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Civil Rights Leader, MacArthur Genius Robert Moses ’56 Speaks


To introduce him simply as a civil rights activist, educator, or philosopher would be irresponsible. To call him a MacArthur Genius, a Heinz Award recipient, or an Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellow would reduce him to labels. He is all of that and more – there simply is no introduction that could do Robert “Bob” Moses ’56 justice.

Moses played a central role in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major organization during the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, was instrumental in forming the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and subsequently founded The Algebra Project, an organization using mathematics literacy to guarantee public school education for all children in the USA.

He returned to Hamilton on Feb. 20 to share his experiences as an activist, both in civil rights and in education. Chair and Professor of Mathematics Sally Cockburn moderated the Q&A session with Moses. He began by discussing his thoughts on the state of today’s education system, and who it is built for and to whom it is accessible. Moses also visited Cockburn's “Mathematics in Social Context” class that was joined by Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History Maurice Isserman’s “Recent U.S. History, 1941 to the present” class.

“The fundamental issue of citizenship and ‘what does it mean to be a citizen of the nation as opposed to just being a citizen of the state?’ was at the heart of the civil rights movement then, and it’s at the heart of the movement now,” Moses said. “In this century, quantitative literacy is on the table, on par with reading and writing for access to economic arrangements, which really requires the ability to do what’s rightly called knowledge work, as opposed to an education which is preparing you to what is roughly called factory work. By and large, in the 20th century, most of the population was being prepared for factory work, and the country simply has not retooled its education system.”

As part of SNCC, Moses led voter registration drives, sit-ins, and Freedom Schools in Mississippi. He worked with Ella Baker, one of the most well-known civil rights leaders of the 20th century.

“[Baker] insisted that the students who were leading the sit-in movement should own their own movement,” Moses said. “And that taught me, I think, the most profound lesson that I’ve learned about organizing. That is, if you’re organizing, you’re organizing to help something come into being that you are not going to be the leader of.”

Although the topics of math and civil rights may seem unlike one another, Moses used his experience and tactics he learned in Mississippi to effectively organize The Algebra Project.

“We decided to collaborate with the farmers and sharecroppers. It wasn’t radical to do voter registration per say in the 1960s, but what was radical was to insist that the sharecroppers in the Delta have the right to vote,” Moses said. “So we weren’t saying our goal is to get algebra, our goal is to make sure the poverty quartile gets the math literacy they need for the 21st century, and that we want to collaborate with the students, teachers, administrators, and community people that support them to form a national alliance.”

Moses also emphasized the significance of defining the U.S. Constitution’s Preamble in today’s society. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” begins the Preamble. He considers this work an “open invitation for anyone who takes the geography of the country as their home to enter into the constitutional conversation.”

Young people, the generation in college and coming into college, are going to be faced with a very deep constitutional issue, which is whether they are going to decide to embrace the Preamble in a sense which includes the undocumented, and open up and actually move the country to a point where it revisits the Constitution and rethinks, ‘what are the fundamental values that it warrants in the Constitution for the 21st century and onward?’

Prior to coming to Hamilton, Maddie Howe ’22 had interned for a civil rights and social justice non-profit, The Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation. Her first semester on the Hill, she took an Africana Studies course “Stand: New Voices Protest” in which they discussed Robert Moses at length. When she saw that Moses was coming to speak on campus, she knew she had to attend his lecture.

“I was really interested when he was discussing the Preamble and how we need to decide what we believe ‘We the People’ actually means to us – I’d never really thought about how ‘We the People’ could be interpreted other than what it’s generally assumed to mean before.”

The event was sponsored by the Days-Massolo Center, with special thanks to the Math Department and the Class of 1976 Morris Fellowship.

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