Robert Moses ’56 gave a lecture titled “Quality Public Education as a Constitutional Right” as part of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center’s Inequality and Equity Program on Oct. 25 in the Chapel.
Moses began his lecture by talking about Somerset v. Stuart; a famous English case in which Lord Mansfield held that slavery was unlawful in England, though not in the English colonies. Moses used this case, which was decided in 1772, to show the disparity between England’s civil rights history and America’s civil right history.
Fifteen years after England declared slavery illegal, Moses noted, the Founders codified the institution of slavery in the American Constitution. This recognition and toleration of slavery ensured that people of color would remain inferior to whites socially and politically for the next 200 years.
Moses talked about how the enormous civil rights gains during reconstruction crumbled in the face of Southern hostility. Even through the early 20th century many southern blacks remained sharecroppers, beholden to the infamous “Jim Crow Laws.” He also talked about how black men who were arrested often got long sentences doing hard labor. The state sold their labor to private companies for a low fee and Moses argued that these prisoners were slaves in all but name. Such activities were designed to “privatize profits and socialize risks.”
This system began to change with the onset of WWII, when African Americans began to migrate north to take industrial jobs in the cities. There they were able to assert their political and social rights much more effectively than in the South. They also started to call for the abolition of “Jim Crow Laws” in the South. Among these African American activists was Moses himself. He briefly described taking part in the Mississippi Summer Project, which was an attempt to register black voters in the South despite the numerous risks that this action posed. He also mentioned his role in organizing the Mississippi Democratic Party, an offshoot of the Democratic Party that was designed specifically to represent the interests of African Americans.
After working as a teacher in Tanzania from 1969 to 1976, Moses returned to the United States to get a philosophy degree from Harvard University. He soon realized that the next big problem confronting African Americans was mathematical illiteracy. Moses became very upset when he learned that the vast majority of underprivileged children in inner cities lacked the necessary mathematical skills to take the “college track” in high school. Instead of preparing underprivileged students to go to college, many high schools simply prepared them for the job market. Moses understood that “the clearest representation of the American caste system can be found in our educational process” and so he started the Algebra Project, a national non-profit mathematics literacy effort.
The Algebra Project has been enormously successful, but Moses believes that something more needs to be done to close the mathematical literacy gap between children of color and white children, saying, “Education, like happiness, must be pursued.” He favors a Constitutional amendment to make quality public education a right for all students. Moses argued that African Americans have been “Constitutionally invisible” for too long. He points to their previous designation as “property,” their suffering under the “Jim Crow Laws,” and the persistent inequality, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, between suburban and inner city schools. In Moses’ opinion, this inequality can only be fixed by amending the very heart of American political and social life: the United States Constitution.
Moses concluded his lecture by having the audience recite the preamble of the Constitution. Afterwards he declared, “We have the template down, now we just need to live up to it.”