Robert Parris Moses, a civil rights activist who suffered beatings and jail terms in the 1960s while campaigning for black voter registration in the southern United States and later helping to improve minority education in math, has died. He was 86.
Moses worked as the field director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi to break down segregation during the civil rights movement and was central to the 1964 “Summer of Freedom” when hundreds of students went south to register voters.
Moses began his “second chapter in civil rights work” by founding the Algebra Project in 1982 thanks to a MacArthur grant. The project included a curriculum that Moses developed to help poor students succeed in math.
Ben Moynihan, the Algebra Project’s director of operations, said he had met with Moses’ wife, Dr. Janet Moses, spoken to, and she said her husband died on Sunday morning in Hollywood, Florida. No information was given on the cause of death.
Moses was born in Harlem, New York, on January 23, 1935, two months after a racial riot left three dead and 60 injured in the neighborhood. His grandfather, William Henry Moses, was a prominent Southern Baptist preacher and a supporter of Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist leader at the turn of the century.
But like many black families, the Moses family moved from the south to the north during the Great Migration. In Harlem, his family sold milk from a black-owned cooperative to supplement the household income, according to Laura Visser-Maessen’s Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots.
He became a Rhodes Scholar while studying at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York and was heavily influenced by the work of the French philosopher Albert Camus and his ideas of rationality and moral purity for social change. Moses then took part in a Quaker-sponsored trip to Europe and cemented his belief that change was fundamental before taking a Masters in Philosophy from Harvard University.
Moses didn’t spend much time in the deep south until he went on a recruiting trip in 1960 to “see the movement for yourself”. He attended Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, but found little activity in the office and soon turned to the SNCC.
“I was taught how to deny the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe,” Moses later said. “I never knew that here in the United States, people would be denied the right to vote behind a cotton curtain.”
The young civil rights activist tried to register black people in rural Amite County, Mississippi, where he was beaten and arrested. When he tried to bring charges against a white assailant, an all-white jury acquitted the man and a judge offered Moses protection from the county line so that he could leave.
He later helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which attempted to challenge the all-white Democratic delegation from Mississippi. But President Lyndon Johnson prevented the rebellious Democratic group from voting in the convention, leaving Jim Crown-Southerner instead, which drew national attention.
Disaffected by the white liberal reaction to the civil rights movement, Moses soon took part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and then severed all relations with whites, even with former SNCC members.
Moses worked as a teacher in Tanzania, Africa, returned to Harvard for a PhD in philosophy, and taught mathematics at Cambridge, Massachusetts high school.
Later in life, the press-shy Moses began his “second chapter in civil rights work” by founding the Algebra Project in 1982.
Historian Taylor Branch, whose Parting the Waters won the Pulitzer Prize, said Moses’ leadership embodied a paradox.
“Aside from attracting the same kind of worship to young people in the Movement that Martin Luther King did to adults,” Branch said, “Moses had his own idea of leadership,” as it came from and from “ordinary people.” was carried.
Former AP reporter Russell Contreras was the primary contributor to this report.
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