Moses of Mississippi

Bob Moses did not speak at the March on Washington. The Harvard student turned-rural organizer spent the day before picketing outside the Justice Department, with a sign quoting St. Augustine that read: “When There Is No Justice, What Is the State but a Robber Band Enlarged?” Moses wanted the federal government to protect the civil rights of poor black Americans, who were beaten and killed, whose churches were burned, whose fundamental personhood was under assault for trying to vote in Mississippi.

White Mississipians wanted to kill Bob Moses: they shot at him, imprisoned him, beat him savagely on city streets. After one of those beatings—one day in Amite County—Moses rose to his feet, gathered himself, and walked into the county courthouse. Inside, blood dripping from his head, he alerted a baffled clerk that the two men with him wanted to register to vote. “I just couldn’t understand what Bob Moses was,” a Mississippi native said later. “Sometimes I think he was Moses in the Bible … He had more guts than any one man I’ve ever known.”

Moses led from the bottom; he didn’t want a big stage. He made the country pay attention to the vicious racism of the deep South. He helped create the “One Man, One Vote” campaign. Over objections, he helped organize Freedom Summer, which sowed the seeds for black participation in Mississippi democracy. “This is Mississippi, the middle of the iceberg,” Moses wrote in a 1961 letter from jail. In the cell, a fellow civil-rights worker was singing. “This is a tremor from the middle of the iceberg—from a stone the builders rejected.”

Today, Moses is president of the Algebra Project, a civil-rights group aimed at helping underprivileged kids in inner-city and rural schools. As the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers helped sharecroppers vote a half-century ago, Algebra Project workers help poor children get a quality education. Algebra Project teachers present concepts, like the number line, in contexts familiar to students, like traveling on the T train in Boston. The idea is that when students find a pedagogy that works for them, they will demand that teachers adopt that pedagogy. When they find an education system that doesn’t work for them, they will demand something different. That means Algebra Project students will tutor their peers but that they will also demonstrate over education cuts. The right to a quality education is necessary for full citizenship just as voting was, says Moses, and the federal government needs to protect it, just as it does voting.

Why did you once write that 1963 “was not a good year, not by a long shot?”

What strikes me about 1963 is that the gunning of the SNCC car on the federal highway in February, 1963, opens up the year of assassinations. [Moses was in a vehicle that was shot multiple times by a passing car of KKK members near Greenwood, Mississippi, where SNCC members were registering voters.] But it also opened up what has persisted, which is the real limitations of the federal government. When Burke Marshall [the head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division] tried to find out who was responsible for that terrorist act—that gunning on the highway—he couldn’t break through the “We the People” that were there in Mississippi—the “We the White People.” They closed ranks: There was no way for the federal government to get any information from anybody about what happened.

We then move forward into the idea of having this march [on Washington], from Bayard [Rustin, the main organizer of the March on Washington] and his idea of a coalition that can shift the country: the labor unions, the church, the Democratic party, and the civil-rights movement. That’s Walther Reuther [president of the United Auto Workers], the church leaders, Hubert Humphrey [a senator and later vice president under Lyndon Baines Johnson], people from the Democratic party, and then King. That’s the mobilization part of the movement.

We from SNCC go up for the march. Courtland Cox [a SNCC member] was working closely in Bayard’s shop and he finagled a bus for field secretaries to come up in. But it wasn’t thought it was important for us to be there; what was important was to get the leadership and a mass of people there. We actually went early and picketed the Justice Department. After we picketed, I went in and talked to Burke [Marshall] and John [Doar, an attorney in the Civil Rights Division] and that was another necessary part for a real understanding of what was happening. The only real people with boots on the ground in Mississippi were John Doar and the Civil Rights Division. Part of what’s going on, then, is this under-the-radar-screen back-and-forth between the work that SNCC is doing on the ground and the strategy that that little piece of the federal government is doing.

I don’t think that there’s any sense before, during, or right after the march that there is going to be this big shift in America. I think the country had to pay the price of the assassination of the president in order for that shift to happen. Right after the march, the four young girls are bombed in the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, and they start burning and bombing churches across Mississippi. So the year begins with this gunning [near Greenwood] and then ends with the president being assassinated in Texas. The country’s lurching around in 1963.

How did the civil-rights movement affect education?

There were three distinct areas where the civil-rights movement was able to extricate slavery out of national life. One is symbolized by the Freedom Riders, the idea that a constitutional person moving state-to-state is not looking to the individual states to protect constitutional rights, but that the federal government needs to be the protector. Similar for the sharecropper trying to vote, [it] is the same mentality and consciousness. And similar for the crowd who are going to the National Democratic Convention, they are looking to the national party to affirm their right to participate in the party structure of the country, not the party structure in the state of Mississippi. [In 1964, blacks could not participate in the Mississippi Democratic party. In response, SNCC helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sent delegates to the National Democratic Convention in 1964, where they were denied official seats.]

Education in its manifestation in Mississippi as sharecropper education was the subtext of the right to vote. We did not get Jim Crow out of education in Mississippi, or for that matter throughout the whole country.

What’s the connection with the Algebra Project?

The Algebra Project is pushing just like the Freedom Riders, the sharecroppers, and the Freedom Democrats the idea of constitutional personhood into the domain of education. For young people, such a huge chunk of their lives is spent in the education system, and that they should have no real firm connection to the national government is not really workable in the 21st century.

What has allowed us to gain some traction on the issue is using the same concept that we had in Mississippi, which was that voter registration is important, but per se voter registration is not going to really push real change; insisting that the sharecroppers at the bottom register will. The Algebra Project is insisting on the kids at the bottom—that we set a standard for them.

How are the Algebra Project and SNCC related?

One of the basic tools from the ’60s that we kind of stumbled over was, if you’re going to organize and you really are serious about Ella’s idea [Ella Baker was an adult advisor to SNCC, which comprised mostly college students and young people]—that your work is to create a space for leadership and energy to bubble up—then you have to change the actual meeting place. We didn’t have panels with people speaking up front in Mississippi. The sharecroppers, the domestic workers, the day laborers came in, they signed onto a problem they wanted to work on—little problems—sat in groups, went home, and next month came back and talked about what had happened. The math classroom is also a meeting place, but notoriously the power is shifted up front to the person writing on the board. The Algebra Project has looked at, ‘How do you work with the students so the math classroom is a place where they are the players in the math game and they take ownership of it?’

We’ve been working really hard at what to teach and how to teach it. The students we are trying to target have to be willing to create a scheme—the math game—because you can’t make them. It’s more than a notion, but it’s transporting into this domain of education all the lessons that we learned in the Mississippi theater of the movement.

Where is the modern civil-rights movement headed?

The country has moved in epic periods of three quarters of a century at a time. When the country starts, it has this embedded contradiction between the preamble of the Constitution, which is talking about people and their human rights to ordain and establish constitutions, and this abstract concept of states. Caught up in this conflict is Article Four, Section Two, paragraph three, which deals with the idea of property that might run away; that in order for this nation to get going it has to have a federal authority that can reach across state jurisdictions—down to the level of the private person—snatch up property that has run away, and reach back across state jurisdictions to another private person who’s said to own this property. This is a horrible, terrible constitutional dilemma that the country grapples with for 75 years. Then it collapses. The constitutional people go to war over their constitutional property, and more than six-hundred thousand people die.

There’s a lurch forward after the Civil War, when we get the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Then there’s a lurch backward. We set up slavery by another name and call it Jim Crow. We go for another 75 years, roughly, and we get this civil-rights movement. The civil-rights movement gets us out of Jim Crow in public accommodations, access to the vote, and the national Democratic Party structure. There’s a lurch forward, but then there’s a lurch back.

We are experiencing the lurch back now. The symbols of it at the march [on Washington anniversary last Saturday] are the people walking with big pictures of Trayvon Martin and the Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act enforcement provision.

When you think about the history of the country, we started with the “We the People” being white, male property owners. Then we expanded the concept of who “We the People” are with the Civil War and we included the free slaves as citizens. Then we expanded over the next chunk of 75 years to include women as part of who the “We the People” are, and a larger class of immigrants—not just from Europe; thanks to the movement, immigrants from around the planet are allowed to be “We the People.” Then today, there is the expansion of “We the People” to include gay people and gender identity.

What has not happened, however, is the expansion of that concept to include the young people of the country. The particular area where young people are in need of constitutional status is their right to a quality public school education. That’s bound up with this whole effort across the centuries. It’s an issue of, ‘Who are the constitutional people?’ That issue was raised around slavery and the freed slaves. It centers now around undocumented people and the others that I mentioned. It now needs to be joined by a movement which is inclusive, of people who are for the underlying human rights—for human respect, human dignity—that underlie the idea of citizenship. Those have been expanding, but they need to encompass all young people in the country.

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