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Bob Moses, Voting Rights Activist

Last Sunday, July 25, a key figure in the history of voting rights and civil rights activism passed away – Robert (Bob) Parris Moses. Bob Moses, a native of New York City, graduated from Harvard with an MA in philosophy in 1957, and was working on a PhD when he had to return home to care for family. He then started teaching mathematics to middle school students at Horace Mann School; during this time he grew more interested in civil rights activism. In July 1960, Moses traveled south with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to organize attendees for their second conference that coming October in Atlanta. He met Amzie Moore, a native Mississippian, while there, and Moses and Moore planned a voter registration drive for Mississippi. Moses said, “I was taught about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe; I never knew that there was denial of the right to vote behind a Cotton Curtain here in the United States.” Moses returned to Mississippi in summer 1961, and worked to set up a voter registration drive in McComb, Mississippi.

Robert Parris Moses (Taken on 26 February 2014, by Miller Center; used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/).

Moses learned while doing; he traveled around to local community leaders in McComb looking for people willing to support ten students who would work full time for one month on voter registration. Ultimately he garnered enough support to keep the students working until December. The violence he saw directed toward civil rights activists, which was increasing in intensity, led him to quit his teaching post and devote himself full time to the voter registration work. He joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and worked with the SNCC. He and his team worked to talk people through the voter registration process in Mississippi, which at that time involved answering 21 questions, providing a “reasonable interpretation” of a section of the Constitution of Mississippi (and occasionally, providing a response to unanswerable questions such as how many bubbles were in a bar of soap). He would accompany people to the county seat to register. During this period he was arrested and beaten, and saw fellow activists arrested, beaten and killed. Even with support from the local African American community, the NAACP, SNCC and at times the Department of Justice, violence and arrests continued.

Moses was named co-director of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) in 1962. He met Fannie Lou Hamer during this period and started working with her. With Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, Moses co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964.  He, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and others traveled to Atlantic City for the National Democratic Convention to try to get their delegates seated. When the MFDP delegation was offered a compromise that “…would give the MFDP two seats and the promise of reform for the 1968 convention,” Moses, along with Hamer and others, refused that offer. He resigned from COFO in late 1964, because he said he felt that people leaned on him when they didn’t need to do so, and he tended to avoid the spotlight and public attention. He participated in anti-war activism after he left voting rights work. In the late 1960s he moved with his wife to Tanzania, started their family there and began working for the Tanzanian Ministry of Education to build secondary schools. They returned to the United States where he finished his doctorate. He was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant in 1982. With the money he received from the award, he founded his Algebra Project; he saw math as “an organizing tool for quality education for all children.” He used the lessons he learned from his grassroots voting activism in McComb throughout the rest of his career.

‘‘Leadership is there in the people,’’ he said. ‘‘You don’t have to worry about where your leaders are, how are we going to get some leaders…If you go out and work with your people, then the leadership will emerge.”

Resources

KF224.M47 B35 2004 Ball, Howard. Murder in Mississippi : United States v. Price and the struggle for civil rights. 

E185.97.M89 V57 2016 Visser-Maessen, Laura. Robert Parris Moses : a life in civil rights and leadership at the grassroots.

E184.A1 M7 2002 Moses, Robert Parris. Radical equations : civil rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project. 

E185.93.M6 D57 2017 Dittmer, John. Freedom Summer : a brief history with documents.

E185.93.M6 D58 1994 Dittmer, John. Local people : the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi.

E185.61 .C27 1995 Carson, Clayborne. In struggle : SNCC and the Black awakening of the 1960s.

Moses, Robert Parris, interviewee. Bob Moses oral history, 2006-06-28 : National Visionary Leadership Project, interview conducted by Renee Poussaint.

Bob Moses, “Report on Mississippi Voter Registration Project,” January 21, 1963.  Civil Rights Movement Archive. Accessed July 25, 2021.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People records, 1842-1999 (bulk 1919-1991).

Oral history with Fannie Lou Hamer; 1972-1973, Audio Part 1. Collections, University of Southern Mississippi. Accessed August 2, 2021. (see: minute 8:30 for “reasonable interpretation” reference)

 

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