For Bob Moses, the civil rights organization led to his life’s work


Civil rights activist Bob Moses founded The Algebra Project to help black students develop strong math skills. Princeton Public Library / Flickr, CC BY-ND

As the organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee during the 1960s, Bob Moses traveled to the most dangerous parts of Mississippi to help African Americans end segregation and gain the right to vote. But it would be tutoring math students 20 years later at her daughter’s racially mixed college in Massachusetts that would lead to her life’s work – The Algebra Project.

The algebra project is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping students from historically marginalized communities develop their math skills – that is, an individual’s ability to formulate, use, and interpret math in a variety of contexts. Moïse founded it in 1982.

After researching the role of Moses in the civil rights movement for my book – “Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt” – and later interviewing him for various SNCC projects, it became very clear that The Algebra Project arose directly from his civil rights work in Mississippi. This work helped transform Mississippi from a segregationist stronghold into a focal point of the Civil Rights Revolution.

In his book “Radical equations”, Moses recalls that in 1982, he was surprised to find that his daughter, Maisha, who was entering eighth grade at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was not going to learn the school. algebra because the school didn’t offer it. Without knowledge of algebra, she couldn’t qualify for math and science classes in high school.

math efforts

As explained in his book, Moses had a background in math. In 1957, before joining the civil rights movement, he obtained a master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University, then taught college math for a few years in the Bronx, New York, at Horace Mann School, a prestigious private school located just north of where he grew up in Harlem. And from 1969 to 1976, he taught algebra in Tanzania before returning to the United States to work on a doctorate in the philosophy of mathematics.

Moses asked Maisha’s teacher if he could give his daughter extra math lessons in the classroom, as Maisha refused to be homeschooled – she objected to what she called “two. math ”. The teacher agreed, but on condition that Moses also instruct some of Maisha’s classmates, according to his book.

Moses accepted. Like the teacher, he believed that all children, including those from historically marginalized communities, deserved a chance to take advanced math and science classes in high school.

At the end of the school year, Maisha and the three students who studied with her passed the city algebra exam. They were the first in their school to do so, according to his book.

Excited by this success, Maisha’s teacher asked Moses to work his mathematical magic with more students.

But it was not magic.

Moses succeeded in teaching algebra to students who were frequently followed in less rigorous classes and curricula because he believed that black, brown, working-class, and poor children could master algebra – or other advanced classes – even at an early age.

He also knew that these same students would be eager to study mathematics if the teaching revolved around their lived experiences. Memorizing by rote would not work; the content had to be relevant.

Moses agreed to teach the incoming eighth graders even though none of his children were in the class. “I was starting to think I had found my job,” he writes in “Radical Equations”. And his job was to teach math literacy in the emerging digital age.

A black boy is working on a math problem in the classroom.

Mastering mathematics for African American children was an essential aspect of Moses’ philosophy and work. Ariel Skelley / DigitalVision via Getty Images

The key to a better life

Moses believed that mastering mathematics was a gateway to equality in a post-industrial society. He explained in 2007: “In our society, algebra is the place where students are asked to master a quantitative literacy requirement. And so therefore, algebra becomes available as an organizing tool now for educational rights and for economic rights. In other words, math literacy would provide access to the kinds of computerized careers that would enable African Americans and other historically marginalized youth to permanently improve their living conditions and the social and economic conditions of their lives. communities.

But Moses was not interested in teaching a few students, just as he was not interested in enrolling only a few black Mississippians. He wanted to educate as many young people as possible, the same way he wanted to organize as many blacks as possible in Mississippi.

Reaching more young people, however, has required a radical change in the culture of learning at school. Expectations about when young children from marginalized groups should study algebra must have changed, which was no small task given that many children were not expected to study algebra at all.

Just as he once organized sharecroppers, he began to organize parents.

Emphasis on independence

In the civil rights movement, Moses regularly relied on the wishes and desires of the people he organized, so much so that he left the movement in 1965 when he felt that people too often turned to him to find solutions to their problems. This is the approach of his mentor, veteran activist and SNCC advisor Ella Boulanger, who led by asking questions rather than providing answers.

Moses told parents at school about the lack of opportunities to do algebra, which he recalls led them to launch an investigation which showed that – as explained in his book – “All parents thought their child should do algebra, but not all parents thought that every child should do algebra.

Parents were shocked and somewhat embarrassed by the survey results, which led to a consensus to allow any seventh or eighth graders to take algebra.

Just two years after Moses’ daughter passed the citywide exam, King School offered algebra to seventh and eighth graders, and even offered Saturday classes for parents.

Today, The Algebra Project is fighting to ensure that students receive the quality math education they deserve by supporting learning cohorts in dozens of schools across the country where students have historically had poor math scores on eighth grade state tests. The impact of the project at Mansfield Senior High School in Mansfield, Ohio, is illustrative. In eighth grade, the math proficiency level of The Algebra Project cohort was 17%. By grade 10, this number had increased to 82%.

Ella Baker liked to say: “Give light and the people will find the way”. Few did it better than Bob Moses, who died on July 25, 2021.

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Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history, Ohio State University

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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