A hard-earned right to vote that must be protected
August 1 marked the anniversary of emancipation. Today, we reflect on the life of Bob Moses, a quiet hero of the American Civil Rights movement who died on July 25, aged 86.
Bob, an unpretentious soul, voluntarily confronted Mississippi terror alone, doing the groundwork for the iconic Freedom Summer Project of 1964.
Also “called home” on July 21, was Bob’s close confidante for that project — Jane Stembridge.
Born in 1935, raised in Harlem, from early childhood Bob loved to “hang” with his father, witnessing community rap sessions. This and a passion for reading fed Bob’s love of learning.
Moses secured a scholarship to Hamilton College, thriving as one of only three Black students. He benefited from the mentorship of some Quaker professors. They included Bob in student summer projects in postwar France and the next year in Japan, where he found Eastern philosophy.
Bob earned a Harvard’s doctoral programme scholarship, where he connected with another Quaker mentor. Bob’s plans were interrupted when his mother died suddenly and his father experienced a breakdown. Returning to New York to monitor his dad, Bob took up a post teaching high school maths.
During the summer vacation of 1960, the “Sit-In Movement” captured Bob’s imagination and he travelled to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Atlanta, volunteering his services. Moses was surprised to find there were only three staff, supporting the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. These included the extraordinary Ella Baker, who generously shared lessons drawn from decades of activism with Bob; and Jane Stembridge, also a graduate student, who happened to be White.
Bob and Jane shared the legwork of the SCLC during that summer. It was she who, after hearing Bob’s vision, suggested that he take a greyhound ride through the South to personally recruit potential activists to attend a November conference for the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee. Moses agreed and was quickly on a bus through Dixie — with Ella’s contact list. In Mississippi, Bob met Anzie Moore, an entrepreneur who ran a petrol station for a number of years, providing a base to promote voting rights.
Moore flipped the proposal, suggesting that Moses recruit students from around the country for a pilot programme promoting voting rights in Mississippi — an anti-Democratic bastion. Moses agreed with the idea and was able to gain Ella and Jane’s support for the concept. However, he first had to return to New York to fulfil the final year of his teaching contract and ensure that his dad was “back”.
During the next summer, Bob returned to Mississippi, reconnecting with Moore to put together a curriculum to help rural populations navigate the barriers to voting rights. The small delta town of McComb was chosen as the site to open a voter registration school, with financial support from various movement groups.
After many months of incredible struggle, Moses’s work began to bear fruit. The summer of 1964 was targeted to invite scores of student volunteers to facilitate voter registration. More than 800 mostly White students joined the campaign and, when three of these volunteers’ bodies — two White, one Black — were found in a swamp after being jailed for a “traffic offence”, it caused a global shock wave.
The quietly spoken Bob Moses addressed the volunteers after this tragedy and gave them the opportunity to return to their homes, given the possibilities that they faced in Mississippi. Many of the students remained.
That campaign went on to play a key part in securing voting rights across the United States generally and helped to loosen the grip that segregationists had on the Democratic Party.
Always the visionary, Moses was one of the first civil rights activists to publicly campaign against the Vietnam War — this in 1965. This earned the attention of the Government and Bob was drafted by the military, when he was five years older than draft age. He escaped this, first in Canada and subsequently took his family to live in Tanzania for a decade before President Jimmy Carter reprieved so-called draft dodgers.
Upon his return, Bob Moses completed his doctoral programme in philosophy at Harvard before setting up the Algebra Project. Ever the visionary, Bob recognised that public education discriminated against the working class in general, especially the non-White. Appreciating the vital importance of numeracy, the Algebra Project was democratically designed by students, teachers and community members to empower the learning of all.
The grassroots efforts for voting rights — including Bob Moses — recently bore fruit during the 2020 General Election; when the Reverend Raphael Warnock was voted in as the first Black senator from the South. This progress is under real threat as many state legislatures are moving to bring back Jim Crow.
Members of the US House of Representatives and Senate are called to honour the legacy of both Bob and Jane by protecting the right to vote for all of our neighbours.
• Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda