I was at the Newport Folk Festival when I heard that Bob Moses had died. As I will discuss in this weekend’s Music Notes post, this was a festival heavily dedicated to Black artists. No one mentioned Moses, but somehow it seemed like a fitting time and place to hear about this, even though it is awful that he is gone. Moses was one of the true heroes of the 1960s and the entire history of the Black freedom struggle for that matter. It is not possible to overestimate his importance–what he did was equal to Martin Luther King, to Rosa Parks, to Malcolm X, to John Lewis, to Angela Davis, to anyone.
It’s almost impossible to imagine the kind of situation Moses found himself in and the risks he took and the leadership he had. This was a quiet guy, a math teacher from the North. Hem was teaching in The Bronx. Then, the college students at North Carolina A&T gave the civil rights movement a much needed shot in the arm through the Woolworth sit-in in 1960. That quickly spread throughout the South and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was born of it, with Ella Baker very intelligently telling the kids to stay far, far away from Martin Luther King and the other ministers, who would make their movement an adjunct of the minister-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She knew that militancy that would make the more mainstream organizations uncomfortable was necessary. Anyway, one of the people inspired immediately to join SNCC was Moses, who quit his job. These students did incredibly amazing things. The Freedom Rides were the most prominent and public. Moses wasn’t involved in this. Instead, he took on an even more dangerous and often deadly task–organizing rural Mississippi to vote.
The Delta was overwhelmingly Black and it was overwhelmingly violent. A small white elite ran roughshod over Black rights, attempting to keep the region in the 1920s. Organizing these farmers, mostly illiterate and mostly very scared, had to happen if direct action organizing would end Jim Crow in their lifetimes. This put them at odds with the mainline groups, from the SCLC to the NAACP, who generally advocated for a more gradual approach that started on the borders of Jim Crow and then slowly chipped away at it. No one was going into rural Mississippi in 1961. That is until Ella Baker inspired Bob Moses and others to do it. Moses specifically cited Baker’s leadership and organizing acumen as his inspiration.
Now, imagine going into these communities. The residents are scared as hell. And for good reason. They don’t know these folks, even if all the organizers were Black in 1961. Most of them were college educated and from the North. They were basically foreigners. And these unknown people were telling them to risk their lives and register to vote. When some did, such as Herbert Lee, he had his head shot off. That sent a message, that’s for sure. How to even continue this project in the face of massive violence that both the residents and organizers faced every single day they were down there?
That’s where Bob Moses came in. The man simply had a supernatural capacity for leadership. He was still a quiet guy. But he was so calm. He was so gentle. And yet he was so militant. This whole project should have fallen apart. Moses kept it from doing so due to his preternatural calm. He kept things together. The other volunteers started comparing him to Jesus. Somehow it was not inappropriate. Even more unlikely, it did not go to Moses’ head. He just kept his calm, determined demeanor and kept organizing. That included after he was beaten and his head bloodied in front of the people he was trying to register to vote. Dripping blood, he registered them and then had to drive to another county to find a doctor to sew up his head.
It was also Moses who played a crucial role in Freedom Summer in 1964. This was extremely controversial among SNCC activists. It came out of a brutal reality–they realized no one would care about them and the local people dying unless white people experienced violence. Nearly half the organization was opposed to it entirely, knowing that bringing whites in with their attitude and privilege would change what they started, probably for the worst. In fact, Moses and others were right–it did take the killing of whites for anyone to care what was happening in Mississippi, with the murder of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. Only the latter was Black. These killings finally got the attention of the Johnson administration and helped move forward the Voting Rights Act and then enforcement of civil rights legislation. It also helped lead to the rise of Black Power in SNCC, as the critics of Freedom Summer were also right about what bringing whites in would do, a situation significantly exacerbated by Johnson refusing to recognize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as the legitimate representation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. There’s a great collection of primary sources about all of this that I highly recommend to everyone. I assign this all the time.
By 1965, Moses had burned out hard. Who can blame him? Years of brutal organizing just takes its toll on any but the superhuman and maybe most of them too. Disgusted with the Democratic Party, he left the movement. He started working in the anti-Vietnam movement, but soon went to Africa. He lived in Tanzania for the next eight years, teaching, embracing his African identity, and recovering from years in the movement.
In the 1970s, Moses returned to the U.S. to get a Ph.D. in math. He then started the Algebra Project, developing ways to teach math to Black students as part of a package of economic self-sufficiency he believed they needed to survive in a capitalist economy. This usually gets less attention from scholars. It certainly fits into a long history of economic self-sufficiency strategies in the Black community. It is absolutely 100% noble in its own right. But Moses was away from the organizing struggle by this time. That’s fine. He did more than his share. He did more than 1,000 people’s share. He did what he could at various points in his life to help his people. In the second half of that life, it was through mathematics. Great for him.
I had Bob Moses on my list of obituaries to write. In fact, I was just about to start it. I am sad I could only offer a few words here. Mostly though, I am sad that the world lost Bob Moses.
Rest in Power.