The Greatness and Humility of Bob Moses

Remembering a civil rights hero.

Bob Moses, the pioneering civil rights leader and educator who died this week, was a humble man in a movement that created larger-than-life personalities. When he died, shockingly few Americans had ever heard of him, even though “in Mississippi, Bob Moses was the equivalent of Martin Luther King,” according to King biographer Taylor Branch.

Moses was 25 years old and teaching at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx when he read about sit-in protests throughout the South. In a matter of weeks, he hopped on a bus to join the cause. On arriving in rural Mississippi, Moses joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and organized “freedom schools” to teach Black Mississippians how to register to vote. He accompanied them to the courthouse to do so.

This was extremely dangerous work. In August 1961, Moses was chaperoning two Black farmers to the Amite County courthouse in Liberty, Mississippi, when he was struck with the blunt end of a knife by Billy Jack Caston, a cousin of the local sheriff. Moses suffered three gashes in his head. In 1963, Moses was shot at while sitting in the passenger seat of a car near Greenwood, Mississippi. The bullet hit the driver; Moses managed to grab the steering wheel and bring the car to a halt. “We all were within inches of being killed,” he said later.

Moses helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which brought college students to help with voter drives across the state. Three of those volunteers—James E. Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael E. Schwerner—were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County, Mississippi.

Moses left the civil rights movement after concluding, characteristically, that he’d become “too central, so that people who did not need to, began to lean on me, to use me as a crutch.” He joined instead the protest movement against the Vietnam war. He moved to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft, then moved to Tanzania, then came back to the States to finish a doctorate in mathematics at Harvard. In Cambridge he began The Algebra Project, a program to improve math literacy among low-income children.

Moses viewed the Algebra Project as an extension of his civil rights work. “In today’s world, economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy,” Moses wrote in his 2001 memoir Radical Equations. “I believe that solving the problem requires exactly the kind of community organizing that changed the South in the 1960’s.” Moses developed a five-step approach to accommodate different learning styles: physical experience, pictorial representation, “people talk” (explaining something in your own words), “feature talk” (explaining something in standard English), and symbolic representation.

For 20 years Moses travelled every Monday from his Cambridge, Massachusetts home to Jackson, Mississippi to teach high school math. Great men are seldom modest ones, but Moses was an exception. Rest in Power.

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Kaila Philo

Kaila Philo is a former editorial fellow at The Atlantic and a former Washington Monthly intern.