Remembering Robert Moses

The civil rights leader worked to raise up those at “the bottom”

By Benjamin Hedin | July 31, 2021
Bob Moses in 2014 (Miller Center/Wikimedia Commons)
Bob Moses in 2014 (Miller Center/Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Moses was arrested for the first time in Mississippi in August 1961. On the 15th of that month, he escorted three residents of Amite County to the courthouse in Liberty and said they intended to register to vote. After the visit, which ended predictably without anyone being able to register, a patrolman followed the four to the town of McComb and booked Moses on the laughable charge of interfering with an officer in the discharge of his duties. Told he was being placed under arrest, Moses requested and was granted the customary one phone call. Speaking loudly so that everyone in the police station could hear, Moses asked to be connected to the Justice Department. Then he asked that the charges be reversed.

This story captures many of the essential qualities of Moses, who died on July 25 at the age of 86. He was a perfect combination of the intellectual and the radical. In asking to be connected to the Justice Department, Moses was no doubt trying to apply pressure to his captors, but he also knew that John Doar, the assistant attorney general who answered the call, was compiling a record of cases of voter suppression, and he wanted to make sure that day’s incident was noted. And when the judge offered to waive his fine if Moses would pay five dollars in court costs, Moses refused on the grounds that his arrest was immoral and went to jail.

Moses spent four years in Mississippi in the 1960s, and four decades organizing in America’s schools, mostly with the Algebra Project, a nonprofit he founded in the 1980s to improve math literacy among students in underfunded, low-performing districts. To many, this focus on algebra seemed an inexplicable pivot from voting rights. What united it was the question of access or, as Moses put it, “How do the people at the bottom get into the mix?” Just as those who had once been denied the right to vote were shut out from the country’s political process, so too those with a substandard education were deprived of the opportunities afforded by today’s economy.

Another thing that united these disparate efforts was method. Moses’s organizing philosophy remained unchanged through the years. Like his mentor, the human rights activist Ella Baker, he believed that an organizer should aspire to a state of near invisibility, by encouraging the skills and decision-making of others. I was fortunate to interview Moses on several occasions, and always had to contend with this fact of his humility. He was uncomfortable talking about himself, and so would tirelessly steer the conversation away from the personal. It was no act: he genuinely felt that an emphasis on personality hindered the course of social justice movements.

And yet, Moses was an authentic visionary, whether he liked to admit it or not. One of those rare figures whose work reimagines the very structures of democracy, he did more than any other activist to shape the freedom struggle of the 1960s in the South.

As a career, as a fate, it was not his first choice. “I don’t intend to be in this business all my life,” Moses wrote in the summer of 1960, while scouting organizing sites in Mississippi. Born in 1935 and raised in Harlem, he had a master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard and considered becoming an academic. He was teaching at Horace Mann, an elite preparatory academy in New York, when the sit-ins broke out in the spring of 1960. Those demonstrations, he wrote in his memoir, Radical Equations, “hit me powerfully, in the soul as well as the brain. I was mesmerized by the pictures I saw almost every day on the front pages of the New York Times—young committed Black faces seated at lunch counters or picketing, directly and with great dignity, challenging white supremacy in the South. They looked like I felt.”

That summer, Moses volunteered for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group formed in the exultant aftermath of the sit-ins. It was unclear at that point what direction the young organization would take. Many of its members were from Atlanta or other cities, and their focus had been on integrating public facilities in the South. Before returning to Horace Mann, Moses traveled across Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, meeting with older activists, many of whom were affiliated with the NAACP and stressed the importance of the vote. At the time, only five percent of Mississippi’s African Americans were registered, though they counted for close to half the state’s population. “The thing to do seems to be to get the people to come in here,” Moses wrote in a letter to the SNCC office, making plans to give up teaching and devote himself fully to voter registration.

So Moses went to Mississippi, to the lumber towns and sharecropping communities, and SNCC followed. It was the first major thrust of the civil rights movement to focus on the poor and unlettered, on getting the people at the bottom into the mix. Yet as SNCC soon discovered, you couldn’t really protest in Mississippi, and it was hard to organize as well. Simply holding a meeting was enough to incite a mob attack. Local law enforcement worked in tandem with the Klan to prevent any meaningful progress from occurring at the ballot box. In 1963 Moses drafted a report to SNCC’s executive committee, and its first conclusion read, “It is not possible to register Negroes in Mississippi.” The second was, “All direct action campaigns for integration have had their backs broken by sentencing prisoners to long jail terms and requiring extensive bail.”

For almost anyone else, this would amount to a declaration of surrender. Moses was merely recalibrating his strategy; but if you can’t register voters and you can’t demonstrate, what can you do? His answer, in a way, was revolutionary: step back and stop asking the state to admit Blacks to the mainstream. That clearly wasn’t going to happen, so the civil rights movement would have to, in effect, create its own mainstream, its own social infrastructure. In one interview with me, Moses dubbed this “the third phase” of the Mississippi movement, as his attention turned not toward voter registration or direct action, but to forming parallel institutions.

Movement organizers set out to establish a network of schools, called freedom schools, and to recruit a bevy of doctors to treat residents in rural areas. They also chartered a political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, one that, while unrecognized by the state, engaged in the same activity as any political party, holding primaries, appointing electors, selecting candidates for governor. This laid the foundation for a protest at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where the delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party demanded to be recognized as the rightful representatives of the state of Mississippi. But it was much more than that, for in participating in elections for the first time, thousands of Black Mississippians at last received their induction into democracy. As Ralph Ellison noted, writing of the shadow elections staged in Mississippi during these years, “it is in the process of preparation for an elected role that the techniques of freedom are discovered and that freedom itself is released.”

The challenge at the Democratic National Convention was designed to goad the federal government into enacting laws that protected voting. And it was not a year later before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, using many of the cases Moses had submitted to Doar and the Justice Department as the basis for the act’s preclearance provision, which required counties with a history of voter suppression to seek permission from Washington before passing any laws that pertained to elections.

In some ways, we seemed on firmer ground then than we are today, embroiled once more in a national debate over the meaning and scope of voting rights. Moses knew that much of what he had accomplished in Mississippi remained provisional, that it could be rolled back at any moment. In the spring of 2014, he and I stayed for a few days in the house of David Dennis, another organizer from Mississippi in the 1960s. One night I got around to asking Moses about Shelby v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court decision that voided preclearance. Moses predicted what we are seeing now: a rash of state legislatures drafting laws in the hope of preserving majority white voting blocs. It was like 1964 all over again, for what was needed, Moses told me, was a federal solution, ideally a constitutional amendment, full of positivist language, that defined the right to vote.

“Leave it up to the states,” he said, “and this will go on forever.”

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