Robert “Bob” Moses is known for his work as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on voter education and registration in Mississippi during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Born in Harlem, New York, Moses received his B.A. from Hamilton College in 1956 and earned an M.A. in philosophy at Harvard.
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, calling them “inspiring.” Moses initiated and organized voter registration drives in the South, sit-ins, and Freedom Schools for SNCC.
He currently runs the Algebra Project, which is a continued effort to improve math education in poor communities with the goal of preparing more students for the workforce. 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. 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 SNCC. As director of 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, they had been utterly closed out of the political process for decades.
By 1964, Moses had become Co-Director of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella organization for the major civil rights groups then working in Mississippi. 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. COFO recruited college students from across the U.S. who staffed Freedom Schools, community centers, and door-to-door organizing in many Mississippi counties to demonstrate African-Americans’ 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. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had gone to investigate a church bombing near Philadelphia, Mississippi, when they were arrested on an alleged traffic violation. 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. In his quiet manner, he told the group this was what they were up against. He told volunteers that now that they have seen first-hand what could happen, they had every right to go home. He assured volunteers that no one would blame them for leaving. No one moved. All of the frightened volunteers 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 these murders appeared to be getting publicity because two of the victims were white Northerners. Moses’ approach helped ease tensions. Even the Freedom Summer volunteers had to struggle with the idea of nonviolence, of blacks and whites working together, and related issues. Nonviolence was not an easy sale. Blacks and whites working together was also not unanimous. These tensions were enormous, but arguably, Moses’ leadership style 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 national convention in Atlantic City, NJ. Because the Democratic Regulars had for decades excluded African Americans from the political process in Mississippi and oppressed them, 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.