Robert “Bob” Moses inspired generations of organizers, engaging with them around the importance of collective action and respecting local knowledge. As news broke of his passing Sunday, his legacy and impact could be felt across the internet. He was 86.
From the stories and anecdotes, one can glimpse the impact Moses had on the lives of countless organizers and educators alike. A young math teacher from Harlem, Moses would travel to Mississippi in the summer of 1960 and change history.
As an organizer with the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and under the guidance of Ella Baker, Moses worked alongside communities in rural Mississippi. In many ways, his work paved the way for contemporary organizing around voter registration and civic engagement.
The Zinn Education Project tweeted a picture of Moses and several others with a powerful quote about leadership that sums up the organizing philosophy of many of today’s organizations. “Leadership is there in the people,” said Moses. “You don’t have to worry about where your leaders are. . . If you go out and work with your people, then the leadership will emerge.”
Moses didn’t believe his education made him an expert in the lives and experiences of others, opting instead to listen to local residents directly. A lesson to many national organizations today, he didn’t simply parachute into southern Black communities thinking he knew better than local people.
While not exactly the same as when Moses first touched down in Mississippi, the oppressive sentiment fighting to keep Black voters from the ballot is still very alive today. Trusting local leaders and investing in the grassroots is a refrain that needs to be on repeat as the nation once again grapples with a large-scale voter suppression effort.
By all accounts, Moses didn’t dismiss the possibility of the people based on where they lived but worked collaboratively to find actual solutions to meet people’s needs. Digital SNCC archives paint a picture of a man reflective of his journey and candid in his experience organizing in rural Mississippi in the 1960s.
The archives provide a detailed picture of how the 1964 Freedom Summer, one of the most notable events of the Civil Rights Movement, came into being. While several SNCC leaders were opposed to the idea of bringing in a large group of white students to organize for the summer, local leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer and Amzie Moore embraced the idea.
SNCC staffers would continue to debate the idea before ultimately agreeing to organize the large-scale effort that became known as Freedom Summer. The documentary “Freedom Summer” by award-winning director Stanley Nelson, Jr is available for viewing on the PBS website.
Long after the civil rights movement ended, SNCC and Moses’ impact continue to be felt. Ash-lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director of The Highlander Center and honorary co-chair of the SNCC 60th Anniversary Conference, shared an anecdote on Twitter about the first time-sharing “intentional space” with Moses.
Henderson’s thread highlights the power of intergenerational relationships. To learn from one’s elders in word and deed and to be able to workshop ideas and explore alternatives with history makers is invaluable.
Although the 60th-anniversary conference had to be rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the SNCC Legacy Project, conference planning committee, and organizers like Henderson held a series of virtual events and trainings, engaging a new generation.
Billed as a multi-generational convening, the conference will be held virtually October 14-16. Given Moses’ immeasurable impact, the upcoming SNCC 60th Anniversary Conference is an opportunity to continue to learn from his legacy and the rest of the veteran staff.
Moses infused teaching and organizing across his work. As a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Moses launched The Algebra Project, a program that uses math as an organizing tool for education equity. Supported by the National Science Foundation, The Algebra Project promotes math literacy across a network of affiliated organizations.
“His transition to that higher level only inspires us all to love, struggle and live with and for our people as he did,” read a statement from The Algebra Project’s Board of Directors and staff. “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.