Okay, who is Bob Moses? We’ll answer that question shortly.
But first, fueling my infatuation with all things Selma (Selma, Alabama, that is), I was halfway through, “Black in Selma” by J. L. Chestnut, Jr. and Julia Cass when I got word that the aforementioned Bob Moses died at age 86 in Florida. I paused and read his lengthy obituary.
Wow, Bob Moses! It dawned on me that I’d heard that name before reading the account of his passing. But where? The Olympics? The NFL? An English class? Where?
Well, since “Black in Selma” chronicled the Civil Rights movement, of which the struggles in Selma were often at the center, I turned to the book’s glossary and looked for the name Bob Moses but there was nothing there. However, after reading scores of recollections by those who either knew or were in some way influenced by Moses, I began to piece together why he was absent from the headlines, the glossaries and my memory.
“When he (Moses) died, shockingly few Americans had ever heard of him, even though in Mississippi, Bob Moses was the equivalent of Martin Luther King,” commented King biographer Taylor Branch.
After his passing I gobbled up everything I could to learn as much as I could about Bob Moses; to understand if his relative unfamiliarity was by choice or for more sinister reasons. It didn’t take long for the truth to emerge; he preferred staying in the background and allow his work to do his talking.
I found evidence that Bob Moses – like icons Rosa Parks and Amelia Boynton – deferred the limelight to Dr. King, Jessie Jackson, James Baldwin, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael and other movement leaders. And when they, the media and the cameras left town, Moses and courageous others remained and returned to the boycotts, protests, bullets and Billy clubs…. and, for Bob Moses, back to the classroom teaching Algebra.
“The first-person singular pronoun, a dangerous thing, should be used sparingly by those who seek to break the deafening silence of the subordinated,” said Moses, a pacifist, vegetarian and yoga practitioner, who dressed simply, avoided the limelight and remained wary of displays of power.
A Rhoades Scholar, Moses, who earned a Ph.D. from Harvard, for 20 years travelled every Monday from his Massachusetts home 1400 miles – I repeat, 1400 miles -to Jackson, Mississippi to teach high school math.
During his time in rural Mississippi, he also taught African Americans how to register and pass the stringent voter literacy tests. Often, he was threatened by white mobs and law enforcement officials as he accompanied Black people to courthouse registration offices.
In Liberty, Miss. In 1961 where Moses was leading a few men to register, an assailant emerged from the crowd and smashed a knife handle on Mr. Moses’s head. With blood dripping from his skull, Moses continued into the courthouse.
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.
In 1964, he helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, bringing hundreds of White college student volunteers to help with the voter drive and to generate national publicity and pressure Congress to enforce Black voting rights.
In 1966, he left for Canada after being denied conscientious-objector status by the U.S. draft system. In 1968, he and his wife moved to Tanzania, in East Africa, where for eight years they taught secondary-school math and English. After Carter’s blanket pardon, they settled in the Boston area where he resumed doctoral studies at Harvard in the philosophy of mathematics, and his wife entered medical school.
Mr. Moses soon began building the Algebra Project, that’s instructed thousands of middle school students in what Mr. Moses called “math literacy” as a crucial steppingstone to college and employment, an often-difficult process among underserved students. “Math literacy,” he said, “is a civil right. Just as Black people in Mississippi saw the vote as a tool to elevate them into the first class politically, math is the tool to elevate the young into the first class economically.”
He authored Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project in 2002 and co-authored My Race to Freedom: A Life in the Civil Rights Movement, along with Gwendolyn Patton in 2020. Later, Moses served as a professor at Cornell University and Princeton University receiving several honorary doctorates for his commitment to equality, voting rights and education.
In end, I thought about an old African American spiritual, “Go Down Moses,” that sums up the life and times of Bob Moses:
“Go down Moses…Way down in Egypt land…Tell all Pharaohs To let my people go!…Oh when Israel was in Egypt land…Let my people go!…Oppressed so hard, they could not stand…..Let my people go!”
So, who was Bob Moses?
Well, now we know, don’t we?
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The Douglas County Sentinel, The BlackMarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award.