As It Happens·Q&A

Civil rights icon Bob Moses was 'a visionary' who risked life and limb for his community

Bob Moses fought for racial justice until his very last breath, says his friend and fellow U.S. civil rights activist Courtland Cox.

U.S. civil rights activist Courtland Cox remembers his friend and colleague, who died at the age of 86

Robert (Bob) Moses, a veteran civil rights activist and founder of the Algebra Project, a math literacy program in Mississippi, has died. (Rogelio Solis/The Associated Press)

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Bob Moses fought for racial justice until his very last breath, says his friend and fellow U.S. civil rights activist Courtland Cox.

Moses, a civil rights icon who endured beatings and imprisonment for leading Black voter registration drives in the American South during the 1960s, has died at the age of 86

Moses worked to dismantle segregation as the Mississippi field director of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) during the civil rights movement and was central to the 1964 "Freedom Summer," in which hundreds of students travelled to the South to register voters.

He later turned his focus to education, founding the Algebra Project in 1982 to help disadvantaged students succeed in math. 

Cox spoke to As It Happens guest host Ginella Massa about his friend's legacy. Here is part of their conversation. 

Can you talk a little bit about the very real danger that you and [Moses] and the people that you were with in that time were up against in Mississippi in the early '60s?

Every police person and every white man who lived in Mississippi, and most of the South, felt it was their responsibility to maintain white supremacy. And that meant that Black people were basically sharecroppers and working the land. If they weren't that, they were people who were exploited in other ways, being maids and having the most menial economic tasks.

And so they would use everything to keep … the African-American community in check. They used violence, either vigilante violence or police violence. But they also use economic violence. That is to say that you could not get a job if you tried to register to vote. You could not have a place to live. They would kick you off the land if you tried to register to vote. You could not go to school if you tried to register to vote.

Because they wanted … to maintain an absolutely dominant situation where they had all the privileges, they had all the resources, and African-Americans had none. And they would use everything in order to maintain that.

He was a person who understood what needed to be done, and until the actual moment of his death, he was working on it.- Courtland Cox, civil rights activist 

Bob Moses … survived many attempts on his life. He was arrested. He was jailed. And I've heard him described as calm in the face of that violence. Would you agree with that description of him? 

While he was calm, I think the most important thing is that he was determined. 

And one of the things that was really important, that both Bob and SNCC people understood, was that what we had to work with what was the most important thing, [which] was the community's will to resist segregation, the community's will to resist Jim Crow, the community's will to resist economic exploitation.

And as long as that existed, and we were determined to work with them, we would be able to survive and we would be able to thrive. And that was eventually what happened. 

Civil rights legends, living and dead, are shown in this mural in Jackson, Miss. From left: Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, Moses, higher education educator Rose Elizabeth Howard Robinson, bookstore owner Louise Marshall, and florist Albert Powell. (Rogelio V. Solis/The Associated Press)

And what made him different from other civil rights leaders at that time?

What Bob and what SNCC did in civil rights at that time is we worked and stayed in the community. Most of the civil rights organizations demonstrated. And when the demonstration was over, they left the community. Or they'd engage in a particular activity, and they left the community. They were not dependent on the community for their survival. We and SNCC lived in the communities. Bob lived in the communities. And we were dependent on them for our survival. 

Bob Moses went onto disavow the political system. He spent a number of years living in Tanzania before returning to the U.S. And that was kind of when his next phase of activism began and he started the Algebra Project. Can you tell folks a little bit about how important he found that relationship between math literacy and civil rights?

Besides being a very determined person, he was a visionary. And he understood that if people were going to be free in the South, economically and politically, they needed to vote. He also understood that in 1982, that if the African-American community was going to succeed economically in an information economy, they needed literacies that they did not have.

So in 1982, he started trying to move the discussion of having the literacies that would allow the African-American community to survive in an information economy. 

In this April 6, 1990, photo, Moses teaches an algebra class at Lanier High School in Jackson, Miss. (Rogelio Solis/The Associated Press)

And he did live to see this most recent sort of racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd's murder. What was his reaction to what's happening right now?

His reaction … is that there is of kind of fear in the United States, that [white Americans] are going to be overwhelmed, they are going to be replaced, and that America is becoming a majority minority country. And therefore, he felt that, you know, we needed to continue the work that was started in in the 1960s … of working in the communities to make sure that those communities were strengthened. 

Bob thought that the demonstrations — while they were new and they got people involved in certain kinds of things — if you did not organize in the communities, if you did not spend the time to deal with the people who were the frontline workers, the people who got COVID, the people who were working in these processing plants, you had to work with them, you had to be with them to the extent that they got strength [so] the kind of brutality that we saw from the police would stop. Because it was only when these people who were at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder had any strength that that kind of wanton and random police violence would end. Because it's only when they have strength that we could win.

What will you always remember about your friend Bob Moses? How do you want him to be remembered?

What I remember about Bob, first of all, is the intensity in his eyes, his patience, his determination and his wisdom. Those are the things that I remember.

He was a person who, I mean, over 60 years, was a long-distance runner. He was a person who understood what needed to be done, and until the actual moment of his death, he was working on it. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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