Civil Rights Icon and Math Educator Robert Parris Moses Passes Away at 86

Image: Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Getty Images

Bob Moses, who worked on the frontlines of the civil rights movement as an advocate for Black voters in Mississippi in the 1960s, and later launched a national organization devoted to teaching math to promote a more equitable world, died on Sunday at his home in Hollywood, FL at the age of 86, the New York Times reports.

Maisha Moses, his daughter, confirmed his death.

Moses was born in Harlem in 1935 and later became a Rhodes Scholar while studying at Hamilton College. Inspired by French existential philosopher Albert Camus and the teachings of the Quakers, Moses sought to bring social change through rationality and moral purity. He later received a master’s in philosophy at Harvard University.

As a field director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights movement, where he endured imprisonment and physical violence, he was critical to the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in which hundreds of students risked their lives by traveling to the Deep South to register voters.

He helped register thousands of voters in the South and trained a league of organizers. White segregationists met his efforts with violence. For instance, during a voter registration drive, a relative of the local sheriff bashed his head with a knife handle. Moses did not let that stop him from registering the Black couple he was attending to. Once he was done, Moses had someone drive him to a neighboring town so his head wounds, which required stitches, could be treated by a Black doctor.

Moses started what he described as his “second chapter in civil rights work” by founding the Algebra Project, with assistance from the MacArthur Fellowship, in 1982. The project included a curriculum Moses developed to help disenfranchised students gain the tools to succeed in mathematics. 

After working as a teacher in Tanzania, Africa, Moses returned to Harvard to earn a Ph.D. and taught high school math in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He authored Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project in 2002 and co-authored My Race to Freedom: A Life in the Civil Rights Movement, along with Gwendolyn Patton 2020.

Later, Moses served as a professor at Cornell University and Princeton University receiving several honorary doctorates for his commitment to equality, voting rights and education.

In an official statement from the Algebra Project, the organization recalled the immense impact of Moses.

“It is with sadness, our deepest condolences, appreciation and meditations that the Algebra Project, Inc., shares the news of the passing of our founder, mentor, president, teacher and friend, Robert Parris Moses,” the statement read.  “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.”

Moses is survived by his wife Dr. Janet Moses, daughters Maisha and Malaika, sons Omowale and Tabasuri and seven grandchildren.

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