|Born||Robert Parris Moses
January 23, 1935
Harlem, New York City
|Alma mater||Hamilton College (B.A. 1956)
Harvard University (A.M.)
|Organization||Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
Council of Federated Organizations (COFO)
|Known for||Freedom Summer
|Title||Cornell University Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of '56 Professor|
|Movement||Civil Rights Movement|
|Awards||MacArthur Fellowship (1982)
War Resisters League Peace Award (1997)
Heinz Award for the Human Condition (2000)
Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship (2001)
Margaret Chase Smith American Democracy Award (2002)
James Bryant Conant Award (2002)
Alphonse Fletcher Sr. Fellowship (2005)
Honorary Degree, Swarthmore College (2007)
Robert Parris Moses (born January 31, 1935) is an American educator and civil rights activist, known for his work as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on voter education and registration in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. He was a graduate of Hamilton College and completed a master's in philosophy at Harvard University.
Since 1982 Moses has developed the nationwide Algebra Project in the United States. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship and other awards for this work, which emphasizes teaching algebra skills to minority students based on broad-based community organizing and collaboration with parents, teachers and students.
Robert Parris Moses graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1952 and received his B.A. from Hamilton College in 1956. He earned an M.A. in philosophy at Harvard; in 1958 he began teaching at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx of New York City.
Moses developed as one of the most influential black leaders of the civil rights struggle, and he had a vision of grassroots and community-based leadership. Although Moses’ leadership style was different from Rev. Martin Luther King’s, King appreciated the contributions that Moses made to the movement, claiming they were inspiring. Moses initiated and organized voter registration drives in the South, sit-ins, and Freedom Schools for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
He currently runs the Algebra Project, which is a continued effort to improve math education in poor communities with the goal of sending more students to the workforce. Starting as a civil rights leader and transitioning into an advocate for the poor through his work with the Algebra Project, Moses has revolutionized the ideal of equal opportunity and has played a vital role in making it a reality.
Moses began working with civil rights activists in 1960, becoming field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As director of the SNCC's Mississippi Project in 1961, Moses traveled to Pike County and Amite County to try to register black voters. Comprising a majority in both counties, despite many people leaving in the Great Migration in the first half of the century, they had been utterly closed out of the political process since 1890. He pushed for the SNCC to engage in a "tactical nonviolence," a matter he discussed in an interview with Robert Penn Warren for the book Who Speaks for the Negro?.
White Democrats had disfranchised Mississippi's blacks in their 1890 constitution, which required poll taxes, and other barriers, such as residency requirements, and subjective literacy tests. It was nearly impossible for blacks to register and vote. After decades of violence and repression under Jim Crow, by the 1960s most blacks did not bother trying to register. In 1965, only one African American among 5500 in Amite County was registered to vote.
Moses faced nearly relentless violence and official intimidation, and was beaten and arrested in Amite County. He was the first African American to challenge white violence, and filed assault charges against his attacker. The all-white jury acquitted the man, and the judge told Moses he could not protect him, providing him an escort to the county line. The next month in September 1961, E.H. Hurst, a white state legislator, killed Herbert Lee, a 56-year-old married local farmer in Liberty, Mississippi, who had been in a voter registration class. Hurst murdered him in front of a dozen witnesses and was cleared at the inquest that day, claiming self-defense; the courtroom was filled with armed white men. Witness Louis Allen was murdered in early 1964 after being boycotted and harassed for discussing the Lee murder with federal officials. Moses and other organizers had asked for federal protection from the John F. Kennedy administration but the Justice Department did not then provide it.
By 1964 Moses had become Co-Director of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella organization for the major civil rights groups working in Mississippi. A major leader with SNCC, he was the main organizer of COFO's Freedom Summer project, which was intended to achieve widespread voter registration of blacks in Mississippi, and ultimately, end racial disfranchisement. They planned education and organizing, and a simplified registration system, to demonstrate African-American desire to vote. Moses was one of the calm leaders who kept the group focused.
On June 21, as many of the new volunteers were getting settled and trained in nonviolent resistance, three were reported missing. They were James Chaney, a local African American, and his two Jewish co-leaders Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both from New York City. These three young men had gone to investigate a church bombing near Philadelphia, Mississippi. They were arrested on alleged traffic violations and released that night. After an FBI investigation, their decomposed bodies were found six weeks later, buried in an earthen dam. The volunteers were frightened. Moses gathered them together to discuss it; he told the group this was the risk they faced. He said that now that they had seen first-hand what could happen, they had every right to go home. He assured volunteers that no one would blame them for leaving. Everyone stayed.
This was not the first murder of activists in Mississippi or the South, but the Civil Rights Movement had attracted increasing notice from the national media. Many African-American volunteers were angered that publicity appeared to be based on two of the victims being white Northerners. Moses helped ease tensions. The volunteers struggled with the idea of nonviolence, of blacks and whites working together, and related issues. These tensions were enormous, but arguably, Moses's leadership was a major cohesive factor for a number of volunteers staying.
Moses was instrumental in the organizing of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a group that challenged the all-white regular Democratic Party delegates from the state at the party's 1964 convention. Because the Democratic Regulars had for decades excluded African Americans from the political process in Mississippi, the MFDP wanted their elected delegates seated at the convention. Their challenge received national media coverage and highlighted the civil rights struggle in the state.
Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic leadership nonetheless prevented any of the MFDP delegation from voting in the convention, giving the official seats to the Jim Crow regulars. Moses and the rest of the SNCC activists were profoundly disillusioned by this decision. Moses was also disturbed by the machinations of liberal Democrats, who he had invited into COFO, to centralize its decision-making, an effort that seemed to undermine the grassroots participatory democracy of SNCC.
Moses resigned from COFO in late 1964. He later commented that his role had become ‘‘too strong, too central, so that people who did not need to, began to lean on me, to use me as a crutch’’. He temporarily dropped his surname, going by his middle name, Parris, and began participating in the campaign against the Vietnam War. Speaking at the first massive anti-war demonstration on April 17, 1965, at the Washington Monument, Moses linked his opposition to the war to the civil rights struggle. As his involvement in the anti-war movement increased, he took a leave of absence from SNCC to avoid criticisms from fellow members who did not support his stance. Following a trip to Africa in 1965 Moses came to believe that blacks must work independently of whites, and by 1966 Moses had cut off all relationships with whites, even former SNCC activists.
In 1976 Moses returned to the United States and Harvard, doing graduate work in the philosophy of mathematics. He taught high school math in a public high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after learning from his daughter that the school was not offering algebra.
In 1982 Moses received a MacArthur Fellowship. He used the award to create the Algebra Project, devoted to improving minority education in math, starting with his daughter's classroom in a Cambridge, Massachusetts public school. Moses also taught math for a time at Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi. He used the Lanier classroom as a laboratory school for developing methods and approaches for the Algebra Project, enlisting the support of parents and the community in the project.
In 2005 Moses was selected as one of twelve inaugural Alphonse Fletcher Sr. Fellows by the Fletcher Foundation, which awards substantial grants to scholars and activists working on civil rights issues.
Since 1982, Moses expanded the Algebra Project from teaching math in one school, to supporting these methods for teaching math in over 200 schools across the country by the late 1990s. The Algebra Project's unique approach to school reform intentionally develops models that are sustainable and focused on students. This is achieved by building coalitions of stakeholders within the local communities. The historically underserved population is a big portion of these coalitions.
The Algebra Project works to change common attitudes of our society that routinely promote the exclusion and regression of minorities. The goal of the Algebra Project is to take the students who score the lowest on state math tests and prepare them for college level math by the end of high school. This is done by doubling up on math courses for the four years of high school. The Algebra Project is based in research and development, school development, and community and site development.
In October 2006, the Algebra Project received an award from the National Science Foundation to improve the development of materials for Algebra I. In terms of school development, the Algebra Project strives to provide culturally sensitive, context-based, and site-specific professional development opportunities to teachers. It promotes collaboration of teaching methods and knowledge. The Algebra Project partners with local higher education and research institutions to help teachers develop professionally, trains teachers on new materials, and provides them with programs to get certified.
The Algebra Project collaborates with the Young People’s Project to help engage students in their learning process. “YPP uses mathematics literacy as a tool to develop young leaders and organizers who radically change the quality of education and quality of life in their communities so that all children have the opportunity to reach their full human potential.”  At its peak, the Algebra Project has provided help to roughly forty-thousand minority students each year. Contributions include curricula guides for kindergarten through high school, the training of teachers, and peer coaching.
Moses believed that Algebra was a critical “gatekeeper” subject because mastering it was necessary in order for middle school students to advance in math, technology, and science. Without algebra, students would not be able to meet the requirements for college. Fifty-five percent of the students following the Algebra Project’s curriculum passed the state exam on their first attempt, compared to 40 percent of students following the regular curriculum. More students at junior high school sites who followed the Algebra Project curriculum scored higher on standardized tests and continued to more advanced math classes than did their schoolmates who followed standard curriculum. Thus, they could better meet requirements for college admission and future entry into good jobs.
In 2006 Moses was named a Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of '56 Professor at Cornell University. As a Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, he taught an African American Studies class with Professor Tera Hunter in the Spring 2012 semester.
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