The Late Bob Moses and the Long Hard Road to the Promised Land

Two men named Robert Moses played significant roles in shaping the second half of America’s 20th century, and the one who got less attention did the better shaping.

The Robert Moses who would pop up first in most Google searches was the powerful urban planner who configured the New York City region of his dreams, an affluent middle-class world where, among many other things, that middle class would be insulated from intrusion by the undesireables of the lower classes.

The other Robert Moses, who mostly went by Bob Moses, saw a rather different world.

Bob Moses, who died Sunday at his Florida home, age 86, was a civil rights activist best known as a central organizer of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer.

The specific mission of Freedom Summer included opening 28 Freedom Schools that would offer some of the information and opportunities absent in much of the standard Mississippi curriculum for black students.

It also included registering black voters in a state where poll taxes, “literacy tests” and other wink-wink screening devices had kept black registration to about 5% of the eligible voting population.

Freedom Summer also had a more ambitious wider goal: to shame America into forcing Mississippi, and other Southern states, to ease white supremacy. No one was under any illusion Mississippi whites would do that on their own, so Freedom Summer’s agenda included exposing Mississippi’s injustices enough to make the rest of the country care.

Freedom Summer wasn’t built on speeches. It was trench warfare — a house-to-house battle to convince local black residents they should risk their homes and maybe even their lives by taking actions that would have been routine for white folks, but when undertaken by black folks threatened the system.

From working on smaller similar projects over the previous four summers, Moses warned from the start that Freedom Summer would be dangerous. On the night of June 21, three volunteers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner — were murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen, who tortured Chaney as an added warning to uppity blacks.

After their bodies were found and a reluctant FBI figured out who did it, the state of Mississippi found nothing to prosecute.

Let’s guess this pleased Bob Moses about as much as it surprised him, which was not at all. Before the murders, Moses already had compiled a growing list of black folks who had been murdered in Mississippi for challenging the system by doing things like trying to vote or testifying against a white person at a trial. The list included no successful prosecutions.

By the time of Freedom Summer, Moses was field coordinator for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Like the organization itself, which would soon turn more militant under the Black Power mantra of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Moses was on the brink of disillusionment with the power dynamic of the whole civil rights movement.

Moses’s other big project in 1964, interwoven to an extent with Freedom Summer, was to form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which asked to be seated at the 1964 Democratic national convention in place of Mississippi’s traditional white segregationist slate.

President Lyndon Johnson, not wanting to alienate the critical Southern voting bloc, engineered the rejection of the Freedom Democratic Party challengers — leading Moses, not alone among activists, to sever most alliances with white politicians previously seen or courted as allies.

Like Malcolm X, Moses declared that black people must fight their fight alone, since that’s what they effectively were.

He would eventually modify that stance, though he never wavered in his belief that black folks should not depend on anyone else to overcome.

He specifically argued that progress and ultimate equality would only be achieved once blacks educated themselves and thus were prepared to match the qualifications of others on every level.

The areas in which this would matter most, he felt, were math and science. In 1982 he used a MacArthur grant to create The Algebra Project, which was designed to increase math literacy in the black community.

He started by teaching it himself at Lamar High School in, fittingly, Jackson, Miss., and eventually expanded it to some 200 high schools.

Moses would go on to teach at Princeton, Cornell and other schools, earning numerous teaching honors and becoming a living historian of the civil rights movement.

But part of his credibility always stemmed from his unease with surveying the field from above. As the Freedom Summer blueprint suggested, he preferred hands-on, grass-roots involvement, and he had the stitches and scars that attested to his presence on the battlefields.

He told the story of how he was hired in 1958 as a tutor for R&B singer Frankie Lymon of the Teenagers, who couldn’t go on tour without a tutor because he was not yet 16.

Moses took the gig and went on the road with a whole unlikely group that included Lymon and Jerry Lee Lewis. The tutoring failed, since Lymon was already falling to the dark side of show biz celebrity, heading toward an overdose at the age of 26. But Moses used the trip to meet and talk with ordinary black folks in cities along the way. It was an education, he later said, in how regular people lived and thought.

The Freedom Schools picked up that theme, starting students with a daily-life questionnaire that asked things like whether their houses had indoor plumbing. Change became more possible, Moses argued, when those in power understood how those outside of power lived, and what parts of their lives were unnecessarily difficult.

Looking back on his work in later years, Moses didn’t frame it as neat or clean. There were victories, there were setbacks, there were moral dilemmas. Was it fair to ask a black sharecropper to put his life in danger by trying to register to vote?

Like many of his contemporaries in The Movement, Moses saw progress and fragility. The right to vote, he warned a couple of years ago, is not enshrined. It can be diluted or taken away by political majorities.

In the end, he suggested, America will decide what it wants to be. It probably won’t be 1964 Mississippi, thanks to the work of people like Bob Moses. That still leaves a lot of ground between there and the promised land.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”