I was in my kitchen making split pea soup when I heard that Bob Moses had died. I immediately did a mental double take. I turned off the radio voice that had brought me the news. Then I Googled his name to make sure it was true. The Wikipedia entry for Robert P. Moses confirmed the date of death. I still did not want to believe it. Maybe this was someone else. Yes, I knew his full name was Robert P. Moses. But, maybe, just maybe this was someone else. The picture in the Wikipedia entry confirmed the reality yet again. I walked around the kitchen for a few minutes, stunned stupid, unsure of what to do next. Finally, I stood still while a cloud settled over me and I tried to process what had happened.
I have heard people say that when a person they loved died, they found it hard to believe that the world could keep going, that people could keep walking around and living their lives while their loved one is gone. The world did not stop the day Bob Moses died. I did not stop for long, either, at least not physically. I kept on making soup, prepared a salad, poured some water. But something inside my head got stuck. That part that is always thinking about justice and freedom – what does it mean, how do we get there – all of a sudden got stuck, like the gears of a faulty transmission.
So much about what I believe a just society is and what an activist can be came from learning about Bob Moses. He was the person I most wanted to be like when I was studying the icons of the civil rights movement. He was brilliant and soft spoken; a devout humanist and a consummate philosopher. With a mathematical mind and a Harvard philosophy degree, he had options, even as a Black man in 1960’s America. And he chose to fight for his people. As a young woman in my twenties, I read about Bob Moses the young man, doing consciousness-raising and voter registration work in the 1960’s. Ensconced in what was arguably the deadliest place in the country at that time for civil rights warriors – Mississippi – he fought determinedly for Black people’s human rights, getting beat up and jailed alongside his comrades, who had deep respect for his courage, his insight, and his humility. Moses understood what mattered and that his credentials did not make him any better or more worthy of life and options than anyone else. He made a life out of cultivating other people’s strengths.
The rest of my evening continued on as planned, but with the thought of Bob Moses’ death sitting, stuck in the gears in the back of my mind. It woke me up in the middle of the night, the night before I was scheduled to return to work after a week off. I worked on this blog between breakfast and the minute before the work day started, trying to piece together my morning thoughts with the few thoughts I had scribbled down about Moses the evening before. I got through the day alright with all the usual duties and distractions, before the Moses death thought made itself known again. I started looking for two books that changed my life and that mentioned Moses: I’ve Got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne and Walking with the Wind by John Lewis. I wanted to read about him again, as if for the first time. I couldn’t find either book, so I started roaming through my memories.
It was about 20 years ago, when I was earning my first master’s degree at Duke, that I actually got to hear Bob Moses’ voice in person. He had come to the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, which was still housed in a basement at that time. He talked about the Young People’s Project (YPP), an initiative led by his son Omowale Moses to help young people learn and teach each other math. YPP grew out of the Algebra Project, which Moses founded in 1982 to improve math literacy among students who were doing poorly on standardized math tests. I’ll never forget that day. It wasn’t the words he said that stuck with me, though his words were important. It was his face, his calm, his eyes, his warmth, the soft steadiness of his voice, his earnestness, and how sure he was of his purpose. Listening to Bob Moses – this man who helped change the course of human history and holds near-mythic status among me and other students of the civil rights movement – listening to him speak in a basement room in North Carolina was one of the most precious and surreal experiences I will ever have. I still can’t quite believe that the voice I heard that day will never be heard alive again.
This is it. This is all I can write about Bob Moses right now. I did not know him and cannot claim any sort of closeness to him. I just know that some piece of his spirit is stuck inside me and will be, always.
Robert P. Moses
January 23, 1935 – July 25, 2021
Rest in Power