A recent NPR story on civil rights activist and educator, Bob Moses highlighted both his contributions to the civil rights movement and the project he began thirty years ago, The Algebra Project. Moses is not as well known as other key figures in the movement such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X, but he was a pivotal and important figure during Freedom Summer in Mississippi.
Moses joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and worked with Mississippi activist, Amzie Moore to register people to vote despite massive resistance and violence from the Citizen Councils and local authorities. Moses emphasized the role of Amzie Moore, another lesser known but very important figure in the struggle to gain voting rights in Mississippi.
In his interview conducted for Eyes on the Prize, Moses described working with Moore and their strategy for registering people to vote, being a delegate of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and working during Freedom Summer as three students were kidnapped and eventually found murdered. Moses was also working in Mississippi when Herbert Lee, a Mississippi activist was murdered for his efforts to register people to vote by a state representative, E.H. Hurst.
In the summer of 1960, I was on a trip for SNCC and going through and Ella Baker had written ahead to Amzie Moore and I stopped in to see him in Cleveland, Mississippi. And Amzie laid out really what was voter registration project for the delta of Mississippi and he wanted SNCC to come in and do it. In fact he was the only person in the leadership of the NAACP that I met at that time that was willing to welcome SNCC and so I agreed to come back and help on that project. The people by and large most of the people in Ames County were afraid to go down. We had workshops for several weeks before we could get a handful who would agree to go. Once we got the handful to go, they would go if we went with them. And our position was that if the people wanted us to go with them, then we would go with them. If they wanted to go by themselves, then that was fine, they would go by themselves. But I think they felt some sense of security and clearly we were acting as some kind of buffer because the initial physical violence was always directed at us, at the voter registration workers who were taking the people down to register. That was the first stage, now when that didn’t work, then you began to get violence directed at the people who were involved.
Well, the Citizens Councils and the Klans in Mississippi, they were in back of the action which resulted in those kind of murders. Because what we knew was that there were meetings in Liberty drawing cars and license plates from all across the southern part of Mississippi, and on up into the middle part of Mississippi. People coming and sitting down talking, what are they going to do about this voter registration drive. Now, we don’t know what they planned, but we do know that after the meetings there’s violence began to break out, direct attacks on us as the voter registration workers and then these murders. First Herbert Lee and then a couple years later Lewis Allan, both killed right there in Liberty, Mississippi.
When I think about Amzie and his relationship to the movement, one of the things which I keep coming back to is his insight into Mississippi and into the consciousness and the mentality of white people who lived in Mississippi, and what it was that would be the kind of key to unlocking the situation in Mississippi. And somehow Amzie understood that the vote and the subsequent political action would actually unlock the key to Mississippi and he had dedicated—he wasn’t distracted by school integration—he was for it, but it didn’t distract him from the central centrality of the right to vote. He wasn’t distracted at all about integration of public facilities. It was a good thing, but it was not going straight to the heart of what was the trouble in Mississippi and somehow in following his guidance there, we stumbled on the key. That is the right to vote and the political action that ensued.
–Interview with Robert Moses, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 19, 1986, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
After Freedom Summer Moses left the country, taught in Tanzania, and eventually returned to America and founded The Algebra Project. The drive behind The Algebra Project is to use mathematics as a tool to help students succeed in a technology-based society and thereby exercise full citizenship. The project aims to address similar problems as Moses’ work to register people to vote in the 1960s but through the avenue of education. Moses’ keynote speech, Math and the Freedom to Learn: Quantitative and Language Literacy as a Feature of Constitutional Personhood, from the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) on Saturday, November 17, 2012, can be viewed online.