Bob Moses, educator and icon of civil rights, 86; He inspired generations to both learn and lead
The civil rights and education champion Bob Moses has died, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee said Sunday.
Moses was 86. He was in Florida at the time of his death, family friends said.
He was born Jan. 23, 1935, in Harlem, New York, but got his master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University in 1957 and returned to Cambridge and Harvard in 1976 to seek a doctoral degree, again in philosophy. When he became a MacArthur Foundation Fellow from 1982 to 1987, he used it to begin The Algebra Project, according to the nonprofit’s biography of Moses. The organization continues to be based just outside Central Square.
Between his times in academia, he was on the streets organizing for civil rights – including with SNCC’s Mississippi Voter Registration Project from 1961 to 1964 and the 1964 Mississippi “Freedom” Summer Project – and in the classroom teaching. Between his master’s and doctoral degrees, he taught math at a school in Tanzania with his wife, Janet, from 1969 to 1976, and brought the Algebra Project to Mississippi in the early 2000s, bringing a new context to the scene of racist violence he encountered in the 1960s, The New York Times noted.
The Algebra Project was founded formally at the King Open School; the math education program began in the 1980s with Moses coaching his children in math at home and then other pupils while volunteering in the classroom. He then used his MacArthur fellowship to launch a full-fledged, multiyear program using Harvard students, according to a roundtable around math held in Cambridge in 2010.
“He was such a giant. And Cambridge was a perfect place for him to find a life after such a momentous career,” former mayor and city councillor Ken Reeves said Sunday.
Reeves recounted a story he’d read of Moses’ days getting out the vote in Southern states, when Moses was attacked and seriously injured – but resisted leaving for medical help until he’d finished his mission of getting people registered to vote. “That’s the essence of him,” Reeves said.
Richard Harding, who said he was 8 or 9 when he met Moses, spoke Sunday of him as a mentor who led with his actions.
“Bob Moses was a great man, and I don’t give it up easy. He’s on the Mount Rushmore of civil rights activists. When I say he exemplifies the struggle, it’s because he did everything that everyone we revere has done, sometimes before them and sometimes beside them,” Harding said, giving as an example Moses’ work on SNCC with the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis. “The beauty of Bob in terms of his lifespan is that the George Floyd moment we all experienced? He was living that for years. He was on the frontlines in the South, he was there. Tthe power of Bob Moses was authenticity – he never switched up, he never wavered. He was always committed to the struggle of black Americans.”
“He’s a legend,” Harding said.
Moses and his family remained active in civic life, continuing education advocacy at the local level, aiding philanthropic efforts and sometimes weighing in on issues of the day, such as sending a letter to the School Committee in 2019 in support of an assailed member. The city renamed its youth center in The Port the Moses Youth Center in 2015, and the faces of Bob and Janet Moses adorn the mural forming one wall of the open-air Starlight Square complex in Central Square.
Central Square Business Improvement District executive director Michael Monestime explained the importance of the Moseses appearing on the mural, which was created by Liza and Victor “Marka27” Quiñonez, of the firm Street Theory. “As an organization that works in placekeeping, it was essential to us that their work be honored,” Monestime said. “Their family built and inspired a culture of social justice and civil rights work in our community. We were honored to uplift that.”
The Moseses “were very real members of The Port community,” Reeves said, and their home was a magnet for future leaders such as Harding, who served several terms on the School Committee, and Dennis Benzan, who served as a city councillor and vice mayor.
“He’s been a lifelong mentor of mine and really helped me understanding organizing and politics. The work I led while on the City Council in terms of [Science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics] really came from Bob Moses. He left a number of young people who are now leaders across the country who can continue his work and legacy,” Benzan said. “This is a tremendous loss for the community, especially for a community of young people in Cambridge.”
As news of Moses’ death spread Sunday, people also took to social media to express their condolences.
“He was truly a legend in his own time, a giant of the civil rights movement whose work spanned decades and will continue to have a positive impact on our community and the world at large,” state Rep. Mike Connolly said.
Statement from The Algebra Project
A statement about the death was posted online Sunday by The Algebra Project for “our founder, mentor, president, teacher and friend, Robert Parris Moses.”
“His transition to that higher level only inspires us all to love, struggle and live with and for our people as he did, as we continue to work to realize Bob’s vision of ‘raising the floor of mathematics literacy’ for all young people in the United States of America,” the statement said, wishing peace, strength and love for Moses’ family and to the Algebra Project’s network of organizations.
“Bob, you will always be with us, and you already know we absolutely will Keep on Pushing!” said the statement signed by the project’s board of directors and staff.
This post was updated July 26, 2021, with photos from the Central Square Business Improvement District.