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Remembering Math and Civil Rights Activist Bob Moses

Portrait Of Robert Parris Moses in black and white. He is leaning his elbow against a table and holding his head in his hand. He is a Black man in a button down shirt and black glasses.
Portrait of American Civil Rights activist Robert Parris Moses, New York, 1964. | Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Getty Images
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Robert Parris Moses was an activist, educator, visionary and leader. Perhaps one of his most cherished titles was that of a father.

Known to the world as Bob Moses, he spent the early 1960s traveling through Mississippi to register Black voters during the Civil Rights Movement. He experienced years of political pushback that resulted in beatings and jailings, but he did not give up. In rural southwest Mississippi, he taught Black Americans how to register and pass voter literacy tests — despite the constant threat from angry white mobs and cops who later shot at him, burned down his office and jailed him.

Still, Bob Moses did not waver.

As a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in 1964, he helped organize the Freedom Summer Project. The project was designed to raise awareness about the violent oppression many Mississippi Black people experienced in their attempts to exercise their constitutional rights. Bob Moses asked that white student volunteers take part in the voter drive to lead training sessions prepared to register and teach literacy to Black voters.

His leadership and activism were pivotal to the education and registration of Mississippi voters. As a result, he went on to co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Bob Moses opened this party to everyone, regardless of race, which was in direct opposition to the Southern Democratic Party notorious for being "whites only." A year later, the Voting Rights Act was passed, in large part because of the efforts of Bob Moses and a number of other civil rights leaders.

But to Omo Moses, he was more than a civil rights leader; he was his dad — who later inspired his life's work and generations of Black youth to follow.

Omo Moses said he was a young boy in elementary school when he realized his father was more than just his dad. During Black History Month, the vice principal announced to the class that a great hero from the Civil Rights Movement was going to come and talk to them. When he saw his father, his jaw dropped.

"From that point on, I had a sense that who he was meant a lot to people — beyond just being my dad," Omo Moses said.

Bob Moses was drafted into the U.S military in 1966. He spent nearly a decade in Tanzania, where he taught and worked with the Ministry of Education. After returning to the U.S, he received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1982. This allowed him to develop The Algebra Project. It initially started in Massachusetts but quickly became a nationwide initiative.

Through this project, Bob Moses was able to use mathematics literacy to teach algebra skills to minority and underserved students with the goal of providing a quality education for children in the U.S. A focal point of The Algebra Project was to help Black youth, who often came from low-income households, learn to solve problems and elevate themselves to a higher level of math literacy. Nearly 40 years later, Bob Moses and other educators have taught and tutored thousands of students to use math as a means of activism through The Algebra Project.

He would always talk to us about young people needing to get their act together — part of what he was saying is getting young people to help organize and work with others for their community.
Omo Moses

Omo Moses said the way his father influenced him and his siblings as kids allowed them to connect with the young people mentored through The Algebra Project.

"My dad always created opportunities for us to be connected to his work," Omo Moses said. "He would always talk to us about young people needing to get their act together — part of what he was saying is getting young people to help organize and work with others for their community."

To carry on what his father started, Omo Moses followed in his footsteps. When he was a teenager, he spent summers tutoring other youth, followed by him founding The Young People's Project. Similar to his father, Omo Moses focuses on training high school and college students on how to support younger students. He is also the CEO of Math Talk, which he leads with the belief that parents can engage their children in math talks on an everyday basis.

"He dedicated his life to this country and challenged this country to live up to its ideals," Omo Moses said about his father. "He believed in democracy, and he understood what it meant for him as a man to grow up in this society … yet he opted to connect with people and work to uplift them."

Bob Moses was born in Harlem, New York City, on Jan. 23, 1935. His father, Gregory Moses, was a janitor and his mother, Louise Parris Moses, was a housewife. They encouraged him to pursue higher education. Bob Moses graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1952 and received his bachelor's degree in philosophy from Hamilton College in 1956. On the road to continue furthering his education, he transferred to Harvard to work on a Ph.D. in philosophy. His time at Harvard was cut short after the death of his mother and his father being sick.

Upon his return to New York in 1958, his journey to teach math and intertwine it with activism began.

Despite all the pressures Bob Moses faced, Omo Moses said he was a great dad who found a balance between being part of the transformation of the U.S. and being present in his children's lives. Omo Moses said he wants his children and generations of youth to follow to learn from the bodacious example his father set.

"A lot of his story hasn't been told — it's been buried, and a lot of it is being told now," Omo Moses said. "It's an opportunity to learn from the great example he set for all of us."

Bob Moses died July 25, 2021, at 86 years old. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Janet Jemmott Moses, children Maisha Moses, Omo Moses, Taba Moses, Malaika Moses and a number of grandchildren.

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