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Bob Moses, iconic civil rights activist who saw equality through math education, dies at 86

Robert "Bob" Moses was known as the equivalent of Martin Luther King in Mississippi and played a major role in the struggle for civil rights.

Bob Moses, iconic civil rights activist who saw equality through math education, dies at 86
Image Source: The Algebra Project

Robert "Bob" Moses, a civil rights activist and educator, has died at the age of 86. His death was confirmed by his daughter, Maisha Moses, but the cause of his death was not specified, reported The New York Times. “He exemplified putting community interests above ego and personal interest,” Derrick Johnson, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.), stated. “If you look at his work, he was always pushing local leadership first.”

He is best known for his efforts in getting Black voters registered in the 1960s and advocating for teaching math as a means to a more equal society.


Moses was born in 1935 and raised in Harlem, New York, where he worked as a high school teacher. In 1960, he left his job to go to Mississippi and help the civil rights movement by organizing the poor and uneducated people in the state to claim their right to vote. Over the next five years, he helped register thousands of voters. He was also instrumental in training a generation of organizers in makeshift freedom schools. He was often known as the equivalent of Martin Luther King in Mississippi. Although he was not as well known as his counterparts, he played a major role in the struggle for civil rights.






"I think his influence is almost on par with Martin Luther King, and yet he's almost totally unknown," Taylor Branch, a civil rights-era historian told NPR. "He spoke quietly, he didn't give big sermons like Martin Luther King. He didn't seek out dramatic confrontations like the Freedom Riders and the sit-ins, but he did inspire a broad range of grassroots leadership." Branch called Moses a "startling paradox" with his quiet demeanor and philosophical education, hailing from the North and making a mark at par with the Southern evangelical and civil rights movement leaders.


“Math literacy is a civil right," Moses stated. "Just as Black people in Mississippi saw the vote as a tool to elevate them into the first-class politically, math is the tool to elevate the young into the first-class economically.” He believed math literacy was a crucial stepping stone to college and then employment, reported The Washington Post. The Algebra Project is a part of his legacy that helped mark a pivotal shift in the vision of his civil right from political to economic equality. It focused on igniting enthusiasm among students by having them link common daily tasks to basic mathematical procedures.


”Moses pioneered an alternative style of leadership from the princely church leader that King epitomized,” Civil Rights historian Taylor Branch and author of Parting the Waters told Mother Jones. ”He was the thoughtful, self-effacing loner. He is really the father of grassroots organizing — not the Moses summoning his people on the mountaintop as King did, but, ironically, the anti-Moses, going door-to-door, listening to people, letting them lead.” David J. Garrow, also a civil rights historian, speaking of Moses said, “In personality and demeanor, he was more poet than politician.” Moses, however, thought of himself as more of an organizer than a leader.


“You cannot trust the system,” he had said in 1965. “I will have nothing to do with the political system any longer.” He worked with the local communities, unlike other prominent Black leaders who chose to work with the country’s white political establishment. He also actively opposed the Vietnam War and in a speech said: “The prosecutors of the war were the same people who refused to protect civil rights in the South.” He was then called on for serving in the army which he refused to do and went away to Tanzania with his family where he continued working as a teacher till the 1970s.

Moses then returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and continued working toward a Ph.D. in the philosophy of mathematics at Harvard. He is survived by his wife Dr. Janet Moses, daughters Maisha and Malaika, his sons Omowale and Tabasuri, and seven grandchildren.


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