200 Days in the Life of the College

Monday, October 25

He did the math and made a difference

By Jacob Sheetz-Willard ’12

The strong correlation between educational access and political power has informed and inspired the life’s work of Bob Moses ’56, as an activist, organizer and leader since the 1960s.

While serving as field secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and working as director of Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer” in the early 1960s, Moses — who spent several days on campus before tonight’s public address as a guest of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center — was deeply involved in the joint efforts of voter registration and voter education. As he puts it, “Sharecropper literacy was the subtext of voting in Mississippi”: Educating potential voters was intimately connected to securing political access in the South. Both had been systematically denied by the states through the use of poll taxes, grandfather clauses and literacy requirements. SNCC’s grassroots approach not only sought to “document the way in which … the states deprived freed slaves and African Americans of education,” he says. It also argued that the responsibility for guaranteeing educational and political access “needed to shift from the state to the federal government.”

In 1982, with help from a MacArthur Fellowship, Moses founded the Algebra Project to promote math literacy and to eradicate such impediments to full citizenship. He stresses the project’s continuity with his earlier activism: “That idea — that an individual citizen can demand that the country acknowledge them as a constitutional person with constitutional rights which supersede states’ rights — is at the heart of the Algebra Project’s idea about education.” It has also spurred national support for quality education as a constitutional right.

And today, as in the ’60s, he says, students are the key to change: “Only the students will really be able to demand that they be seen as citizens of the country for purposes of their education. They will need a lot of allies, but absent their demands, absent the demand from the bottom, it’s not going to happen.”