“He spoke quietly, he didn't give big sermons like Martin Luther King. He didn't seek out dramatic confrontations like the Freedom Riders and the sit-ins, but he did inspire a broad range of grass-roots leadership... To this day he is a startling paradox. I think his influence is almost on par with Martin Luther King, and yet he's almost totally unknown.” Civil rights historian Taylor Branch on Robert Moses.
NPR's excellent profile of Robert Moses provides a much-deserved spotlight on the work of a man who has devoted his life to civil rights and universal access to quality education. As a young adult, Moses was an organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was director of SNCC’s Mississippi Project. A MacArthur Foundation Fellow from 1982-87, Dr. Moses used his fellowship to develop the concept for the Algebra Project, an organization whose work is dedicated to transforming math education in disadvantaged schools.
“Education is still basically Jim Crow as far as the kids who are in the bottom economic strata of the country,” Moses says. “No one knows about them, no one cares about them.”
It's exactly this inequality in the education system — based more on class than race — that makes this work as important as the work he did 50 years ago, he says. [Listen to the story here.]
A few years ago, Robert Moses invited one hundred prominent African American and Latino intellectuals and activists to meet to discuss a proposal for a campaign to guarantee a quality education for all children as a constitutional right. Quality Education as a Constitutional Right: Creating a Grassroots Movement to Transform Public Schools emerged from that effort; the book includes essays that illuminate a vision for a new civil rights movement centered on schools. Read the introduction at Scribd.
Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project is a blueprint of Robert Moses' vision of justice in education. To provide more context for the NPR story, here is an excerpt from Radical Equations that clearly maps the connections between Moses' civil rights work and the Algebra Project.
The concept of “one person one vote” provided Mississippi sharecroppers and their allies with a minimum of common conceptual cohesion. That is, “one person one vote” was a shared goal. It was an organizing slogan; but more than that, it reflected an ideal that tapped deep traditions in American democracy and that allowed at the time a consensus to develop around it. The daily grind of living in Mississippi in 1961 (“if they don’t get you in the wash, they get you in the rinse”) gave rise to grassroots demands for political access that in turn gave rise to demands for unity that could use “one person one vote” as an organizing tool.
Organizing, in turn, required space to develop. The “crawl space,” as I call it, in which we actually carried out such organizing was the 1957 civil rights bill creating the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. The existence of that new department meant, among other things, that John Doar and his federal lawyers could investigate beatings of potential voters walking up to the courthouse in vicious towns like Liberty, Mississippi, and return an opinion at odds with that of the FBI and local police authorities: that is, that people other than the “usual suspects” anxious to protect local custom were watching; Mississippi could not simply lock up voter registration workers and throw away the keys. This federal involvement—tiny though it was—was important because it was what provided the little crawl space that enabled us to begin working.
Both things were important: the consensus around a minimum of common conceptual cohesion and the crawl space that allowed it to become effective.
The concept that provides minimum common conceptual cohesion for the work of the Algebra Project takes the form of an “if, then” sentence:
If we can do it, then we should.
The “we refers to a complex configuration of individuals; educational institutions of various kinds; local, regional, and national associations and organizations (both governmental and nongovernmental); actual state governments as well as the national political parties; and the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national government. The “it”—the goal of educating all our children well—rests on a complex conceptual consensus that is woven into the cultural fabric of this country: the idea that young people who grow up in the United States are entitled to free public education, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. But there is emerging in U.S. culture something more specific and powerful than that. In recent years a real national consensus, on the political left and on the political right, has begun emerging that all children can learn, and that all children deserve the best education they can get. And that such an education is absolutely necessary. This is actually a new consensus; it did not exist fifty years ago, when, schools were segregated North and South and not finishing high school was much more widely accepted because lacking a high school diploma was not the handicap to putting food on the table that it is today. Of course, this expressed belief in the capacity of all children to learn, and commitment to making the effort to provide them the opportunity, is an ideal that’s often given lip service more than real action. And it drives wrongheaded as well as constructive “school reform” efforts. But it is a widespread public viewpoint. Compare the national consensus in favor of educating all children well with the absence of such a consensus on health care. It is clearly not true that Americans as a whole believe (yet) that "if we can provide universal access to quality health care, we should.” They do believe it about education.
Obviously, the work of the Algebra Project has to do with math in particular. The consensus on education—like the “one person one vote” consensus forty years ago—provides the necessary foundation for a more specific agenda, in this case the concept that every student will complete a college preparatory mathematics curriculum in high school. (It is clearly not sufficient since only 11 percent of students in the United States do so now.) The work of the Algebra Project is to help close the gap between universal free public education and universal completion of a college preparatory math sequence in high school. Specifically, our work is to build a consensus—and organize a movement—around another hypothetical that gives the required minimum conceptual cohesion:
If we can teach students algebra in the middle school years, then we should do it.
Like the effort to bridge the gap between the ideal of “one person, one vote” and the reality of registering every Black voter in Mississippi, this work of the Algebra Project is ambitious and can be realized. Like our work in the 1960s, it requires organizing, and organizing requires some crawl space.
What, then, is our crawl space? Like the crawl space created by the 1957 Civil Rights Act, it is a space created in the larger political and social world that we can use to our advantage. The space for algebra as a civil rights issue is created by nations and institutions now making a global transition from reliance upon technology that primarily organizes physical labor to technologies that directly organize mental labor. I see history’s broom sweeping us all along a common corridor as a crawl space toward liberation.