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Moses, Robert Parris 1935—

Robert Parris Moses 1935

Educator, civil rights activist

Activist in Training

Civil Rights Crusader

Mississippi Burning

Growing Legend

Freedom Summer

The Algebra Project


A dedicated activist whose thoughtfulness and integrity match his courage and tenacity, Robert Parris Moses was one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement. Perhaps more than anyone else, he shifted the movements emphasis from sit-ins and freedom rides to voter registration. Over a two-to-three year period with a handful of fellow volunteers, he led by example, helping to awaken black Mississippians to their moral and legal rights. In Mississippi, Bob Moses was the equivalent of Martin Luther King, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch told the New York Times.

Mosess dedication and personal strength is epitomized in an anecdote from his years in Mississippi. Late at night on August 17, 1962, several carloads of angry white segregationists armed with chains and shotguns invaded and ransacked the Greenwood, Mississippi, office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Three SNCC workers inside had to climb atop the roof to escape harm. When he heard of the attack, Moses immediately drove 40 miles to the scene to survey the damage. Despite the danger involved, Moses then made up a bed in a corner of the destroyed room and went to sleep.

This celebrated nap added to the young black New Yorkers growing mythic stature among black Mississippians and his fellow civil rights workers during this violent era. I just didnt understand what kind of guy this Bob Moses is, that could walk into a place where a lynch mob had just left and make up a bed and prepare to go to sleep, as if the situation was normal, a new SNCC worker recalled inParting the Waters, Taylor Branchs account of those years.

Activist in Training

Robert Mosess paternal grandfather, William Henry Moses was a well-educated and distinguished Baptist preacher who provided everything for his wife and children. Serious illness and the Great Depression, however, brought hard times that prevented Reverend Moses from supporting or educating his younger children. Roberts father, Gregory, a janitor at the 369th armory in Harlem, New York, retained a lifelong bitterness and frustration about his lack of education or

At a Glance

Born January 23, 1935, in New York City, NY; son of Gregory (a janitor) and Louise Parris; married Dona Richards (an SNCC secretary; divorced 1966); married Janet Jemott (an SNCC field secretary) 1968; children: Maisha; three others. Education: Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, B.A., 1956; Harvard University, MA, 1957, Ph.D. candidate 1977-1982.

Horace Mann High School, Riverdale, New York, Mathematics teacher, 1958-1961 ; Student Nonviolent Coor-d inating Committee (SNCC), Mississippi field secretary, 1961-1964; Council of Federated Organizations (COP O), voter registration program director, 1962-1964; Freedom Vote project, Mississippi, director, 1963; fled to Canada to avoid Vietnam War draft, working odd jobs, 1966-1968; Tanzania, Africa, mathematics teacher, 1969-1976; Algebra Project, Cambridge, Massachusetts, director, 1982.

Awards: MacArthur Foundation grant, 1982.

Addresses: Office 99 Bishop Richard Allen Drive; Cambridge, MA 02139.

professional accomplishment compared with his brother, a college professor.

This resentment was passed on to Robert. He was born in 1935, in New York City and raised in the Harlem River Houses. Together with his wife, Louise Parris, Roberts father encouraged his three sons to study hard and succeed. After scoring highly on competitive city-wide examinations, Robert Moses was admitted to Stuyvesant, a high school for gifted students. He enjoyed the schools liberal environment and was elected senior class president and captain of the baseball team before graduating in 1952.

Both parents wanted Moses to attend a small white liberal arts college instead of the more traditional black schools that they considered too social. They were thrilled when he won a scholarship to enter Hamilton College in upstate New York. As one of three black students among a school of upper-middle class whites, Moses gained a reputation for being quiet, thoughtful, and introspective. Excluded by race from the campus fraternity system, he gravitated toward a largely fundamentalist Christian study group, driving to New York City on many weekends to preach in Times Square, a city landmark.

Moses became a philosophy major, reading Albert Camus in the original French, studying Eastern philosophers, and examining pacifist thinking. Encouraged by some of his professors, he attended Quaker workshops abroad, spent one summer working and living in France among pacifists who had survived Hitlers occupation, and lived in Japan to study with a Zen Buddhist monk. Graduating in 1956, Moses entered the philosophy doctoral program at Harvard University. He concentrated on analytic philosophy, a discipline that focuses on mathematical precision instead of the traditional questions of truth and being. Receiving his masters degree in 1957, he left school the following February after his mothers sudden death and his fathers subsequent mental breakdown. To pay for his fathers care, he became a mathematics teacher at Horace Mann, a prestigious private high school.

Moses was still teaching at Mann in 1960 when Southern blacks began sit-ins, demanding to be seated and served alongside whites at lunch counters. A racial awakening had begun. Watching on television and reading the newspapers, Moses recalled in The Promised Land: Before, the Negro in the South had always looked on the defensive, cringing. This time they were taking the initiative. They were kids my age, and I knew this had something to do with my own life. It made me realize that for a long time I had been troubled by the problem of being a Negro and at the same time being an American.

Civil Rights Crusader

In June of 1960, Moses took a bus south to work for Dr. Martin Luther Kings Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Arriving at the SCLCs Atlanta office, the idealistic 25-year-old came face to face with the hard reality of the civil rights struggle. Expecting a room full of volunteers who would train, organize, and direct a nationwide movement, he found instead an understaffed and underfunded church office with constantly ringing telephones and three workers. One of these workers-Jane Stembridge, a fellow New Yorker--was a member of the recently-formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This new organization, more democratic in nature and less hierarchial and preacher-dominated than the SCLC, had been created to recruit and train students as nonviolent civil rights demonstrators.

In Kings absence, nobody knew what to do with Moses. He and Stembridge prepared fund-raising packets for the SCLC and spent hours debating philosophy, nonviolence, and the best way to achieve equal rights for black America. In his spare time, he joined the picket lines outside Atlanta supermarkets that refused to hire black clerks. When Stembridge suggested he undertake a recruiting trip throughout the deep South as an SNCC field representative, he quickly volunteered.

Nothing in his background and experience had prepared him for the grinding poverty, racial animosity, and subhuman conditions under which rural Southern blacks lived. But in Cleveland, Mississippi, in the midst of this heart of darkness, Moses met Amzie Moore, a local activist and the head of the towns National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter. Through long talks, Moore convinced Moses that the key to achieving black empowerment and addressing the intolerable inequities of Southern life was not by the more popular and direct action of sit-ins or picketing, but by the quiet and steady, behind-the-scenes work of voter registration and the consequent power of the ballot box. Moore also believed that in Mississippi such a course of action would be safer in the short run than direct public confrontation even though it was ultimately more radical in its effect.

Working with Moore, Moses soon developed a plan to begin registering black Mississippians to vote. Both believed that outside help would be necessary to aid local blacks in overcoming the years of intimidation and enforced segregation. Under protection of the new civil rights laws, they recruited a workforce of SNCC student workers to spark awareness of, and education about, voter registration. Returning to New York City that September to complete his teaching contract at Horace Mann, Moses vowed to return and begin this campaign the following spring.

Mississippi Burning

That same spring of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began its Freedom Rides in order to test the previous years U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia that required the desegregation of facilities used in interstate travel. Two buses with anti-segregation volunteers left Washington, D.C., only to encounter increasing antagonism and violence the further south they traveled. One of the buses was attacked and burned near Anniston, Alabama, while riders on the other were beaten in nearby Birmingham. In response, SNCC student activists joined the original riders as one bus continued to Jackson, Mississippi. Everyone aboard that bus was jailed.

This was the emotionally charged, racially tense atmosphere that greeted Moses on his return to the middle of the iceberg, as he later described Mississippi in a letter written during one of his jail stays. No other state so defiantly promulgated segregation nor used the burning cross, the lynch mob, the sheriffs badge, and the local court system to enforce it. Mississippi set itself up to be our destiny, Moses later told the New York Times.And so it attracted what it eventually got: us.

Because of the heightened tension, Moore was reluctant to begin registering voters in the towns around Cleveland in the states Delta region. He suggested, instead, that Moses begin activity in McComb, a town in the states southwestern corner. Newly appointed as SNCCs Mississippi field secretary, Moses spent his weekdays walking door-to-door to meet McCombs black citizens. He spent Sundays speaking in the churches about his voter registration project. He cultivated some local high school students to help him and began voter education classes to begin psychologically preparing the towns historically disenfranchised blacks to take the giant step--registering to vote.

On August 7, 1961, four blacks accompanied Moses to the county registrars office and were registered. After a few days of similar successes, blacks in neighboring counties asked for his assistance as well. This was too much for the local segregationists, however. Moses was arrested, tried, and found guilty on vague charges. Instead of paying his fine, though, he called the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., alerting them to this violation of federal civil rights laws.

His ability to overcome such a misuse of local authority made Moses an immediate hero in tire black community. After two days in jail, local NAACP officials paid his bail. Two weeks later he was badly beaten while escorting more blacks to the courthouse to register. Bleeding profusely from head wounds that later required eight stitches to close, he calmly continued to the registrars office, only to be turned away.

By pressing charges against his assailant, despite a quick acquittal, Moses further demonstrated his policy of quiet perseverance. His determination encouraged local residents-particularly young people, many of whom became SNCC volunteers-to begin asserting their rights and attend his registration classes. White Mississippians countered violently, murdering several blacks and continually arresting others, including Moses.

Growing Legend

Throughout the winter of 1961 and into 1962, Moses continued his work among the rural poor, rarely leaving Mississippi. Exhibiting almost mystical calm amidst the terrible violence and constant harassment, the soft-spoken Moses was becoming a legend. Besides his celebrated nap, he survived a vicious attack by a police dog outside the Greenwood City Hall and a highway ambush that riddled his car with machine-gun fire and wounded a fellow SNCC worker. Discussing this event years later in an interview for Emerge magazine, he said: The issue was whether you were going to commit to the work and what that meant was that they would have to gun you down to [get you to] leave. Once you get that clear in your mind, then it isnt hard to go on. It becomes your whole life.

Despite his work and determined presence, by the spring of 1963, only 6,700 of the more than 60,000 black Mississippians who had made the attempt to vote had been registered. Moses began to realize that only the federal government confronting Mississippi and enforcing national voting rights laws would initiate greater progress. Nevertheless, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a collection of civil rights organizations, appointed him its program director in charge of voter registration.

The murder of Medgar Evers, Mississippis NAACP field secretary, in June of 1963 shocked the country, bringing national attention to the state. Many white northern liberals, including Allard Lowenstein, began seeking ways to correct the states abysmal civil rights record. That fall, Lowenstein recruited liberal northern white students to work along with Moses and his fellow SNCC volunteers to organize nonregistered Mississippi blacks to vote in a parallel freedom election. At least 75,000 blacks, more voters than in the official Democratic state primary, participated in Freedom Vote, demonstrating their desire for ballot box equality.

Freedom Summer

Seeking to build on this success, Moses asked COFO and SNCC to build a coalition with northern white students in Mississippi. He realized the need for middle-class white students, not only to bolster the number of volunteers but also to focus national attention on the state and make the overall effort more safe for everyone involved. He hoped their presence would force the federal government into action. Again, with Lowensteins help, more than 1,000 white volunteers headed south in June of 1964 for Freedom Summer. They worked alongside black volunteers; to register voters; staff Freedom Schools; and help to create community centers with libraries, arts, crafts, and literacy programs.

White Mississippians reacted in their usual manner. The most publicized of many incidents was the disappearance of three white civil rights workers and their subsequent discovery, dead and buried in an earthen dam. The final toll that summer was awesome: six killed, 80 beaten, 1,000 arrested, and 68 black churches and homes destroyed. The success of Freedom Summer, however, as Moses had hoped, was in exposing white supremacy in all its abhorrence, to a summer-long national media audience. The weight of popular opinion slowly forced the federal government into action.

Mosess final effort that summer was in the political arena. Denied the chance to register in the states Democratic party, many black Mississippians enrolled in the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). At the Democratic partys national presidential convention that August, Moses attempted to have the MFDP delegates seated in place of the states all-white delegation, but the partys northern white liberals sided with the regular delegates to defeat the MFDPs appeal.

Greatly disillusioned with the continuing violence and growing factionalism between black and white in the civil rights movement, Moses wearied from the struggle. That summer, people who were talking to each other stopped [communicating with one another, he later told the New York Times.People who had been working together left. The whole spectrum of race relations compressed, broke down and washed us away. Tired of being viewed as a leader, he announced in December of 1964 that he was dropping his surname and would use only his middle name, Parr is. Shortly thereafter he resigned as head of COFO, took a leave of absence from SNCC, and began shifting his concern from civil rights to the Vietnam War.

With his divorce from Dona Richards, a fellow SNCC worker, Mosess personal life was coming undone, too.

Denied conscientious objector status, he received a draft notice in July of 1966 and fled to Canada at the end of the month. He spent two years there, working odd jobs, before marrying Janet Jemmott, a former SNCC field secretary. The couple moved to Africa in 1968 and settled in a small village in Tanzania the following year. For the next eight years Moses taught mathematics while his wife taught English.

The Algebra Project

Following President Carters amnesty program, Moses and his wife returned to the United States in 1976. Moses resumed his doctoral studies in philosophy at Harvard and his wife entered medical school. Increasingly he grew concerned that the children of minorities were failing to achieve the mathematical skills necessary for college entrance and future job placement. Abandoning academia once again, he became a volunteer tutor in the school system.

In 1982, using funds from a five-year genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Moses established the Algebra Project, a math-science program for inner-city and minority school children centered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If the current technological revolution demands new standards of mathematics and science literacy, he was quoted in the Utne Reader, will all citizens be given equal access to the new skills, or will some be left behind, denied participation in the unfolding economic and political era? He applied many of the same principles used successfully in Mississippi: making families central to the work of organizing; empowering people at the grass roots and recruiting them for leadership; and organizing in the context of where you live and work. During the 1960s, Moses and his fellow civil rights volunteers used examples from poor black sharecroppers experiences to teach them history and writing. In the 1990s, the Algebra Project students learned to think and speak mathematically through tackling problems that arose in their daily lives.

There is still insufficient data to assess the projects success, but in its first 12 years the program helped more than 10,000 students master fundamental algebraic skills in cities across the country. In 1992, Moses returned to Mississippi to start the Delta Algebra Project. Its our version of Civil Rights 1992, Moses would later tell the New York Times.But this time, were organizing around literacy-not just reading and writing, but mathematical literacy. The question we asked then was: What are the skills people have to master to open the doors to citizenship? Now math literacy holds the key.



Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Burner, Eric, And Gently He Shall Lead Them: Robert Parris Moses and Civil Rights in Mississippi,New York University Press, 1994.

Lemann, Nicholas, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America,Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Walter, Mildred Pitts, Mississippi Challenge, BradburyPress, 1992.


Emerge, June 1994, pp. 24-29.

Essence, May 1994, p. 116.

New York Times Magazine, February 21, 1993, pp.28-35,50-51,64,72.

Utne Reader, March/April 1995, p. 142.

James J. Podesta

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Moses, Robert Parris

Moses, Robert Parris

January 23, 1935

Civil rights activist and educator Bob Moses was born in New York City and raised in Harlem. He graduated from Hamilton College in 1956 and began graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University, receiving his master's degree one year later. Forced by his mother's death to leave school, Moses taught mathematics at a private school in New York City. He became active in the civil rights movement in 1959, when he worked with Bayard Rustin, a prominent Southern Christian Leadership Conference activist, on organizing a youth march for integrated schools. A meeting with civil rights activist Ella Baker inspired Moses to immerse himself in the civil rights movement that was sweeping the South. In 1960 he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and became the fledgling organization's first full-time voter registration worker in the Deep South.

Moses, who often worked alone and faced many dangerous situations, was arrested and jailed numerous times. In McComb, Mississippi, he spearheaded black voter registration drives and organized Freedom Schools. He grew to play a more central role in SNCC, and in 1962 he became the strategic coordinator and project director of the Congress of Federated Organizations (COFO), a statewide coalition of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), SNCC, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1963, COFO, with Moses as its guiding force, launched a successful mock gubernatorial election campaign, called the Freedom Ballot, in which black voters were allowed to vote for candidates of their choosing for the first time. Its success led Moses to champion an entire summer of voter registration and educational activities to challenge racism and segregation in 1964, called Freedom Summer, to capture national attention and force federal intervention in Mississippi.

During Freedom Summer, Moses played an integral role in organizing and advising the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an alternative third party challenging the legitimacy of Mississippi's all-white Democratic Party delegation at the Democratic national convention in Atlantic City. After the 1964 summer project came to an end, SNCC erupted in factionalism. Moses's staunch belief in the Christian idea of a beloved community, nonhierarchical leadership, grassroots struggle, local initiative, and pacifism made him the leading ideologue in the early years of SNCC. Finding himself unwillingly drawn into the factional struggle, Moses left the organization and ended all involvement in civil rights activities. Later that year he adopted Parrishis middle nameas his new last name, to elude his growing celebrity.

A conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, Moses fled to Canada to avoid the draft in 1966. Two years later he traveled with his family to Tanzania, where he taught mathematics. In 1976 Moses returned to the United States and resumed his graduate studies at Harvard University. Supplementing his children's math education at home, however, led him away from the pursuit of a doctorate and back into the classroom. In 1980 he founded the Algebra Project, using money received from a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, to help underprivileged children get an early grounding in mathematics to better their job opportunities in the future.

Moses viewed the Algebra Projectwhose classes were directly modeled on Freedom Schools and citizenship schools of the early 1960sas a continuation of his civil rights work. He oversaw all teacher training to ensure that they emphasized student empowerment, rather than dependence on the teachers. Creating a five-step process to help children translate their concrete experiences into complex mathematical concepts, Moses pioneered innovative methods designed to help children become independent thinkers. After demonstrating success by raising students' standardized test scores in Massachusetts public schools, the project branched out to schools in Chicago, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Los Angeles, and Moses was once again propelled into the public eye. In 1992, in what he saw as a spiritual homecoming, Moses returned to the same areas of Mississippi where he had registered African-American voters three decades earlier, and launched the Delta Algebra Project to help ensure a brighter future for children of that impoverished region.

Moses has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a 1997 Essence Award, a 1997 Peace Award from the War Resisters League, and a 1999 Heinz Award in the Human Condition.

See also Baker, Ella J.; Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Freedom Summer; Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Rustin, Bayard; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)


Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Jetter, Alexis. "Mississippi Learning." New York Times Magazine (February 21, 1993): 28.

McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

marshall hyatt (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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