With a vision for grassroots and community-based leadership Robert Parris Moses initiated and organized voter registration drives in the South, sit-ins, and Freedom Schools for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
He was the main organizer of the famous Freedom Summer project and was also instrumental in founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which forced the integration of the mainstream Democratic Party.
After being denied conscientious objector status for the Vietnam War, Moses left for Canada in July of 1966. Two years later he would relocate to Africa and settle in a small village in Tanzania where for the next eight years he taught mathematics.
Moses returned to the United States in 1976 following President Carter’s amnesty program and resumed his doctoral studies in philosophy at Harvard. During that time Moses grew more concerned about minority children failing to achieve the mathematical skills necessary for college entrance and future job placement.
While completing his PhD at Harvard in 1982, Moses was awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘‘Genius’’ award which he used to develop the Algebra Project, whose goal was “to demonstrate how students who enter high school performing in the lowest national quartile in mathematics can accelerate their learning, pass state and national (ACT/SAT) exams, and be prepared for college mathematics.”
Algebra, Moses asserts, is what will empower blacks economically in the information age .. just as voting empowered blacks politically during the industrial age. “You can’t do calculus, physics, or engineering if you can’t do algebra,” according to Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
The Algebra Project began at one school in Cambridge, Massachusetts and expanded to more than 200 middle schools nationwide by the late 1990s. Later, the program expanded to high schools as well as middle schools, and it is now present in thirteen states. “I’ve been in the classroom and watched these students … soar and grow,” says actor Danny Glover, an Algebra Project board member.
And just as voting had to be federally mandated and funded in order for blacks to participate more fully in America, so must education Moses asserts.
In 2001, Moses published a book, Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project, in which he explains how the principles of the Civil Rights Movement can be applied to the fight for equitable public education. He also explains how community involvement is the key to successfully changing schools and communities for the better.
In addition to the MacArthur Fellowship, Moses has received several awards for his work. And now at an age where most are retired, Moses continues teaching in Algebra Project schools and traveling, sharing his model for community-building and improving education all over the United States.
Locally, the Algebra Project has been operating out of Northwestern High School in Liberty City. At 9:00 a.m. every Saturday morning, volunteers arrive at Miami Northwestern Senior High, where the classroom is packed with students and volunteers who stand in solidarity as they pursue their common goal: to empower “the least of these” in the Information Age.