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Bob Moses obituary

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Rogelio V Solis/AP</span>
Photograph: Rogelio V Solis/AP

One afternoon in June 1964, the African-American civil rights campaigner Bob Moses was teaching a group of white students how to survive as voter registration activists in the rancorously hostile atmosphere of Mississippi, when he got a phone call. Three of his team had disappeared. Moses feared the worst, and he was right.

James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman had been murdered by policemen in cahoots with the Ku Klux Klan, a circumstance that later became the subject of the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. Their disappearance threw Moses, already long committed to the struggle to give African Americans the vote in Mississippi, into the civil rights limelight.

Moses, who has died aged 86, was one of the major figures of the African-American renaissance of the 1960s. He was less rhetorically inspired than Martin Luther King, less audacious than Malcolm X, but arguably no less important in his impact and example, combining serious intellectual rigour with courageous and humane political activism. Shot at, beaten and frequently imprisoned, he led the campaign to enable black people in Mississippi to vote with unshakeable but quiet courage.

While in law, and in theory, African Americans had full voting rights, southern states, including Mississippi, did all they could to prevent them voting or even either registering to vote. Although the Freedom Summer of vote registration initiatives did not immediately achieve the breakthrough that allowed most African Americans to vote, it did have a significant morale-boosting effect.

However, disillusioned by what he saw as the lukewarm commitment of both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to the civil rights cause, Moses later retired from the struggle to teach at a rural school in Tanzania for seven years. He came back to finish a doctorate in mathematical philosophy at Harvard, then devised a scheme of profound originality, the Algebra Project, which used mathematics to empower young people deprived by their lack of verbal confidence.

Moses was born in Harlem, New York, into a family he said had “come down in the world”. His paternal grandfather was an eminent Baptist minister, an uncle was a professor and a cousin had been an architect. But Bob’s father, Gregory Moses, worked as a janitor during the Depression and eventually became an alcoholic, leaving his mother, Louise (nee Parris) to pick up the pieces.

Bob went to Stuyvesant high school and on a scholarship to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, a small institution that was conservative in many ways but liberal on race. There he was introduced to the writings of Albert Camus: a dog-eared copy of The Rebel stayed with him during dangerous times in Mississippi. He was also influenced by the Quakers and went to Belgium, France, Germany and Japan with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker body that promotes peace.

He did well enough at Hamilton to be accepted as a student at Harvard, where in 1957 he took a course in mathematical logic under the great philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine. But he had to drop out in 1958 when his mother died and his father had a breakdown. He taught maths briefly at the Horace Mann school in the Bronx. Then, visiting a cousin in Virginia, he witnessed a sit-in and decided to devote his life to the African American cause.

In 1960 he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known colloquially as Snick, which sent him to Mississippi as its first field secretary. He focused on voting behaviour, reasoning that no amount of opening-up of segregated lunch counters would give poor black people in Mississippi the respect they needed from white politicians.

It was hard, lonely and dangerous work. According to one source, 63 African Americans were killed in voting-related situations in Mississippi during the early 60s. It was not long before Moses, too, experienced violence. A car he was in was machine-gunned. He was badly beaten, and had the temerity to sue his alleged assailant, who was acquitted. He was also arrested and imprisoned, usually briefly, on a number of occasions.

In those early days he was one of a tiny group of African-American students trying to embolden black sharecroppers and their wives to vote. Only later did thousands of students from Stanford, Yale and other well-known universities pour into the state to help.

Bob Moses, centre, with fellow activists Hollis Watkins, left, and Lawrence Guyot at the National Student Association conference in Bloomington, Indiana in 1963.
Bob Moses, centre, with fellow activists Hollis Watkins, left, and Lawrence Guyot at the National Student Association conference in Bloomington, Indiana in 1963. Photograph: Leni Sinclair/Getty Images

Moses’ Mississippi experience had taught him not to expect much of the federal government, and his disillusionment with white liberals was completed by his experience of the Democratic party national convention in Atlantic City in 1964, when attempts to secure greater black representation were essentially stymied by Lyndon Johnson. His public protests at that convention gave him national recognition, but by late 1964 he was becoming deeply discouraged by various turns of events, including the way Snick, under the influence of Stokely Carmichael, was abandoning non-violence.

Despite being a natural leader, Moses had actively discouraged the cult of the personality, and at the end of 1964 he had resigned from his job as acknowledged head of the Council of Federated Organizations, an umbrella body of civil rights groups working in Mississippi, because “my position there was too strong, too central, so that people … began to use me as a crutch”. He also temporarily stopped using his surname, with its biblical associations, and adopted his mother’s maiden name instead.

By that time he had come out against the Vietnam war and in April 1965 spoke at the first large-scale anti-Vietnam demonstration at the Washington Monument. When, shortly afterwards, he went to Harvard to work on a PhD on the philosophy of mathematics, he found that his student deferment from the military draft had been refused; he suspected the FBI was behind the move. So, borrowing money from one of his brothers, he went to Canada to avoid the draft. By this time his first marriage, to a fellow activist, Dona Richards, had broken up.

Back in the autumn of 1964 Moses had been one of a delegation of African Americans, paid for by the singer Harry Belafonte, who visited Guinea to see how things were run in Africa. After two years in Canada he moved with his second wife, Janet Jemmott, to Tanzania, where he stayed for seven years. He got a job teaching mathematics at the Same boys’ secondary school near the Kenyan frontier, not far from Mount Kilimanjaro, Janet taught English there too, and they brought up four children: two sons, Tabasuri and Omowale, and two daughters, Maisha and Mailika.

In 1977 they returned to the US. Bob went on with his doctorate at Harvard and taught maths at a high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was Maisha who brought him his next big idea when she complained that she could not study algebra at her high school. Bob volunteered to teach it there.

In 1982 he got a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation that enabled him to start the Algebra Project. The idea in part was simply to help poor people, most of them African Americans, to acquire the qualifications in algebra they would need in many good jobs. But underlying that straightforward plan was a deeper conviction that it would allow poor black people, who often grew up without books or even newspapers in the house, to gain some intellectual confidence.

The two first projects were in Cambridge, home of Harvard and MIT, and Jackson, Mississippi, the state with the worst schools for black children in the union. Later the idea expanded to schools in California, Florida and elsewhere. At one time as many as 10,000 students a year were taking part, and it continues to this day.

He is survived by Janet, their four children and seven grandchildren.

• Robert Parris Moses, civil rights activist and educationist, born 23 January 1935; died 25 July 2021

• Godfrey Hodgson died in January

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