We welcome to the blog a guest post by Laura Visser-Maessen, author of Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots. One of the most influential leaders in the civil rights movement, Robert Parris Moses was essential in making Mississippi a central battleground state in the fight for voting rights. As a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Moses presented himself as a mere facilitator of grassroots activism rather than a charismatic figure like Martin Luther King Jr. Examining the dilemmas of a leader who worked to cultivate local leadership, Visser-Maessen explores the intellectual underpinnings of Moses’s strategy, its achievements, and its struggles.
In today’s post, Visser-Maessen explores Robert Parris Moses’s Algebra Project as a valuable example of Civil Rights Movement strategies employed to create social change.
After the 2015 riots in Baltimore and elsewhere, I was struck—though not surprised—by many of the media’s depictions of its black inhabitants, as if they were irrational, self-defeating hoodlums, rather than emphasizing stories like that of Wayne, one of several hundred students in Baltimore’s public schools who participate in the Algebra Project (AP). Wayne had been kicked out of several schools until his AP involvement made him realize “what I can do inside of school and how I can help other people.”
The AP is a nationwide nonprofit educational program for underprivileged public school children founded by civil rights activist Bob Moses in the 1980s. Its story shows that there are effective ways of remedying these communities’ problems, largely because they build on the models African Americans set before them, especially Moses himself in 1960s Mississippi. But it also harbors intriguing lessons for American society today, about democracy, race, and class, by posing vital questions like: who is deemed worthy by society to be invested in and when? And what do working-class minorities need to do before white taxpayers will join their struggle for meaningful citizenship in the same vein as during the 1960s?
Historically, literacy was quintessential for blacks to escape subordinate conditions, but they also conceived of education as a preparation for responsible citizenship. Citizenship was not just a right, but it had substance to it, so they emphasized creating a sense of personhood and seeing themselves as agents of social change, thereby intrinsically linking the fight for education to community building.
That these agents could also come from the bottom of society was a lesson the 1960s civil rights movement reinforced. Under Moses’s guidance, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) set up voter registration campaigns in Mississippi geared towards uneducated sharecroppers. SNCC promoted “facilitating local leadership”—giving tools to locals needing help, but urging them to develop their own skills. Believing that any human being, no matter how poor or uneducated, had something worthwhile to contribute to the community and the struggle, SNCC aided their initiatives, such as voter registration, becoming literate, running for political office, setting up community centers, and strengthening preexisting grassroots networks.
From this, Moses stitched together a philosophy of social change that he successfully reapplied in the AP: the people with a problem must themselves demand change, but success depends on internal organization and participants’ ability to attract allies with resources by presenting their demands and themselves in a way that convinces themselves and those not directly affected by the outcome of the struggle that theirs is “an earned insurgency.”
Yet whereas SNCC emphasized literacy for political access, the AP prioritizes math literacy to secure economic access, because in today’s information age, algebra skills are key in obtaining college acceptance and thus career advancement. These skills, however, are undervalued in public schools; students and educators accept the idea that math isn’t for them, just like many in the 1960s accepted that voting—citizenship—was only for an educated elite. The AP therefore advocates that all children can and deserve to learn math. And if they feel a part of something, they will then value and exercise the duty to strive for change and betterment of society as a whole. As such, the AP also uses math as an organizing tool to foster citizenship and grassroots leadership, making it the new twenty-first-century civil rights movement. And with success: numerous independent studies have indicated the high number of college acceptances from AP participants as well as their unusually high display of social consciousness.
The AP story forms a powerful counter-narrative to the idea that inner-city blacks value neither education nor their community, and can correct the false image of them as mere beneficiaries of white largesse rather than the proactive, responsible citizens needed to convince a national audience that they indeed have earned their insurgency and whites’ commitment.
But AP’s existence also signals the current dismal status quo of U.S. racial relations. Today’s continued general acquiescence to separate-and-unequal schooling is a reminder of the role, if any, society at large envisions for the poor, especially minorities, and how many major reforms are still needed, particularly in housing, the justice system, welfare administration, and voting laws. Moses’s 1960s lesson that social change is a long-term product of top-down and bottom-up leadership is still valid; ultimately ordinary people will have to come together and offer solid descriptions of quality education that can be encoded in law and monitored by governmental agencies and an organized public. Without such national involvement, this new movement will remain in an infancy stage. Yet supporting it would be the strongest claim of saying that Black Lives Matter.
Laura Visser-Maessen is assistant professor in American studies at Utrecht University. Her book Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots is now available.