Robert Parris Moses, civil rights activist, dies aged 86

Robert Parris Moses, a civil rights activist who endured beatings and jail time while leading Black voter registration drives in the American south during the 1960s and later helped improve minority education in math, has died. He was 86.

As Mississippi field director for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Moses was central to the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in which hundreds of students went south to register voters.

He started his “second chapter in civil rights work” in 1982, founding the Algebra Project thanks to a MacArthur Fellowship. The project included a curriculum Moses developed to help poor students succeed in math.

Ben Moynihan, director of operations for the Algebra Project, said Moses’s wife, Dr Janet Moses, said her husband died on Sunday in Hollywood, Florida. The cause of death was not given.

Moses was born in Harlem, New York, on 23 January 1935, two months after a race riot left three dead and injured 60. His grandfather, William Henry Moses, was a prominent Southern Baptist preacher and supporter of Marcus Garvey, a Black nationalist leader at the turn of the century.

Like many black families, the Moses family moved north during the Great Migration. Once in Harlem, according to Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots, by Laura Visser-Maessen, his family sold milk from a Black-owned cooperative to help supplement the household income.

While attending Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, Moses became a Rhodes scholar. He was deeply influenced by the French philosopher Albert Camus and his ideas of rationality and moral purity for social change. He took part in a Quaker-sponsored trip to Europe and solidified his belief that change came from the bottom up before earning a master’s in philosophy at Harvard.

Moses teaches an algebra class at Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi in 1990.
Moses teaches an algebra class at Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1990. Photograph: Rogelio Solis/AP

Moses didn’t spend much time in the Deep South until he went on a recruiting trip in 1960 to “see the movement for myself”. He sought out the Rev Martin Luther King, Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta but soon turned his attention to the SNCC.

“I was taught about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe,” Moses said. “I never knew that there was [the] denial of the right to vote behind a Cotton Curtain here in the United States.”

The young civil rights advocate tried to register Black people to vote in Amite county, Mississippi – where he was beaten and arrested. He filed charges against a white assailant but an all-white jury acquitted the man. A judge provided protection to Moses to the county line, so he could leave.

He later helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the all-white Democratic state delegation. President Lyndon Johnson prevented the rebels from voting in the national convention and let Jim Crown southerners remain, drawing national attention.

Disillusioned, Moses began taking part in demonstrations against the Vietnam war then cut off all relationships with whites, even former SNCC members. He worked as a teacher in Tanzania, returned to Harvard to earn a doctorate in philosophy and taught high-school math in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The civil rights historian Taylor Branch said Moses embodied a paradox.

“Aside from having attracted the same sort of adoration among young people in the movement that Martin Luther King did in adults,” Branch said, “Moses represented a separate conception of leadership” as arising from and being carried on by “ordinary people”.

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