Reading: “Radical Equations” by Robert Moses, Part One

I first encountered the writing of Bob Moses when I was in New York City in early 2002, less than six months after 9-11. We were meeting Benj DeMott, a friend of Randall Williams who I worked for then, and his wife for dinner in China Town. Benj (who I had never seen before then and haven’t seen since) published a newspaper (now a website, maybe still a newspaper, I don’t know) called 1st of the Month, and in it I read an article titled “End Sharecropper Education!” by a guy named Bob Moses. In that article, I encountered new ideas that would affect me dramatically as someone who would become a teacher about a year later: Moses likened inadequate education systems to the kind of shadowy tactics that held sharecroppers in a state of peonage, and demanded that the practice stop. That article made a powerful impact on me with the idea that some people are intentionally undereducated in order to provide a consistent cheap-labor pool.

Radical Equations, Bob Moses’ two-part memoir about his Civil Rights movement experiences in Mississippi in the 1960s and his later founding of the Algebra Project, describes how his foundational experiences led into his efforts to improve math literacy as a means of improving socio-economic equality. At this point I have finished reading the foreword by David Dennis and the first two chapters that constitute “Part One: In the Spirit of Ella.” In Part One, Moses writes about his decision in early 1960s to get involved in the Southern movement for equality, even though he had a relatively comfortable life as a Harvard-educated teacher at the elite Horace Mann Prep School, as an extension of his own circumstances as an African-American man who constantly had to ignore racist behavior and comments from the white people who outnumbered him. Moses spends a good deal of the first two chapters discussing the differences between youth and student organizations like SNCC and preacher-led organizations like SCLC. He wrote that the student movements were more aligned with the ideas of thinkers like Ella Baker, who believed in communal grassroots efforts where both work and rewards are shared by all, as opposed to efforts that focus attention on the charismatic leadership whose presence overshadows the common people who do much of the work. Moses himself faced the violence of the early 1960s in Mississippi, and worked closely with others who were beaten and even killed.

I am going to begin reading Part Two, about the Algebra Project. My interest in the Civil Rights movement has transitioned in the last year or so, away from concentrating on learning about the history and toward looking at how that work continued from the 1970s to today. My interest in the Algebra Project and Young People’s Project, which Moses founded in 1982 and 1996 respectively, are the kinds of work I’m becoming more and more interested in. How do we move forward with that understanding of what happened in the past, and how and why it worked in achieving greater equality?

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