moses later said. “I never knew that there was (the) denial of the right to vote behind a Cotton Curtain here in the United States.”
In 1963, he and two other activists — James Travis and Randolph Blackwell — were driving in Greenwood, Mississippi, when someone opened fire on them and the 20-year-old Travis was hit. In a press release from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Moses described how bullets whizzed around them and how Moses took the wheel when Travis was struck and stopped the car.
“We all were within inches of being killed," Moses said in the 1963 press release.
Disillusioned with white liberal reaction to the civil rights movement, Moses soon began taking part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War then cut off all relationships with whites, even former SNCC members.
Moses worked as a teacher in Tanzania, Africa, returned to Harvard to earn a doctorate in philosophy and taught high school math in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He later taught math in Jackson, Mississippi, while commuting back and forth to Massachusetts on the weekends.
The press-shy Moses started his “second
chapter in civil rights work” by founding in 1982 the Algebra Project using
money he received through the MacArthur Foundation Fellows program — often
referred to as “genius” grants — to improve math literacy among underserved
Racism against people of African descent remains systemic in the US and many parts of the world.
Over the last several years, research on income mobility in the US has found that indeed, Black Americans and Native Americans have much lower rates of mobility because of historic discrimination.