Remembering Bob Moses, 1935–2021

Remembering Bob Moses, 1935–2021

His leadership ushered in alternative conceptions of gender, race, and political power that would, eventually, shake the world.


After the 1963 March on Washington in August and the church bombing in Birmingham in September, I knew that at that particular moment what I, then a college student, needed to learn would not come in a college course. Later that fall, I attended a meeting in Harlem where three young men, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Charles Cobb, and Bob Moses, were describing their programs in Mississippi and their plan to invite college students to join them in the summer of 1964. They were staffers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As they concluded the talk, I made my way to the front of the room and asked Bob whether I could help. He “hired” me on the spot, and a few weeks later, after a long bus ride, I was glued to a typewriter at the Freedom Summer office in Jackson, Miss.

In telling this personal anecdote, I violate what Bob Moses taught us—not didactically but by his example. The first-person singular pronoun, a dangerous thing, should be used sparingly by those who seek to break the deafening silence of the subordinated.

Bob Moses’s storied life is the stuff of myth, told in scores of books, films, and archives, and crowned with a “genius” award. Perhaps less well-rehearsed is what he imparted to those of us who worked with him about how to move around in communities that were not ours but were of us, how to learn from the unschooled, how to be a charismatic follower rather than an acclaimed leader. Inducted into the movement when he attended SNCC’s founding meeting at Shaw University in 1960, that August Bob was sent to Mississippi the following summer by former NAACP youth leader Ella Baker to scout out prospects for movement-building in the Deep South. At that point the sit-ins had hit the Upper South; Bob and other SNCC field representatives were sent down to test the waters in the Confederate strongholds.

Baker’s longtime NAACP contacts—Amzie Moore in Cleveland and C.C. Bryant in McComb—welcomed Bob into their state. Moore told Bob that integrated hamburger stands were one thing, but what was really on their minds was voter registration, and with that, in July 1961, C.C. Bryant’s place in McComb became, in effect, the first SNCC headquarters in Mississippi. Terrorism and federal neglect ensued, toughening but not breaking Bob, and convincing him and his partners that only an influx of outside agitators could push Mississippi’s obscene story out beyond its borders. SNCC joined forces with the Mississippi NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to launch the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, bringing students from all over the country into the state to set up schools, take people to the polls, and report on the near-servitude prevailing in the state’s colored quarters and cotton rows. While 17,000 people attempted to sign up, Mississippi registered just 1,600 Black voters that summer. But the word was out; Freedom Summer opened up the state, emboldening local leaders who brought fresh organizing practices that favored the mass meeting over the Robert’s Rules of Order–style NAACP branch meetings, and found in freedom songs a more cohesive message than the de rigueur Sunday sermon.

At the tail end of that summer, busloads of Black Mississippians, members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, headed to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, intent on confronting the state’s all-white delegation and the nation with the Black voices and bodies of the “other” Mississippi—the non-voting 42 percent of the state descended from slavery. To Democratic party leadership’s offer of two at-large seats, the Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to replace the all-white delegation, retorted, “No, thanks.” They got back on the bus for the long ride back to Jackson.

Bob was 31 when in 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War, he was drafted. With his wife, Janet, he departed for Tanzania, where he would remain until 1977, when Jimmy Carter pardoned him and 100,000 other men who fled the country or hid within it. The family—Janet, Bob, and their three kids, came back home. They settled in Cambridge, and Bob resumed his graduate studies in analytic philosophy at Harvard. Deeply influenced by the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, with whom he had studied at Harvard in the 1950s, Bob pursued the language and logic of mathematics. Classrooms intrigued Bob—yes, the rarified seminar rooms at Harvard, but equally so the Cambridge neighborhood schools where his children were enrolled. He became a frequent visitor, overseeing the math education of his kids and their classmates. And because he sensed the stench of what he would come to call sharecropper education behind the racial chasm in math education in the People’s Republic of Cambridge, just as he had in Mississippi, Bob set out to interweave this local crisis and national politics. Launched by Moses in 1982, the Algebra Project sought to foreground students and their parents as the leaders of a movement to make equal, quality education a constitutionally guaranteed right.

The Harlemite who went to Mississippi in 1960 was not obviously destined to become one of our country’s most creative civil rights leaders. At that time, the aesthetic of Black political leadership required voice, and Bob’s was small and quiet. It required an announced religiosity, and Bob’s was also small and quiet. It required sharp elbows, and a sizable ego, and again, Bob’s was small and quiet. It was leadership as “high art” performance that was at the same time “authentic,” and Bob eschewed performance.

Many men adapted their personas to match these familiar scripts. One can see them in the front rows of marches and parades, dating as far back as W.E.B. Du Bois, walking stick in hand, at the Negro Silent Protest Parade of 1917, and coming around the second half of the century with the March on Washington and the Selma-to-Montgomery March. The contributions of these gifted men are unassailable, but Bob took a different road. He stayed steady in his own quiet skin, and rather than “leading” the march, he chose to heed the leaders he met in the hollows and back roads of Mississippi. By leading from a place of quiet, Bob paved the way for hundreds to find the leader within themselves—especially women. By rendering fully audible the voices of his teacher, Ella Baker, and his co-organizer, Fannie Lou Hamer, by using his own very distinctive but unamplified, unadorned, and unglorified voice, he disrupted the gendered hierarchies of Black leadership.

Bob was charismatic, all right. His intense eyes held those of his audience, whether of one or a hundred, and he spoke in a plain, straightforward way that illuminated his unsettling insights and made the listener feel privileged to be in that moment. It wasn’t an eloquent voice in the traditional sense, but it was probing and dialogical. Harlem could be detected, always, when Bob spoke. Although many of us from elsewhere brought some of the Southern song into our own speech, Bob did not. New York never left him. And his thoughts were measured, but clear and direct. He instructed without appearing to do so, struggling always to find consensus, disdaining the postures, presumptions, and pretensions of a teacher. While all around him men were adopting the messianic leadership style that Frederick Douglass, Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey had personified—and that white America knew well how to navigate—Bob redefined how radicals who were from elsewhere engaged with the communities where they worked and lived. In some measure, it was a deliberate rejection of the politics of respectability and the Black spokesman model: Important was not what you, the organizer, said—but how you helped the people you were working with say what they needed to say.

Bob was under no illusion that grassroots local people possessed unique virtues or discernment on account of their status. He did perceive, however, that political empowerment would come only by subverting the old stratifiers and creating new sources of authority—collective and individual. A few charismatic leaders could never remake the world; nor could we even properly interrogate the world as we knew it and locate the space to imagine a new one unless we made a clean break from first-person singular forms of leadership. We needed to build a movement from below, to center the silent, the subaltern—history’s outsiders—and to disassemble the masculinist formulas that had for so long dominated Black politics. The old playbook that prevailed across the South, positioning women as the nexus between established Black leaders and “the community”—that had to be disassembled and replaced with a feminist (although we didn’t use that word then) stance on racial politics.

But for Bob’s leadership practice, the nation would never have heard Fannie Lou Hamer’s extraordinary speech, commonly known as “I Question America,” at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. There were Black professionals from Mississippi in that Freedom Party delegation, but it was Bob’s voice, over the years and in the moment, that insisted on Hamer’s. It would be the first time a sharecropper addressed her country. Her speech was prophetic, transgressively “non-feminine,” and poetic. By common convention, she was neither pretty nor polite, and neither the girlfriend nor the mother, but rather a commanding figure of her own making. She spoke in a vernacular that was familiar to every Southerner in the country: For white people it was “the help,” the voice they associated with their kitchen, delivering a major policy message; and for Black folk, their neighbor was there for them. That speech was on time and about time: for Black women, and for sharecroppers. It ushered in alternative conceptions of gender, race, and political power that would, eventually, unsettle the old norms.

At a later time in Bob’s life, when he and Janet were in Tanzania, many of us thought they would make their lives there, as hundreds of Africanists had in the 1970s. It was a heady time on the continent and in Tanzania particularly, in the wake—we thought—of decolonization, at the epicenter of Ujamaa socialism, and at the heart of a Pan-Africanism that for Black Americans was culturally exhilarating and politically promising. Although while they were in Africa they absorbed different ways of knowing, doing, and being that would sustain them through their lives, Bob and Janet eventually came home to rejoin the legacy of their antecedents and reshape the destiny of their progeny. What drew them was not glory or the comforts of their native country but rather the oppressive burden of its unfinished business. It was rumored that, decades later, a major US foundation considered giving Bob a large grant to develop math programs in South Africa. That country had just cast off apartheid, and radical Americans were keen to play a role in what would follow under the ANC’s leadership. Bob reprised the choice he had made about Tanzania. Although the money would have rescued the Algebra Project that he then directed from many lean years, Bob rejected the idea. His work, he said, was here.

When in 1982 Bob received his MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, he faced another crossroads. He could have invested his prize in himself and returned to his formal studies, and undoubtedly, he would have become a world-class philosopher. Had he stayed in the field, he would most certainly have been an influential and prominent theorist, with access to all the privileges and financial security of academic success. But once again, he took the road back home, planting his genius not in a university lecture hall but rather in an elementary school classroom, from which he slowly began to construct movements to confront sharecropper education, teach math to kids in the public schools’ bottom quartile, and, ultimately, articulate the call for a constitutional amendment for equal, quality education.

As Bob built the Algebra Project brick by brick, he perceived that its mission could not be fully realized without youth engagement and leadership. Most organizations would have tucked their young people somewhere in the substrata, showcased them on special occasions, and called it a day. But Bob, again bucking advice to the contrary, took a different road. He believed the project needed an equally effective and dynamic organization led by youth, and hence was launched the Young Peoples’ Project.

This humble man with the quiet voice led without seeming to in McComb, in the Delta, and in Atlantic City; sat at President Julius Nyerere’s table and then came back home; was destined to become a brilliant scholar but instead launched a movement to end sharecropper education and open our classroom doors, and then asked young people to step into them and create a new country. His, indeed, was the road well taken.

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