The right to vote and any other rights have to be protected by activism, collaboration, and service. -Baba Bob Moses
On Sunday July 25, Bob Moses, the civil rights icon and Black educator luminary, left this earthly domain. His life’s work and legacy will endure and inspire as he singularly melded the essential work of liberation and education of Black folks. The quintessential eduactivist. We will continue to stand and lean on his broad shoulders.
Born in Harlem in 1935, Moses took his Harvard by way of Hamilton College education and preternatural calm to the fields of Mississippi to organize, register to vote and teach the sharecropper communities during the 1960s.
Facing unspeakable hatred, violence and intimidation daily, Moses and his Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) colleagues developed literacy materials alongside their voter outreach work based out of Tougaloo College during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Moses knew that the liberation of Black communities required the ability to freely engage in the democratic process in the form of access to the ballot box, but it also demanded a Black citizenry that had the educational foundation to achieve, protect, and sustain their economic security.
“Education and literacy was embedded in the movement,” he told the late Julian Bond in a 2014 interview. Moses recognized and fought against the ingrained, embedded, and nurtured racism that continues to be rampant in America’s educational systems:
We got Jim Crow out of public accommodations, access to vote, and the National Democratic Party structure, but we didn’t get it out of public education. I think of it as the unfinished business.
At the turn of the century, Moses continued his mission of academic empowerment of Black communities by launching the Algebra Project. Using innovative, culturally responsive methods to teach Black and Brown children math, Moses saw the parallels to his work 30 years earlier.
“I believe that the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered Black voters in Mississippi was in 1961,” he wrote in his book Radical Equations. “In today’s world, economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy. I believe that solving the problem requires exactly the kind of community organizing that changed the South in the 1960’s.”
Bob Moses’ life and work was, in so many ways, was the height of what we call the teacher-activist. Vitally, he approached his work with a passion and urgency about the cause.
For even after a life of meaningfully moving things forward, as he told the New York Times, he understood that progress was not promised, it could only be demanded and fought for daily.
“I certainly don’t know, at this moment, which way the country might flip. It can lurch backward as quickly as it can lurch forward.”
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.