Robert Parris Moses
January 23, 1935 – July 25, 2021
Notable: Educator & Activist
Robert Parris Moses was born in Harlem, New York, and raised by his parents Louise and Gregory Moses in a housing project. Moses’ paternal grandfather had been a well-to-do and educated Baptist preacher but health issues and the Great Depression resulted in a change of fortune. Unable to follow in his father’s or older siblings’ footsteps, Moses’ father was limited to working as a janitor as he had no means to further his education. This resulted in him pushing Moses and his two brothers to do well in school.
Moses attended local public schools and was admitted to the prestigious Stuyvesant High School. Upon graduation, Moses was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and enrolled at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York from which he obtained a B.A. in Philosophy. While an undergrad, he explored Eastern philosophies and spent time abroad immersing himself in pacifist ideologies. Moses then went on to attend graduate school at Harvard University and received an M.A. in Philosophy.
He began working towards a doctorate but had to pause his education and return to New York after his mother died and his father was hospitalized following a mental breakdown. In 1958, he found work as a math teacher at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, New York to support himself and his father.
A year later he joined Bayard Rustin and other activists in planning the second Youth March for Integrated Schools in Washington, D.C. When the sit-ins began in 1960, they caught Moses’ attention and Rustin suggested that he get more involved. Moses spent the summer in Atlanta working at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which brought him into contact with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ella Baker.
While there he met Jane Stembridge who was also a member of the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which shared office space as well as Baker’s oversight with the SCLC. Moses spent his time in Atlanta volunteering at the understaffed SCLC, exchanging ideas with Stembridge, and participating in local protests. He eventually became involved with SNCC and joined a campaign to travel the South to increase awareness and membership for the organization.
Touring the deep South was a life-altering experience for Bob Moses as it brought him into direct contact with the conditions that made the Civil Rights Movement a necessity. Traveling through Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi made real the poverty and prejudice that had been created and sustained by Black people being made second-class citizens. Amzie Moore, leader of a local Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, encouraged Moses to switch focus from protests to voter registration.
Black people were the majority of the population in many Southern counties but only a minority were registered to vote. Moore’s rationale for switching tactics was that increasing Black voter registration would provide political power which could then be used to better effect change. Moses continued his awareness campaign on SNCC’s behalf but took a brief break to spend time in New York where he settled his affairs and resigned from his teaching position.
Upon returning to the South, Moses joined SNCC’s staff and began working with Moore to develop and implement voter registration strategies in Mississippi. SNCC had been developed by students under the tutelage of Baker. She believed that the movement needed organizers, not leaders, as individuals were qualified to lead both themselves and the movement. With these guiding principles, Moses implemented a door-knocking campaign and spoke to church congregations in McComb. As residents began to overcome their fears of retaliation for attempting to register to vote, more of them became active organizers and attempted to register.
During his first year in Mississippi, Moses was arrested on bogus charges, beaten, attacked by a police dog, and had his car machine-gunned. His dedication empowered Black Mississippians but the majority of those who had attempted to register to vote had been denied. With mounting violence and harassment, it was decided that more outside support and resources would be needed, especially from the federal government.
This led to Moses helping to organize Freedom Summer in 1964 to attract media attention and hopefully make conditions safer for activists. That same year he collaborated with Fannie Lou Hamer and others to establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in protest of the all-White segregationist delegation that had been selected to attend the Democratic National Convention.
The following year Moses left Mississippi somewhat disillusioned by the incessantly violent response to activism as well as the pressures of leadership. Around this time, several of the civil rights organizations began to experience identity crises as they tried to figure out their racial and tactical ideologies for moving forward. Stepping outside the fray, Moses left his position at the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO).
Moses stood in opposition to the Vietnam War which led to him protesting the war and draft at a large anti-war event at the Washington Monument. This as well as SNCC’s new commitment to “Black Power” put him at odds with some other members and led to him leaving that organization as well. He challenged the draft as a conscientious objector but received his draft notice in 1966 which led to him fleeing the country for Canada where he lived for two years.
He and his second wife relocated to Tanzania where they became school teachers. Taking advantage of President Jimmy Carter’s draft amnesty program, they returned to America several years later. Upon settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Moses re-enrolled in the doctoral program at Harvard and resumed teaching math. With proceeds from a MacArthur Foundation grant, Moses launched the Algebra Project, a math-science program that teaches underprivileged children math skills.
Bob Moses passed away at the age of 86 on July 25, 2021.
- “Bob Moses.” n.d. Americans Who Tell The Truth. Accessed July 31, 2021. https://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/portraits/bob-moses.
- “Moses, Robert Parris 1935—.” 2018. Encyclopedia.com. Encyclopedia.com. May 23, 2018. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/historians-and-chronicles/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/robert-parris-moses.
- “Moses, Robert Parris.” 2018. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. June 5, 2018. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/moses-robert-parris.
- “Robert Parris Moses’s Biography.” n.d. The HistoryMakers. Accessed July 31, 2021. https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/robert-parris-moses.
- A History of Black Voting Rights in America
- Lowndes County Freedom Organization
- Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement [Book Review]
- Freedom Summer (Mississippi Summer Project)
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