The recent passing of Bob Moses offers a quiet moment to consider the varied lessons intellectual historians—and others—should take from the Civil Rights Movement. Going from New York City to the campus of Harvard to the dirt roads of Mississippi, the first thirty years of Moses’ life were a whirlwind of politics, thinking, and activism. His own life and thinking serve as a broader representation of how many African American activists participated in a rich and genuine Black intellectual tradition. While numerous tributes have already illustrated the broad public impact Moses had on American society, our tribute at Black Perspectives seeks to consider why Bob Moses was a significant force in the Black American intellectual tradition.
Bob Moses came to the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, right as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) undertook one of its early voting registration campaigns in the Deep South. The experiences in Mississippi as part of SNCC contributed to Moses’, and others, believing in an idea promulgated by Moses as “tactical nonviolence.” A different viewpoint on protest that is distinguished from ideas of armed self-defense—promoted by Robert F. Williams, Malcolm X, and often practiced throughout the American South by Black Americans—or nonviolent, civil disobedience, “tactical nonviolence” considered the need to go on the offensive in the battle for civil and human rights, but to not go as far as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideas about loving those who oppressed those suffering.
In his 1964 interview with Robert Penn Warren, as part of the “Who Speaks for the Negro?” series, Bob Moses made clear what he—and many others in SNCC—believed about Dr. King’s philosophy. Moses argued that “the majority” of his colleagues in SNCC were “not sympathetic to the idea that they have to somehow love the white people that they are struggling against.” There was always a richer, and far more complicated, debate among civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s about what was to be done in the greater struggle for freedom. Recognizing Bob Moses’ contributions to these debates should be a clear priority for everyone remembering him.
Often, Moses found himself at the center of the intellectual debates of the Black 1960s and the Civil Rights/Black Power movements. His participation in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, and witnessing its defeat at the hands of mainstream liberals in the Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention, was a crystallizing moment for Moses. Seeing activists die in Mississippi that same summer, Moses ruefully noted that “the country, unfortunately, moves only in response to acts of violence.”
Again, consider what this statement said about the general state of Black political and social thought in 1964. During an era otherwise celebrated as the height of American liberalism, many Black activists, intellectuals, and common citizens all asked whether there was a deeper rot at the core of American society that could not be cured. Moses critiqued this rot when he took an early stand against the American war in Vietnam in April 1965. Long before many other activists—such as Dr. King—publicly stated their opposition to the war, Moses made it clear he was steadfast in his belief that the war was unjust and immoral. Moses was part of the long Black intellectual tradition of critiquing American foreign policy.
For that matter, his traveling to Africa in the 1960s also left an indelible mark on his life and thought. As part of a delegation from SNCC that traveled to Guinea in September 1964, Moses was able to see up close the burgeoning freedom, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist movements in Africa. Later on, leaving the United States due to being drafted to serve in Vietnam, Moses moved to Canada and eventually worked in Tanzania from 1968 until 1976. Moses, like so many other Black intellectuals and activists, could only find a modicum of freedom away from America’s shores.
His own work in establishing the Algebra Project after his return to the United States is another example of how historians and others should think broadly about the idea of the Black intellectual. Establishing the Algebra Project in the 1980s to encourage middle and high school students to excel in mathematics, Moses’ efforts with the Algebra Project represent a different—but equally important—strain of the Black intellectual tradition, by using education to get ahead in American society. It was also an example of how numerous civil rights activists approached the problems of the post-civil rights era in a variety of different ways. Some, like John Lewis, went into the political arena. Others, like Gloria Richardson, decided to work locally in their own unique way, to help others. Moses, of course, continued to push for national change through education.
The passing of Bob Moses is also important to historians of the Black intellectual tradition for one final, sobering reason. As has been pointed out with the passing of Gloria Richardson, and before her John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, the generation of activists who formed the core of the Civil Rights Movement are rapidly leaving us. It is incumbent upon all historians of the Black experience in the United States to work as hard as possible to capture these stories. For intellectual historians, it is critical to continue to put their lives—and ideas—in the context of the larger fights over intellectual thought that formed the backbone of 20th century African American and American history.