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Bob Moses helped change America. Will America embrace his legacy?

He dedicated his life to Black people and Black power. He did so with tremendous courage, a quiet intensity, unfaltering integrity, uncommon intelligence, and always a loving respect for Black people, regardless of their station in life.

Bob Moses
Bob Moses
Photo courtesy of Steve Schapiro

In 2006, after a unanimous vote in the Republican controlled Senate and an overwhelming 390-33 vote in the Republican controlled House, President George W. Bush signed a 25-year reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. Back then, just 15 years ago, voting rights was a bipartisan commitment that united Democrats and Republicans.

Nearly six years later, in 2013, by a narrow 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court of the United States gutted this legislation because, according to the court, times had changed. The Voting Rights Act had worked. The old formula that called for certain states and localities to get preclearance before changing voting rules and regulations  was no longer relevant.

Of course, the only thing that had changed was that the Voting Rights Act was working, and by working, I mean, it was stopping certain states from continuing their legacy of voter suppression. Since the ruling, dozens of states have passed laws making it harder to vote and targeting voters of color. According to the Pew Center, in the five years after the Shelby Decision, “nearly a thousand polling places have been shuttered across the country, many of them in southern Black communities.” And that is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2020 and 2021, the gloves have come off on voting rights.

In 2020, to great national fanfare, we marked the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Lewis was an indefatigable civil rights advocate and a former chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Often associated with the voting rights by virtue of his heroic actions on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, the current law designed to reactivate the Voting Rights Act has been named the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

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Lewis’ colleague in SNCC and partner on voting rights Robert (Bob) Paris Moses recently joined his ancestors. Like Lewis, Moses was a long-distance runner. He dedicated his life to Black people and Black power. He did so with tremendous courage, a quiet intensity, unfaltering integrity, uncommon intelligence, and always a loving respect for Black people, regardless of their station in life. Moses left us a legacy of how to make change, how to challenge power, and how to win.

It would be impossible to capture even a fragment of the difference Bob Moses made in this nation in a short essay. Luckily, there are biographies of his life and many other resources you can access about his long career as a freedom fighter. I am partial to these two, where you get to hear his voice.

Moses fought tirelessly for Black power by working for unrestricted voting rights in the United States between 1960 and 1964. After 1982, he shifted his emphasis to math literacy and quality public education as a constitutional right for every child living in the United States. He understood voting rights and education as part of the same project. In a 2014 interview with his longtime colleague, Julian Bond, Moses noted that, “the issue of education and literacy was right there embedded in the movement and here’s how …. I think we got Jim Crow out of public accommodations, access to the vote, and the national Democratic Party structure but we didn’t get it out of education, so I think of it as the unfinished business.”

Deeply affected by the sit-in movement that took off in 1960, Moses took leave of his studies and teaching gig to join the civil rights movement full time. Landing in Atlanta, he soon grew close to the legendary Ella Baker, and on her suggestion, Moses traveled to Cleveland, Mississippi, where he met Amzie Moore. Moore, a politically savvy World War II veteran who was part of an extensive network of Black activists affiliated with the NAACP and the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, persuaded Moses to organize in Mississippi around the vote rather than integrating public facilities. In Mississippi, with its large Black population, the vote would allow Blacks to exercise power democratically.

To make a long story short, by 1964, Moses was the chief architect of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a parallel political party that challenged the regular Democratic Party for power at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Though the MFDP was not recognized as the official delegation at the convention, it did extract a promise from the Democratic Party never to seat a segregated delegation again. This amounted to a promise that there would be a voting rights act by 1968, and it began the process of ending Jim Crow in the Democratic Party. The contributions of Moses, and the Mississippi Movement he was part of, have never been fully appreciated for their catalytic role in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1982, as his eldest child was entering middle school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Moses began to close the circle on civil rights by working on math literacy (The Algebra Project) and passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every child in the U.S. a quality public education.

In this phase of his activism, Moses frequently explained the idea of “sharecropper education.” This was the notion that in the United States, in the north and the south, Black children, as well as others, received an education suitable for certain kinds of work. The system was designed to send the message to Black youth that they will not amount to much, so don’t expect to.

Jeff Kolnick
Jeff Kolnick
Moses went to work to demonstrate that no matter the school or ZIP code, students could excel at math. He believed that algebra in our time was the equivalent of voting rights and literacy in the 1960s. And wherever the Algebra Project has been accepted and given support, students have excelled at algebra, and by extension, the rest of their schooling. According to professor Peter Dreier, “By the 1990s, the Algebra Project’s model had reached ten thousand middle school students and three hundred teachers a year in twenty-eight cities. … Today, teachers in several hundred schools around the country use the Algebra Project’s methods.”

Bob Moses made a difference. By empowering others — by working from the outside in and believing that those who didn’t have much could lead the way — he helped to change America for the better. While sitting in a jail cell in McComb, Mississippi, in 1961, Moses wrote, “This is Mississippi, the middle of the iceberg. Hollis is leading off with his tenor, ‘Michael row the boat ashore, Alleluia! Christian brothers don’t be slow, Alleluia! Mississippi’s the next to go, Alleluia!’ This is a tremor from the middle of the iceberg from a stone the builders rejected.”

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Will America reject the legacy of Bob Moses in 2021, just as we rejected the legacy of John Lewis in 2020? Will we continue to turn back the clock on voting rights? Will we continue to question the teaching of slavery, Jim Crow, and the ongoing legacies of those horrible institutions? Will we demand that we turn away from the genocide and land theft endured by our Indigenous peoples? From the exclusion and internment of our Asian American and Pacific Islander brothers and sisters? From the forced deportations and Juan Crow endured by our Latino/a neighbors? Will we continue to offer sharecropper education for some and quality education for others?

Which side are you on? Are you ready to organize?

Rest in power, Bob Moses.

Jeff Kolnick is a founder of the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy, and teaches history at Southwest Minnesota State University. The opinions expressed here are his own and independent of those institutions. 

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