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From the Archives: Civil Rights Leader Bob Moses in 2010 on Fighting for Equality in Law & Education

Web ExclusiveJuly 26, 2021
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As part of our look back at the life of legendary civil rights leader Bob Moses, who has died at the age of 86, Democracy Now! is unearthing this never-before-seen interview from 2010 with Moses and his son, Omo Moses, of The Young People’s Project. Bob Moses served as field secretary for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and helped register thousands of voters across Mississippi. He also headed the Council of Federated Organizations, and in 1964 helped create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. Moses went on to found the Algebra Project, devoted to improving access to education, particularly in math, for students of color. In October 2010, Democracy Now! co-host Juan González interviewed Moses after the publication of a book he co-edited, “Quality Education as a Constitutional Right: Creating a Grassroots Movement to Transform Public Schools.”

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ColumnJul 29, 2021Bob Moses: A Legendary Civil Rights Organizer Passes the Torch
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Civil rights leader Bob Moses has died at the age of 86 in Florida. Bob Moses served as field secretary for SNCC — that’s the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — and helped register thousands of voters across Mississippi. He also headed the Council of Federated Organizations. He was repeatedly arrested, was once in a car shot up by three Klansmen. In 1964, he helped create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and organized the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. The historian Taylor Branch once said, quote, “In Mississippi, Bob Moses was the equivalent of Martin Luther King.”

Moses went on to found the Algebra Project, devoted to improving access to education, particularly in math, for students of color. In 2010, Democracy Now!’s Juan González interviewed Bob Moses after the publication of a book he co-edited, Quality Education as a Constitutional Right: Creating a Grassroots Movement to Transform Public Schools.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Robert Moses and his son, Omo Moses, the founder of The Young People’s Project, join me here in New York.

Welcome you both to Democracy Now!

OMO MOSES: Thank you.

BOB MOSES: Thanks.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tell us how — about this conference that you held several years ago at Howard University and what you were hoping to do in terms of education reform in the country.

BOB MOSES: So, what we wanted to do was to bring people together who were involved in education reform and ask them whether we shouldn’t try to raise the issue of education reform to the level of the Constitution itself.

In other words, I come at this from the point of view of the civil rights movement. And if you think about the civil rights movement, what we were able to do was get Jim Crow out of three very distinct arenas in the country: First, there was public accommodations; second, there was voting rights and access to the political structures of the country; and third, and not well known, access to the national party structure itself — that is, to the Democratic Party. And that was Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 convention of the Democratic Party. And remember, Kennedy had been assassinated. Johnson had been moved into the presidency, but he hadn’t been nominated yet, right?

And so, we won those struggles, but what we didn’t win was getting Jim Crow out of education, right? And that was actually the subtext of the right to vote. I have a very strong memory of sitting in the witness chair in the federal district court in Greenville in the spring of 1963, right? Kennedy is still president. Bobby Kennedy is attorney general. Burke Marshall is the assistant attorney general for civil rights. And I’m looking at my lawyer, John Doar, who is Burke Marshall’s chief litigator, right? And I’m looking over his shoulder at a courtroom full with sharecroppers from Greenwood. And we had taken hundreds down to register. We had been arrested, the SNCC field secretaries. And the judge leans over, and he wants to know why are we taking illiterates down to register to vote. So, the issue of sharecropper illiteracy and sharecropper education was really the subtext of the right to vote.

And so, as I tried to reframe what we were doing and think about it in terms of education, I began to think, well, the Freedom Riders were asking the nation to see them as citizens of the nation as they rode from state to state, not as citizens of the state in which they were riding, right? And similarly, the sharecroppers asked the country to see them as citizens of the nation for purposes of their right to vote. And Fannie Lou Hamer, when she testified — and, you know, Martin Luther King testified, but President Johnson wasn’t afraid of him. He was afraid of this sharecropper from Louisville, Mississippi. And when she went on to testify, the president said, “We have an announcement to make.” And he took over the TV, right? But she was asking the country to see her as a citizen of the country — right? — not as a citizen of Mississippi just, right? So, the issue for education, also for the young people: Are they citizens of this country with respect to their public school education? Or are they just citizens of Mississippi and Massachusetts and any state in which they happen to reside?

So we were calling a conference to raise this issue — right? — of the expansion of the idea of citizenship — right? — that it should be substantive, and its substance should reach into the idea of public school education.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, one of the things I was struck by in some of the articles that you’ve compiled in this book is the history of the involvement of African Americans in the fight for public education in the country — 

BOB MOSES: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — going back to the 19th century in the Reconstruction era, that this reigning myth that in many Black communities there’s not the attention to education is refuted clearly in what you’ve documented there about these prior struggles.

BOB MOSES: Yes, yes. Well, one really sharp case in point, again in Mississippi — and Mississippi has always held itself as, “Well, the buck stops here. You know, the Freedom Riders, you’re not going to get through Mississippi,” right? So, in 1875, after the Civil War was legally over, Mississippi was still fighting it. And it was actually the Democrats in Mississippi who, through terror and violence, ousted Adelbert Ames, who was the Republican who had won with the Black votes, because Blacks in Mississippi were the majority voters during that time, right? And so, William Alexander Percy actually became the speaker of the Legislature, just for one term and for one purpose. There was a policy item in the articles of impeachment against Ames that he wanted to redirect, and that was the idea that the money that had been voted by Blacks for the education of the freed slaves should go to building the railroads in the Delta, Mississippi, to set up the sharecropper system, which eventually led to sharecropper education and sharecropper illiteracy. So, this has a long history.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of some of the current debates that are going on in terms of education reform, I mean, the whole issue of the growth of the charter school movement and of the attempts to reform teacher seniority rules and to reduce the power of teachers’ unions in terms of determining education policy, how do you, with your long experience in the intersection of civil rights and education, regard some of these debates?

BOB MOSES: So, what I should say is what we are actually focused on. Again, in Mississippi, in the '60s, what we worked was the demand side of the problem, right? You weren't going to get this country to change the balance of power between the federal government and the states, without the demand from actual citizens saying, “Look, you’ve got to treat us as citizens of the country,” right? So, what we did was get the sharecroppers, by the hundreds, to demand their rights.

Now, what every reporter came up to me and said was, “Well, Bob, isn’t the problem your people are apathetic? Isn’t that the problem?” Right? And so, I had to wrestle with that question. But it became clear to me that our problem was: How do we tap into the energy of the sharecroppers and get them to make the demand, because as soon as they make the demand, that question disintegrates, right? It’s no longer something that people — if the sharecroppers are standing out there by the hundreds and the thousands demanding the right to vote, then where’s the apathy? Right?

So, we have a similar problem today with the kids. I mean, what is said is, “Well, the kids are dysfunctional. They don’t have fathers who are really…” So, as soon as you get the kids by the hundreds and the thousands themselves demanding what everyone says they don’t want — right? — then that problem disappears. That’s not the problem, right?

So, the Algebra Project has really focused on: Well, how do we get the kids on the math side, because we’re using math — and that’s another story, why math — but we’re using math as the organizing tool, just like voting was the organizing tool. So math is the organizing tool for us to get the kids to demand their education, right? So, that’s our strategy. We’re trying to grow this, right? And it’s a much deeper, longer period. You know, if I think about the time in the civil rights movement, it was between two presidents — right? — from 1960, when President Kennedy was inaugurated, to 1964, when Johnson is inaugurated, right? So, but this, you need four years just to get through high school, right? So you’re talking about a much longer incubation period here. But the central strategy that we’re using is the same. We’ve got to get the kids with — absent their demand, it’s not going to happen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Omo, how did you first get involved? Obviously, your father has been the founder of the Algebra Project. But what drew you to it? And and how does it speak to the needs of a younger generation?

OMO MOSES: Mm-hmm. Well, we were drawn initially to it as students. And so, my dad was the person in the family that was teaching us math. And so, my older sister and my younger brother and my younger sister and I would do math in the summers. And then, eventually, he ended up coming into the school and teaching us math in the school. And so —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this was in?

OMO MOSES: This was in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And within that time, he began creating the Algebra Project. And he created opportunities for us as young people, when we were high school students, to begin supporting other middle school and elementary school students to learn math. And specifically at that time, we were focused on being able to pass algebra in the eighth grade, so that we can take a college prep math sequence once we entered high school.

And so, a little bit about my background, all through high school, I was really focused on athletics. I played basketball, earned a full scholarship to George Washington University and wasn’t really thinking about getting into the family business, which had become the Algebra Project. Upon four years of school, I wasn’t really sure what to do, and had the opportunity to travel to Mississippi and begin working with my dad in Miss Victoria Byrd’s classroom at the Brinkley Middle School in Jackson. And it was at that point where I began working with eighth and ninth — excuse me, seventh and eighth grade students. And it was those students that founded what we call now The Young People’s Project.

And I think the basic idea behind The Young People’s Project is that we need to create space for young people to work on this problem of access to a high-quality education. And what we decided to do was to really figure out how we, as high school students or college students, can make math fun and engaging for middle school and elementary students. And that really became an entry point for the young people to think of themselves in relationship to their education differently and to be invested in a different way in their own education, in the education of their peers, but also to become a resource to their own community. And so, we’ve tried to really — 

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how do they do that?

OMO MOSES: Mm-hmm. So, we have a curriculum that we use, and we, the young people, are trained. And through that training process, we’re really looking at how they can create high-quality learning environments for other young people. And so, how do they create experiences that allow young people to have conversations and to learn about different concepts from a collective experience? And so, through that process, which we get from the Algebra Project, young people are then going into Boys & Girls Clubs, they’re going into extended day programs at schools, they’re going into churches, community centers, and they’re facilitating workshops for middle school and elementary students. And so, that’s really the main programmatic thrust of the work.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But now, the Algebra Project also gets more, in some cases — I understand it’s got an autonomous structure, so in every city folks developed it in their own particular way. But it also goes into the realm of getting involved in educational policy in some places. In Baltimore, for example, I was reading in your book that there’s a very active program of young people there to get the Baltimore public school system to reform.

BOB MOSES: Yes, so — and what’s really important there is to understand the interplay between earning an insurgency and the policy that you’re trying to change. So, again, going back to the civil rights movement, we had to earn our insurgency there. We had to earn it with three really distinct populations — one, with the sharecroppers themselves and the farmers. Why should they risk their lives or their economics to go down to register to vote, right? So, we had to earn their respect to do that.

Then we had to earn from the Justice Department. You know, I was locked up by the state of Mississippi seven different times. Every time, the Justice Department turned the key and got me out. And that was because the voting rights bill, the civil rights bill of 1957, gave them the opportunity to do that, but they didn’t have to, right? So we had to be the kind of people that they would stand up for in court, because they had Senator Eastland and some other senators looking down over their shoulder.

And then we had to earn the right to call on the whole country to come down to Mississippi and face danger. And you know those three civil rights workers — Mickey Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, they were murdered there, right? So, we had a heavy responsibility in turning of earning our insurgency.

So, the same thing goes, though, for the young people today. They’re going to have to earn their insurgency against the education that they’re getting now. And what the Baltimore kids did was they earned it by actually mastering some — enough of the math so that they could help other kids do math and do algebra. And they were good at it, right? And then what they discovered, when — and they were getting paid by the school system to do it, and then they wanted to stop, right? They said, “OK, our budget, you can’t do it anymore.” So then they took a look at the budget, right?

And what they discovered — what’s going on all over the country after the Rodriguez case? I don’t know if you remember the Rodriguez case, but 400 Mexican Americans in San Antonio walked out of school in 1968. Their mothers got behind them, and their case went up to the Supreme Court. And in 1973, it was Justice Powell handed down the decision. And what he said was that there’s no substantive right, constitutional right, federal right to an education. You can’t come to the federal courts for relief, for equity, right? And so, across the country, there are 45 cases in 45 states now — right? — trying to duke this out state by state. So, the kids in Baltimore found out that in their state, there had been a case, and the judge had ruled that the city of Baltimore should get millions and millions more dollars, and none of it had come down. And they actually went to the judge’s courtroom —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That, in effect, there had been discrimination by the state of Maryland against the schools of Baltimore.

BOB MOSES: Inequity in funding.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Inequity in funding.

BOB MOSES: Yes, that’s the issue — right? — all across the country, inequity in funding, right? There was a case here in New York state, right? A campaign for fiscal equity, right?

So, the — but the kids in Baltimore were active now, right? And so, they went into the courtroom. They met the judge. They began now to figure out that this was really a political problem. They’re not getting money to continue their tutoring, right? And so they engaged in active kind of campaigns, including civil disobedience, in some cases, right? So, they’re struggling with the issue I think this generation has to struggle with. We struggled with it in our generation. What were we willing to do to force the country to live up to its ideals, right? There’s this big gap. Talk about gaps. The big gap is between the ideals the country has and the practices it condones. But so, we had to do that in the ’60s, and this generation is going to have to do the same.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask you the historical importance of SNCC. It really was a seminal organization in terms of what happened with the civil rights movement. And you were there from just about the very beginning. Could you talk talk about the role that SNCC played in the political maturity of a generation?

BOB MOSES: Right. So, what happened, I think, was Ella Baker was really sort of the godmother for SNCC. I met Ella in the summer of 1960. And in the spring of 1960, she had taken the initiative to get the student sit-in energy at Shaw, her alma mater, and held off on the big civil rights leaders, to say, “Look, the kids ought to have the opportunity to manage their own insurgency,” right? And so, SNCC was the encapsulation of the sit-in movement, the energy of the sit-in movement, right?

And so, that — and SNCC took that energy into the Freedom Rides, because it was the SNCC energy which said to the president of the United States and the attorney general, “It doesn’t matter what you’re saying, that, you know, there’s some danger here. Our lives are in danger, but we’ve decided that, with our lives, this is what we want to do.” Right? And so, SNCC, really, and those students became the example for students all over the country — right? — the idea that students should draw a line in the sand and say, “Look, that’s it. That’s enough. We don’t want to live in this country unless we can change it.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the folks that came out of SNCC who played such critical roles in the fight for equality in America — Julian Bond —

BOB MOSES: Julian Bond.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: John Lewis.

BOB MOSES: John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, right? You know, just SNCC really offered — Diane Nash. You know, there are a lot of young people that came out of SNCC, and not just came out of SNCC, but people who came down in to work in the Freedom Summer and spread out into the country — Mario Savio, right? — people in a lot of the different movements in the country. Bernice Reagon, who also came out of SNCC, and Sweet Honey in the Rock, that group of singers, all those were inspired by SNCC. And Bernice says the civil rights movement was the “borning movement,” right? It was — and SNCC was right at the heart of that borning movement.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Omo, in terms of, as your father says, earning the insurgency, what signs do you see that this idea is spreading to more young people around the country? It’s not only through the Algebra Project, but other efforts at education reform.

OMO MOSESE: Yeah. So, I think there are many young people in organizations that are active around the country around this issue of education. And there’s different evidence of that. And part of what we’re beginning to do is really move around the country and try to connect these conversations with — that young people are having across communities.

And so, with the publication of the recent book, Quality Education as a Constitutional Right: Creating a Grassroots Movement to Transform Public Schools, what we want to do is really create the space for students, parents and teachers to really have a conversation about, you know, do we need — is the nation mature enough to talk about what’s required to ensure that all young people have access to high-quality education? And what people are saying is, “Yes, we’re ready to have the conversation. We want to have the conversation.” And what gets at the heart of it is folks want to talk about what is quality. And so, the young people, part of what we’re trying to pull out are, you know, what are the indicators of quality.

And so, when we were at Williams College and we went to a high school in that community, and some of the young peoples talked about the need to be able to connect with each other, to be able to connect what they’re learning in the different classrooms, to be able to connect what they’re learning in the school to life. And so, what we want to be able to do is to really offer up a vision and to imagine what we can create and how we create something that really looks at a different definition of success. And so, I think the young people also, when they think about quality, they’re then thinking about, “Well, what does success mean to me as an individual? And is this — can I define success for myself? And how is the education that I receive going to allow me to be successful?”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Robert Moses, a co-editor of the new book, Quality Education as a Constitutional Right, he was the former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the main organizer of the Freedom Summer Project. In 1982, he won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant to create the Algebra Project, which promotes math and literacy through the philosophy of grassroots community organizing. And we’ve also been joined by his son Omo, or Omowale, Moses, is the son of Robert Moses and the founder of The Young People’s Project.

AMY GOODMAN: That was civil rights legend Bob Moses speaking to Democracy Now!’s Juan González in 2010. Bob Moses was field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, and went on to found the Algebra Project.

To see the interview we did with him on President Obama’s first inauguration, Bob Moses and Alice Walker, go to democracynow.org. Bob Moses died this weekend at the age of 86 in Florida. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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