Wednesday Jan 26

An Unlikely Hero Bob Moses 1935–2021

Martha Prescod, Mike Miller (author of this remembrance), and Bob Moses (left to right) do voter registration work in the Mississippi countryside, 1963

By Mike Miller

“This is Mississippi…There is a tremor in the middle of the iceberg—from a stone that the builders rejected.” Bob Moses, Letter from Magnolia, MS jail, 1962



I n an age of plastic heroes, Bob Moses is the real thing—in large part because he did not want the role. In Mississippi, where his approach to organizing was born of a deep respect for “local people,” the work he initiated unleashed the talent, energy and power that is there waiting when small “d” democracy has the space to operate.


That space is called democratic organization: small “d” so that it is not confused with the American democratic myth that says when you choose between competing brands called political parties, and the products they offer called candidates, you have a democratic society. “Organization” so it is not confused with the occasional uprisings of mass mobilization that take place when oppressed people revolt only to return to internalized anger when power structures fail to respond adequately; or when voters massively turn out for the lesser evil (however real and necessary that might be) in the hope that it will be more. 

Civil rights activist Robert Parris Moses in New York in 1964. Robert Elfstrom / Villon Films via Getty Images

In the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), we thought “organization” is what we did while “mobilization” is what Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) did. Ella Baker, another genuine hero of The Movement, introduced Bob to a network of Mississippi AfricanAmericans who in 1961 were leaders in local branches of the NAACP or independent local citizenship organizations seeking voting rights. To dare to attempt registering to vote was to put one’s life on the line, and to risk firing, eviction, foreclosure, credit denial or other economic consequences.

Amzie Moore, one of those leaders in Cleveland, MS, admired the courage of young people sitting-in and engaging in freedom rides, but he told Moses that what Black Mississippians needed was the right to vote. That view was repeated by other local leaders. Wesley Hogan describes Moses’ local Mississippi introduction in Many Minds, One Heart…In July, 1961, when [Bob] Moses first arrived in McComb, Webb Owens, a retired railroad employee and treasurer of the local NAACP, picked up Moses and began making the rounds to every single black person of any kind of substance in the community. For two weeks, during each visit, Moses conversed with these leaders about his proposal to undertake a month-long voter registration project. Other SNCC staff would come to help, he promised, if the community raised money to support them. 

At that point, Owens moved in as a closer. A smart, slim, cigar-smoking, cane-carrying, sharp-dressing gregarious man known in the community as “Super Cool Daddy,” liked and trusted by all, Owens solicited contributions of five to ten dollars [equal to $45—$90 in 2021 dollars] per person. Before the rest of the SNCC staff arrived, the black community not only supported the project, it financed it as well.

Surfacing here is one of the central causal dynamics of the civil rights revolution in the South of the 1960s…Moses would approach a local leader—in this case, Webb Owens. He then listened to Owen’s ideas……Owens led Moses to all of the potential leaders in the community, in the process exposing himself to great risks as a local NAACP leader. When he extended himself on behalf of Moses and asked citizens to financially support a voter registration drive, things began to happen. The quality of the local person that you go to work with is everything in terms of whether the project can get off the ground, Moses later explained. The McComb voter registration drive would not have taken off without someone like Owens. 

Too many discussions of “grassroots organizing” and “top-down versus bottom-up organizing” ignore the lessons that are taught by Moses’ experience. Respected local leaders introduced him into the local communities in which voter registration projects started, and asked the local community to financially support the work that Moses and other SNCC field secretaries were going to do. To the question, “Who sent you?” that might be asked of a SNCC worker, the answer was Webb Owens or Amzie Moore or CC Bryant or any of a number of respected local people who legitimized SNCC’s presence in their community. Where that beginning legitimacy was lacking, the SNCC worker had to “earn the right to meddle” by gaining the trust of locally respected people. Field secretary Charles McLauren wrote a SNCC staff working paper on invited and uninvited organizers, and what the latter had to do to earn the trust that was the precondition for engaging local people in “Movement” activity.


An Organization

of Organizers


Moses also recruited young people to become organizers, and developed in them an understanding of the role that was controversial within SNCC. For Jim Forman, SNCC’s executive director, SNCC was an organization of organizers and itself a leadership organization, a “vanguard”. To use a spatial image, SNCC would be internally democratic, as would groups it created, but it would be in front of a growing body of affiliates from across the south. 

Bob Moses at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1964. (Danny Lyon / Magnum)

For Bob and his Mississippi full-time organizer recruits, SNCC was alongside. It was this understanding of the organizer’s role that created the space for people like sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer to emerge as major Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) leaders. For the alongside organizer there is a continuing tension between, on the one hand, the greater vision an initial organizing effort offers and the belief in it that develops in its rank-and-file and secondary leaders, and, on the other, the egos and personal interests that might emerge at various levels of leadership, and the realities of power relationships that necessarily force compromise upon the vision if it is to move forward. (There are, of course, constraints on vanguard organizations—mostly results of the corruption of power—as history has amply demonstrated.)

The projection of local people led Bob to support the revival of the Council of Federated Organization (COFO), an umbrella organization in which the major civil rights organizations could develop a common strategy and implementation plan to break Mississippi’s iron wall of segregation. Under COFO’s auspices, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was created. These were necessary steps to advance the cause, though a deep sacrifice organizationally for SNCC which was providing 90% of the full-time staff in the state and would no longer be able to raise funds in the name of its Mississippi Project. The sacrifice was necessary. Bob never confused the narrower interests of an organization with the larger purpose it was supposed to fulfill. That was central to both his thinking and work.

Robert P. Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer observe proceedings at the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., in August 1964. (Matt Herron / Take Stock Photos)

The Mississippi

Summer Project

The idea of bringing the country to Mississippi was circulating in the state as early as mid-1963. Let America see Mississippi for what it is and surely it will reject it and demand change was the underlying premise. 

Moses was quiet during the increasingly intense discussion that followed. Local people generally liked the idea. Many of SNCC’s young Black staff feared what the presence of an overwhelmingly White, elite-college educated, group would do both to local leadership and to their own roles. The fears were legitimate, and Moses didn’t want to lend his weight to one or another point of view.

Then yet another killing of a Black local activist took place. Louis Allen, witness to the murder of local Black leader Herbert Lee by a state legislator, initially told a lie that made the murder appear to be self-defense. Allen changed his mind, and told the FBI that he would testify. Explaining why, he said, “I did not want to tell no story about the dead, because you can’t ask the dead for forgiveness.” Allen was gunned down on his farm. That ended Moses’ silence. He threw his considerable weight behind the Summer Project.

Just before completion of training for the second group of summer volunteers, three more Movement people were murdered: a Black Mississippian and two northern Whites. Moses addressed the volunteers, inviting them to go home if the news of these murders created any doubts for them.

The accounts vary as to how many left, and there may have been none, but it was fewer than the fingers on one hand. Later, Moses said of them, “[I]t turned out they had within them, individually and collectively, some kind of moral toughness that they were able to call upon. And God knows they needed it, because it was not just the Mississippi government, it was also the issue that the space in the Black community was really not a completely welcome space. There were some elements there which were welcoming them and bringing them in as family…, but then there was this resentment also, so they had to figure out how to walk through that. It is to their everlasting credit that they did.”

The summer volunteers and the full-time COFO staff worked tirelessly to build the MFDP’s challenge to seating the Democratic Party racist “regulars” at the 1964 Party Convention. That and a subsequent Congressional challenge to seating the Mississippi delegation in Congress shook the Democratic Party. Though both were defeated, they were as much responsible for the 1965 Voting Rights Act as the far better known 1965 Selma-Montgomery March.

Robert “Bob” Moses is seen in this file photo dated February 5, 2014. ROGELIO V. SOLIS / AP

There was a bigger problem: the defeats also defeated SNCC, COFO and MFDP. Years later, Bob and I talked about that. He thought SNCC needed to regroup, take a break, go off someplace for days or weeks and talk, renew the circle of trust and analyze what went wrong, and what could be learned from it. But that didn’t happen. Some SNCC people took a trip to Africa that Harry Belafonte paid for. No doubt the trip was deserved and things were learned, but the crisis facing SNCC was not front and center. Its road to decline and disappearance continued.


The Algebra

Project (AP)


How The Algebra Project teaches algebra to its students who have been tracked out of studying math in most of the schools they attend remains a mystery to me. To say the least, algebra is not one of my strengths. Bob once said to me, “anyone can learn algebra.” When I challenged him to teach me, we gave up because our time for humoring me had run out—a meeting beckoned. The evidence is that those who thought they couldn’t learn it, can!

What I do understand is some of its core ideas, and they are really organizing concepts: begin with people’s experience; tap into their curiosity; engage them and their families in the process; go step-by-step, establishing selfconfidence and building from one experience to the next. AP makes demands on those who would participate in it: you have to do extra studying, including a summer. And you have to make demands upon the education system. The element of demand is central. Change comes from below.

AP is also more complicated than voting. School districts, superintendents and “downtown” math divisions, principals, math department heads, classroom teachers and others have to buy in. Moses’ organizing talent put together a national organization of school people, including university math departments, school superintendents and districts, school reformers and others to pursue its goals.

Across the country, in Black inner-city schools, Latina/o barrios and in Appalachian hollers, AP is working. AP also contributed an appreciation of social class to Moses’ thinking that I don’t think was previously there. In relation to their education, he told me he didn’t see much to differentiate poor White students in AP classes in southeast (Appalachian) Ohio and those in Black inner-city schools.

Robert Moses founded the Algebra Project


The Right

to An Education

For Moses, The Algebra Project was a direct line extension from Mississippi in the 1960s. Then “sharecropper education” provided just enough literacy for cotton workers to do their jobs. Now, “sharecropper education” can’t do that because we’re in a different age—the information age. So Black youth especially, and others at the bottom of the social status ladder as well, now receive sharecropper education that destines them for prison. Like the right to vote, the right to math literacy is the prerequisite to escaping that destiny.

A national obstacle to the exercise of that right is in the local nature of public education. Moses took on that challenge as well, traveling the country urging a new Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing the right to an education.

At a meeting in Oakland several years ago Moses asked all attending to rise and recite several times with him the Preamble to the US Constitution, We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of …

He then told us we had the task now of amending the Constitution to include a Federally-guaranteed right to an education. He never thought small. At the same time, he knew that to think big, you had to also think local: 50 states and thousands of jurisdictions within them needed committees that would pursue such an amendment.


Reflecting On

Our Times

Interviewed by Ellen Barry in the New York Times after the George Floyd murder, Moses “was cautious in his comments, saying the country seemed to be undergoing an ‘awakening’”:

I think that’s been its main impact, a kind of revelation about something that has been going on for over a century, a century and a half, right under your noses. But there isn’t any indication of how to fix it. It’s like an awakening: We’re trapped... What we’ve been doing isn’t working. What are we going to do? That level of consciousness really is new. And it’s not just the broader white population that is waking up to some extent, but also within the African-American population, too.

It may be that the persons who killed George Floyd were an aberration. But the system they were a part of, that protects them, is as American as apple pie. So, waking up to that—it’s not clear whether the country is capable of waking up to that to its full extent. ...The system works to protect the people who are involved in all of this at different levels, not just the guy who pulls the trigger and puts the knee on the throat. It’s try to solve the problem at the level of the individual. [T]he system just keeps rolling on and producing more atrocities.

It is revelatory that the pressure now is coming from within. It’s been sparked by this one event, but the event really has opened up a crevasse, so to speak, through which all this history is pouring, like the Mississippi River onto the Delta. It’s pouring into all the streams of TV, cable news, social media. So that is quite different. And the question is, can the country handle it?

We don’t know. 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.

Robert Moses and daughter, Maisha Moses, in 2019. Photo: Nancy L. Ford


His Meaning

to Me 


Bob was closest to me in age of the three people who most influenced my life as a community organizer. (The others were political theorist/longshoremen’s union leader Herb Mills, my best friend for 60 years who died in 2018, and Saul Alinsky, who died in 1972, for whom I directed a Black community organizing project in Kansas City, MO 1966/1967.) Bob was born in 1935, two years before me. Like me, he grew up in a public housing project—he in Manhattan, me in San Francisco.

We first met when he came to the San Francisco Bay Area on a fundraising tour I organized as SNCC’s field secretary in the area. We got to know one another better when I worked out of the Greenwood, Mississippi SNCC freedom house during the summer of 1963. Dick Frey and I were the first Whites to be assigned to the Mississippi Delta. I got to watch him work up close.

Our friendship renewed when Bob started traveling with The Algebra Project. He came to the Bay Area where I connected him with local community organizations that were interested in getting AP introduced in their school districts. He invited me to come to Broward County, Florida, where the school district was adopting AP as part of its curriculum. We developed a plan for an organizing project that would organize parents and their communities; unfortunately, it never got off the ground. 

In 2012, I organized a trip to the Bay Area for Bob to raise funds for the defense of Ron Bridgeforth, a former SNCC field secretary who’d gotten himself in trouble with the law, when he used a gun to steal materials for a Black children’s tutorial program, and got in an exchange of shots with a cop who was attempting to arrest him. (Bridgeforth escaped and went underground for 40+ years. We’d been friends before that incident when he was still a SNCC worker.) Bob was happy to come; we raised what was needed from his trip.

Bob often stayed at my place when he came to the Bay Area. We got to have serious discussions about the things we cared most deeply about. I got to know him as a person. What stands out about Bob is the quiet that surrounded him—a quality of serenity that made him a rock of steadfastness no matter what turmoil surrounded him.

We think of charisma as associated with dramatic speeches made to tens or hundreds of thousands: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the CIO’s John L. Lewis, and other orators. Bob’s charisma was different. He spoke softly, often using questions to get others talking with each other in small groups, and listened carefully. But there was no question: when he was in a room, he was usually the center of attention.

For Bob, there were no nobodies. That created a deep bond between him and sharecroppers, day laborers, domestics, inner-city students, and other otherwise nobodies in the dominant culture. The other side of this coin was that nobody intimidated him: not a Mississippi sheriff with a gun pointed at him or U. S. Senator Hubert Humphrey trying to persuade him of the honorary at-large two-seats “compromise” at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention.

Bob, rest in peace. You left a legacy in the work of many you touched who continue in the struggle for full freedom, equality, justice and community. The country is a better place because of your presence. I miss you. August, 2021

Mike Miller’s work can be found at www.organizetrainingcenter. org. He was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee “field secretary” from late 1962 to the end of 1966.


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