Bob Moses

(b. 1935) Activist and Educator

Civil rights activist Bob Moses has played two important roles in Mississippi—first as a movement organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s and later as a founder of the Algebra Project. Born on 23 January 1935 in New York City’s Harlem, Robert Parris Moses grew up living in a housing project. In 1952 he graduated from the highly competitive Stuyvesant High School and received a scholarship to attend Hamilton College in Upstate New York, where he was one of three African American students. During his college years he spent summers in France and Japan, exploring his interests in pacifism and Eastern philosophy. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton in 1956 and then moved on to Harvard University, where he received a master’s degree in philosophy. Because of his mother’s sudden death and father’s illness, he left Harvard in 1958 for a job at New York’s Horace Mann School, where he taught mathematics for two years.

While in Virginia visiting an uncle, William Moses, an architect and Hampton Institute faculty member, Bob Moses joined a Newport News picket line, where he met Wyatt T. Walker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Late in 1960 Moses went to the SCLC’s Atlanta headquarters to work with the organization’s Ella Baker and Jane Stembridge. Stembridge invited Moses to go to Mississippi to recruit student participants for a special conference of civil rights activists. The conference resulted in the development of SNCC. In Mississippi, he met Aaron Henry and Amzie Moore, National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) leaders in the state. In 1961 C. C. Bryant, the president of McComb’s NAACP chapter, invited Moses to organize voter registration efforts in the Pike County area. He served as a SNCC field secretary and the director of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) during the 1964 Freedom Summer project. COFO resulted from Moses’s efforts to encourage cooperation among the numerous civil rights groups working in the state.

By example and through his soft-spoken leadership style, Moses encouraged activists to listen to other people and to become part of communities they wanted to help. He said that black Mississippians had spent much of their lives having wealthier, more educated people tell them what to do, and he did not want civil rights activists, no matter how well-meaning, to do the same. Moses advocated nonviolent protest, spoke highly of the potential of freedom schools to set examples for new ideas about education, and above all promoted a creative, participatory approach to community life.

In 1965 Moses left Mississippi. Between 1968 and 1976, he and his family lived in Tanzania. In 1982 he received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship of five hundred thousand dollars. He used the money to found the Algebra Project, an educational enrichment program developed with Charles E. Cobb that provides underprivileged youngsters with mathematical skills. Moses has also received the Heinz Award and the Margaret Chase Smith Award, and in 2006 Harvard University awarded him an honorary doctorate. He currently teaches math in Jackson.

Further Reading

  • Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)
  • Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (1988)
  • Eric Burner, And Gently Shall He Lead Them: Robert Parris Moses and Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
  • Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
  • John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
  • William Heath, The Children Bob Moses Led: A Novel of Freedom Summer (1995)
  • Wesley C. Hogan, Many Needs, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (2007)
  • Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb Jr., Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights (2001)
  • Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Bob Moses
  • Coverage b. 1935
  • Author
  • Keywords Bob Moses
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 7, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018