Remembering Bob Moses
Illustrator: Robert Shetterly
Rethinking Schools editors and staff mourn the loss of Bob Moses (1935–2021), the extraordinary Civil Rights Movement activist and educator. Moses was a central organizer in Mississippi for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and instrumental with Fannie Lou Hamer in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In a memorial statement, the SNCC Legacy Project describes some of Moses’ work:
He was key to SNCC launching its voter registration campaign in Mississippi. That work in turn led to Freedom Schools, the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union. And these not only began to alter the face of Mississippi, but also challenged the country to be true to the best in itself.
At the heart of these efforts was SNCC’s idea that people — ordinary people long denied this power — could take control of their lives. These were the people that Bob brought to the table to fight for a seat at it: maids, sharecroppers, day workers, barbers, beauticians, teachers, preachers, and many others from all walks of life.
And we also remember Bob Moses, the teacher. Writing in The Nation, Margaret Burnham, who worked with Moses in SNCC, describes his choice to work in public schools:
When in 1984 Bob received his MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, he faced another crossroads. He could have invested his prize in himself and returned to his formal studies. Undoubtedly, he would have become a world-class philosopher. Had he stayed in the field, he would most certainly have been an influential and prominent theorist, with access to all the privileges and financial security of academic success. But once again, he took the road back home, planting his genius not in a university lecture hall but rather in an elementary school classroom, from which he slowly began to construct movements to confront sharecropper education, teach math to kids in the public schools’ bottom quartile, and, ultimately, articulate the call for a constitutional amendment for equal, quality education.
To remember the profound educational contributions of Bob Moses — the blend of radical democracy, commitment to those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and belief in the power of education — we return to a review of Moses’ book (co-authored with Charles E. Cobb Jr.) Radical Equations. The review, written by founding Rethinking Schools editor David Levine, was published in the summer 2001 issue of the magazine. Excerpts from Levine’s review appear below.
Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project
By Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb Jr.
(Beacon Press, 2001)
In Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project, Bob Moses and Charles E. Cobb Jr. (a SNCC field secretary in Mississippi from 1962 to 1967, journalist, and author of numerous books) present the Algebra Project as a spiritual descendant and practical continuation of their organizing in Mississippi 40 years ago. In their book, Moses and Cobb offer a stirring account of the Algebra Project, a reform initiative designed to help Black students and students of color achieve a high level of mathematical competency. The book raises important issues about both math education and the struggle for racial equity within our schools.
To help Black students master mathematical literacy, the Algebra Project replaces traditional, rote-bound instruction with imaginative activities that engage student creativity and encourage sophisticated mathematical reasoning. An African drums curricular unit is designed to pair a drummer and a teacher in lessons that teach 4th and 5th graders about ratios, proportions, fractions, and rates. In his work with high school geometry classes, Moses encourages students to post their own versions of geometric proofs on the classroom wall, to be analyzed and possibly challenged by their classmates.
For the 6th-grade curriculum, which forms a bridge from arithmetic into algebraic thinking, Moses designed a five-step learning process. The students first observe or experience a physical event. For example, in a unit on positive and negative numbers, Cambridge students begin with a subway ride during which the teacher asks questions that focus their attention on their shifting environment. They then draw pictures, construct models, or in some other way create a representation of the event. The following step is to write a description of the event in their own language. Next, each class member translates their description into “regimented English,” highly compact language that moves them into a mathematical mode, and from which they finally render the event as a mathematical expression. This five-step process helps students gain a firm grasp of mathematical ideas, connect math to everyday life, and become comfortable communicating in the language of mathematics. Similar classroom practices in geometry and algebra courses encourage students to debate mathematical problems and actively construct their own understanding of math concepts.
The Algebra Project’s pedagogy resonates with the experiential, inquiry-based approach advocated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and resembles intellectually robust math instruction that can be found in some classrooms around the country. But the grassroots organizing philosophy of the program offers a dramatic departure from many mainstream reform efforts.
Moses believes that math education innovations are often implemented by university researchers whose primary frame of reference is their own discipline and academic community, and the modus operandi is to offer prepackaged programs to schools. In contrast, the Algebra Project works on the premise that oppressed people can only win just schools through political organizing.
To emphasize this perspective, the early part of the book describes how Moses and other civil rights activists built the Mississippi movement during the 1960s. With the guidance of Ella Baker, an experienced veteran of the Black Freedom Struggle, Moses and his companions learned to develop the capacity of “ordinary people” to act as leaders and collaborate to bring about fundamental social change. Their approach, with its patient emphasis on democracy and nurturing the talents of low-wealth people of color, has come to be known among Civil Rights historians as the “organizing tradition” of the movement. It is often contrasted with the “mobilizing tradition” of Martin Luther King Jr. and other charismatic leaders, which is successful at turning out large numbers at demonstrations but often neglects the day-to-day work that builds powerful and sustained grassroots involvement.
For the Algebra Project, “organizing in the spirit of Ella” rests on three principles:
1. The centrality of families to the work of organizing. When Moses and other young organizers reached the Mississippi Delta, they connected with strong local leaders. Often, these leaders would involve family members in the movement, helping to create crucial networks of political activists. The Algebra Project seeks to involve the families of students and other community members in committees that run the local projects.
2. Organizing in the context of the community in which one lives and works. The young civil rights workers were absorbed into local families, who fed, housed, and protected them from hostile whites. This helped the activists “sink deep roots into the community.” The Algebra Project also operates on the idea that staff members should be fully immersed in the communities that host local projects.
3. Young people need to be empowered to fight for their own liberation. Moses points out that high school- and college-age young people provided some of the crucial leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. He believes that the reforms necessary for young Black people to achieve deep math literacy will only come about when they become ardent and savvy advocates for their own education. Through the program’s Young People’s Project, for example, students tutor their peers, lead workshops for students and adults, and help plan and run math youth camps during the summer.
Beyond the issue of math instruction, the Algebra Project offers compelling lessons on how determined networks of educators, parents, and students can build programs to advance educational equity. Such democratic renewal promises the obvious rewards of promoting academic and vocational success for young people. But perhaps just as important, it also affirms local people’s cultural values and capacity to deepen community life through shaping the public institution most likely to have a profound impact on their children. “Organizing in the spirit of Ella” means school reform that enriches the lives of teachers, community members, and students.
In contrast to top-down reform initiatives that demean the expertise and professional pride of teachers, Moses and his colleagues have developed training programs to build upon their strengths. A Cambridge, Massachusetts, teacher comments, “Bob was affirming what we were doing while he was helping us change. He didn’t come in and say, ‘We’re throwing this out, it’s junk.’ He came in and said, ‘You guys are great. Wanna try something different?’ When we asked, ‘How will it work?’ he turned around and asked, ‘Well, how do you think it should work? What do you want to have happen?’” By posing problems rather than solutions, Moses invites teachers to confront and work through the frustration and anxiety of experimenting with new ways of teaching.
Such collaborative processes within the classroom are buttressed by efforts to involve community members. Although the dynamics of community involvement differ from site to site, the project is deeply committed to encouraging local control. During a 1998 visit to the Jackson, Mississippi, Algebra Project, I talked with Kathy Sykes, a project staff member and representative on the local Site Planning Committee. This group reviewed the program budget, helped plan such activities as student retreats, and encouraged parents to serve as chaperones for program activities. The committee also encouraged parents to sit in on classes, and eventually hoped to train parents as classroom assistants. Sykes told me, “I feel this is sort of like a crusade . . . I think that the work which is going on here will make a difference in the lives of our people and that’s why I want to do what I can to see that it continues.”
The program seeks to instill this spirit of personal responsibility through pedagogy that encourages students to break out of their own passivity and take charge of their own learning. Boston teacher Mary Lou Mehring recounts how 12-year-old student Andrea Harvey asserted, “I’m going to do four lessons a week because I want to finish such and such by the 7th grade, so that I can finish the book by the 8th grade, so I can be in honors geometry in the 9th grade.” Andrea went on to work with the Algebra Project and eventually became certified to teach math in the Boston schools.
As a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, the Algebra Project places itself firmly in the tradition of education aimed at racial equality. At the same time, Moses conceptualizes the goal of the endeavor almost exclusively as improved job opportunities. The program does not appear to directly use math instruction to help young people see full citizenship as the opportunity to use their math skills to promote social justice. As indicated in Eric (Rico) Gutstein and Bob Peterson’s book Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers, math can be used to analyze inequities within our society — such topics as the disparities between rich and poor school districts, the mathematics of sweatshop economics, and the quantitative injustices built into the wealth and income structure of our society. Such themes might represent a fruitful direction as the program’s curriculum evolves.
However, the absence of political math content hardly means the program is apolitical. The authors persuasively echo Ella Baker’s assertion that demanding something essential to your life that you are systematically deprived of is an inherently radical act. Moses approvingly cites instances when young people agitate that their schools dramatically improve math instruction.
For African Americans, the struggle for education has always been entwined within the struggle for freedom. In a society so afflicted with faulty historical memory, the Algebra Project demonstrates the necessity of learning from our past to fashion our future. In doing so, it puts history to its most honorable and practical use.