Bob Moses, Crusader for Civil Rights and Math Education, Dies at 86

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Mr. Moses developed a reputation for extraordinary calm in the face of violence as he helped to register thousands of voters and trained a generation of activists in Mississippi in the early 1960s.

Bob Moses was teaching math at the Horace Mann Shool in the Bronx when scenes of Black people sitting at lunch counters across the South inspired him to become an activist.
Credit...AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

July 25, 2021, 2:54 p.m. ET

Bob Moses, a soft-spoken pioneer of the civil rights movement who faced relentless intimidation and brutal violence to register Black voters in Mississippi in the 1960s, and who later started a national organization devoted to teaching math as a means to a more equal society, died on Sunday at his home in Hollywood, Fla. He was 86.

His daughter Maisha Moses confirmed his death. She did not specify a cause.

In 1960, Mr. Moses was teaching math at the private Horace Mann School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx when scenes of Black people picketing and sitting at lunch counters across the South “hit me powerfully, in the soul as well as the brain,” he recalled in the book “Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project,” which he wrote with Charles E. Cobb Jr.

He went to Mississippi to organize poor, illiterate and rural Black residents, and quickly became a legend among civil rights organizers in a state known for enforcing segregation with cross burnings and lynchings. Over the next five years, he helped to register thousands of voters and trained a generation of organizers in makeshift freedom schools.

In an era when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was drawing vast crowds with his soaring oratory, Mr. Moses looked for inspiration to an older, less well-known generation of organizers like Ella Baker, a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, drawing on her “quiet work in out-of-the-way places and the commitment of organizers digging into local communities.”

White segregationists, including local law enforcement officials, responded to his efforts with violence. At one point during a voter-registration drive, a sheriff’s cousin bashed Mr. Moses’s head with a knife handle. Bleeding, he kept going, staggering up the steps of a courthouse to register a couple of Black farmers. Only then did he seek medical attention. There was no Black doctor in the county, Mr. Moses later wrote, so he had to be driven to another town, where nine stitches were sewn into his head.

Another time, three Klansmen shot at a car in which Mr. Moses was a passenger as it drove through Greenwood, Miss. Mr. Moses cradled the bleeding driver and managed to bring the careening car to a stop.

Arrested and jailed many times, Mr. Moses developed a reputation for extraordinary calm in the face of horrific violence. Taylor Branch, the author of “Parting the Waters,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the early Civil Rights movement, told The New York Times in 1993 that “in Mississippi, Bob Moses was the equivalent of Martin Luther King.”

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Credit...Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Although less well-known than some of his fellow organizers, such as King, Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis, Mr. Moses played a role in many of the turning points in the struggle for civil rights.

He was a volunteer for and then a staff member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, focused on voter registration drives across Mississippi. He was a director of the Council of Federated Organizations, another civil rights group in the state.

Mr. Moses also helped to start the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which recruited college students in the North to join Black Mississippians in voter registration campaigns across the state, according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

Their efforts that summer were often met with brutal resistance. Three activists — James E. Chaney, who was Black, and Andrew Goodman and Michael H. Schwerner, who were white — were murdered in rural Neshoba County, Miss., just a few weeks after the campaign began.

In 1964, when Black people were excluded from the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., Mr. Moses helped create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought recognition as the state’s delegation instead.

Mr. Moses wrote in his book that he, King, Hamer and Bayard Rustin negotiated directly with Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, who was running for vice president. Although King favored a compromise in which the Freedom Party delegates would be given two seats alongside the all-white delegation, Mr. Moses and other Freedom Party leaders held out for full recognition, according to the King Institute.

Mr. Moses later recalled that he was in Mr. Humphrey’s suite at the Pageant Motel when Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota suddenly announced on television that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had accepted the “compromise.”

“I stomped out of the room, slamming the door in Hubert Humphrey’s face,” Mr. Moses wrote in “Radical Equations.”

Robert Parris Moses was born on Jan. 23, 1935, in New York City, one of three children of Gregory H. Moses, a janitor, and Louise (Parris) Moses, a homemaker.

In an interview with Julian Bond, Mr. Moses credited his parents with fostering his love of learning, recalling that they would collect books for him every week from the local library in Harlem. His family participated in a cooperative program selling milk that was organized by Ms. Baker — an early connection that the two activists didn’t realize until they were working together in the South.

He was raised in the Harlem River Houses, a public housing complex, and attended Stuyvesant High School, a selective institution with a strong emphasis on math. He played basketball and majored in philosophy and French at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

He earned a master’s degree in philosophy in 1957 from Harvard University, and was working toward his doctorate when he was forced to leave because of the death of his mother and the hospitalization of his father, according to the King Institute.

With his denim bib overalls and strong moral leadership, Mr. Moses was a hero of many books on the civil rights movement, and an inspiration for the 2000 movie “Freedom Song,” starring Danny Glover.

Fleeing the Vietnam-era draft, Mr. Moses and his wife, Janet, moved to Tanzania, where they lived in the 1970s and where three of their four children were born. After eight years teaching in Africa, Mr. Moses returned to Cambridge, Mass., to continue working toward a Ph.D. in the philosophy of mathematics at Harvard.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Moses is survived by another daughter, Malaika; his sons Omowale and Tabasuri; and seven grandchildren.

When his eldest child, Maisha, entered the eighth grade in 1982, Mr. Moses was frustrated that her school did not offer algebra, so he asked the teacher to let her sit by herself in class and do more advanced work.

The teacher invited Mr. Moses, who had just received a MacArthur “genius” grant, to teach Maisha and several classmates. The Algebra Project was born.

The project was a five-step philosophy of teaching that can be applied to any concept, he wrote, including physical experience, pictorial representation, people talk (explain it in your own words), feature talk (put it into proper English) and symbolic representation.

One of the basic tenets was to teach integers by taking students on trips — around Cambridge, on the subway; to the South, on a tour of civil rights landmarks. It could be as simple as a drive around the neighborhood or even a stroll around school.

The children then drew what they had seen, and talked and wrote about it. Eventually they created number lines and practiced adding and subtracting positive and negative numbers.

By the early 1990s, the program had stretched from Boston to San Francisco, winning accolades from the National Science Foundation and reaching 9,000 children.

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Credit...AP Photo/Rogelio Solis

Mr. Moses saw teaching “math literacy” as a direct extension of his civil rights work in Mississippi.

“I believe that the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered Black voters in Mississippi was in 1961,” he wrote in “Radical Equations.”

“I believe we can get the same kind of consensus we had in the 1960s for the effort of repairing this,” he added. “And I believe that solving the problem requires exactly the kind of community organizing that changed the South in the 1960s.”

In the summer of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis touched off global protests against systemic racism and police brutality, Mr. Moses said that the country seemed to be undergoing an “awakening.”

“I certainly don’t know, at this moment, which way the country might flip,” Mr. Moses said in June 2020. “It can lurch backward as quickly as it can lurch forward.”

Clay Risen contributed reporting.

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