The Moses Factor

Nearly four decades after he played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement, Bob Moses has returned to Mississippi with a new equation for equality.

The students enter the classroom noisily and take their places in groups of five or six at a series of beat-up tables. Some open the clear plastic folders containing their work and look over what they did in yesterday’s class. Others rummage through their backpacks and talk with their neighbors.

Bob Moses stands at the front of the spare white room, taping sheets of newsprint to a flip chart. With his wire-rim glasses, gray goatee, and serene composure, he looks like a cross between a college professor and a yogi. Even in a roomful of 25 ninth-graders, Moses has the calm, self-contained manner of an Eastern mystic.

”Okay, listen up,” he says. ”Enter your data, then get the means and displacements.” Moses designed this lesson, called the wingspan exercise, to teach key concepts about algebra and statistics. First, students measure one another’s outstretched arms from fingertip to fingertip; then they calculate the mean for their group and the ”displacement” of each person’s wingspan from the mean.

The students settle down to work. Along two walls, big windows offer a glimpse of the sagging houses and vacant lots that border the school. Lanier High is located on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Jackson, Mississippi, and like so many other streets named for the Civil Rights leader in black communities across America, it speaks more of defeat than of dreams. Lanier was the first African American high school in Jackson, and it remains virtually all black, with two whites in its student body of 911. Some 83 percent come from families with incomes below the poverty line. Most read and do math below their grade level. A third fail to graduate. Only a handful go on to attend four-year colleges.

Moses goes from table to table, helping students with their algebra problems. The children were not yet born when their teacher first came to Mississippi in 1961, and few realize that the man checking their math was one of the most venerated leaders of the Civil Rights movement, considered by some to be the equal of King. As a ”field secretary” with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Moses organized sharecroppers, domestics, and others at the bottom of society to fight for their right to vote — an effort that sparked a violent backlash from whites accustomed to unchallenged rule. In the face of beatings and arrests, Moses became legendary for his humility and calm commitment. In 1964, he orchestrated Freedom Summer, the ambitious project that drew nearly 1,000 volunteers to the state and focused the national spotlight on Mississippi when the Klan murdered three Civil Rights workers.

”Moses pioneered an alternative style of leadership from the princely church leader that King epitomized,” says Civil Rights historian Taylor Branch, author of Parting the Waters. ”He was the thoughtful, self-effacing loner. He is really the father of grassroots organizing — not the Moses summoning his people on the mountaintop as King did, but, ironically, the anti-Moses, going door-to-door, listening to people, letting them lead.”

Now, nearly four decades after he left the state, Moses is back in Mississippi to work on what he sees as a second revolution: math literacy. Teaching algebra to descendants of sharecroppers doesn’t involve the same danger as Civil Rights organizing. Indeed, Moses has received many official honors — including the designation of a Bob Moses Day — from the state that once branded him an ”outside agitator.” His new work is quieter but, he contends, potentially more radical.

”The absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities is as urgent an issue today as the lack of registered voters was 40 years ago,” he says during a break between classes. ”And I believe solving the problem requires the same kind of community organizing that changed the South then. If we can succeed in bringing all children to a level of math literacy so they can participate in today’s economy, that would be a revolution.”

Every Monday morning, Moses, now 67, leaves his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at 5:30 and takes a flight through Cincinnati to Jackson — a seven-hour trip. He spends the next four days teaching ninth-grade algebra and geometry at Lanier. On Friday evenings, he makes the reverse trip to Cambridge.

Moses believes that mastering algebra, preferably by the eighth grade, is the modern-day equivalent of the right to vote because it represents a dividing line between having — or not having — a chance in life. ”In the 1960s, we opened up political access,” he says. ”The most important social problem affecting people of color today is economic access, and this depends crucially on math and science literacy, because the American economy is now based on knowledge and technology, not labor.”

It’s easy to see why Moses considers higher math to be the key to economic equality. A study by the Department of Education shows that high school students who take rigorous math and science courses are more than twice as likely to go to college as those who don’t. But the same study reveals that many minority and low-income students are steered away from such courses or attend schools that don’t offer advanced math. As a result, many lack the skills they need to find decent work.

Moses began his new movement, the Algebra Project, when he was helping his own children with math 20 years ago. The nonprofit organization and its affiliates, based in Cambridge and Jackson, now have 22 full-time employees and an annual budget of $2.5 million. It currently reaches 10,000 students in 13 states, the majority at middle schools in the South.

Moses has developed a special curriculum to make algebra more accessible to students, and his organization trains local teachers in his method. But what makes the Algebra Project unique among education-reform movements is its emphasis on grassroots organizing. Just as Moses did during the Civil Rights movement, project leaders work and live in the communities they’re trying to change. Every school that offers the Algebra Project holds regular meetings to organize parents, students, teachers, and community leaders around math literacy the way Moses organized sharecroppers around the vote. ”In the 1960s, people said sharecroppers weren’t interested in voting until they stood up and demanded the franchise,” he says. ”Today the kids themselves are the only people who can dispel the idea that they don’t want to learn.”

Such a bottom-up approach is unusual among education reformers, who typically focus on hiring more teachers or boosting test scores. ”Bob is in the trenches, building a culture around math that draws kids into his program,” says Uri Treisman, a University of Texas math professor who is a national leader in efforts to improve the math performance of minority students. ”It’s an inspired notion — and it works.”

Moses draws students into learning algebra by starting with a simple physical event, like measuring wing-spans. Rather than simply asking children to manipulate mysterious symbols, he gives them a concrete experience to help them understand the concepts of math. The students then talk about the experience, isolate the features that are mathematical, and work with them.

In his classroom at Lanier, students have finished calculating the displacement of wingspans in their groups. Moses then asks them to write down what they did and why — not just in numbers but in sentences. ”Students need to learn to understand what the problems are about,” he explains. As they work, Moses and Wilma Morris, a former Tougaloo College math professor who teaches the class with him, go from table to table asking questions. ”Now what’s the next step? What did you do? Where is your mean?” Porchia Jefferson has written a whole paragraph. ”Mr. Moses, is this right?” she asks brightly. He reads her work and asks, ”What is a displacement? What are we getting at here?” When he moves on to a different table, the girl sitting next to Porchia asks what he told her. ”He said I wrote what I did but not what was meant,” she says and starts over.

”Can I do this?” Ahmed Dortsch asks, coming up to Moses and showing him his calculations. Moses asks a few questions, and Ahmed goes back to his table. ”I think I got it,” he says, and shows another boy what he learned. ”He breaks it down for you to understand,” Ahmed says of Moses. ”Other teachers struggle with you, but he’ll find your problem and get straight to it.”

Other students put their heads on the table, stare into space, talk, crack jokes, slip over to other tables. Moses and Morris hone in on them. ”Did you get your mean, Courtney?” ”Shawn, have you done your calculations? You need to get started.”

”I need a job,” one boy comments.

”You have a job — to train your mind,” Moses responds.

Moses remains calm during these interactions. He does not raise his voice or express frustration, even when he sends a student to the principal’s office for disrupting class. He answers questions deliberately, his eyes seeming to focus inward for answers, and he rarely smiles or laughs. Moses sees his students as inheritors of ”the legacy handed down through the history of this country around the education of black people.” He calls this legacy ”sharecropper education” — a limited education for people assigned manual work. Sharecropper education is not confined to the South, but also permeates inner-city schools in the North.

”If you think of sharecropper schooling, you went through it, but your options were you were going to chop and pick cotton or do domestic work,” Moses says. ”Your education wasn’t tied to opportunity. The connection between education and a change for the better in your own life wasn’t made.”

Despite the Colin Powells and Condoleeza Rices, he adds, that link still is not clear among many poor African Americans because they do not see anyone they know whose success is tied to education. ”The big question we need to address in this country today is, How do we shift the culture in our inner cities and develop these expectations and beliefs for these kids?”

Before he was a Civil Rights worker, Moses was a math teacher. Raised in a Harlem housing project, he attended Stuyvesant High School, which specialized in math and science, then Hamilton College in upstate New York, where he majored in philosophy and logic. He had received a master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University and was teaching math at Horace Mann, a private school in the Bronx, when the student sit-in movement drew him to the South. As one of the few black students in white institutions, Moses had learned to avoid confrontation and repress his feelings of humiliation. ”I felt a great release when I began doing something to take on prejudice and racism,” he recalls.

The Mississippi that Moses entered in 1961 was a closed society, with apartheid enforced by the law and the Klan. Within a few months of his arrival, Moses was beaten up by the sheriff’s cousin when he accompanied two local blacks to the courthouse in a county where not a single black was registered to vote, and a local leader was shot and killed. People were afraid to challenge the status quo. ”They were frozen,” Moses recalls. What broke the ice, he found, were small workshops where sharecroppers and domestics talked about practical issues that bothered them, brainstormed about what to do, and took steps to do it.

”Bob never set us down and said, ‘This is what you should do, or this is how you should do it,”’ says L.C. Dorsey, a former sharecropper who attended the meetings. ”He kept putting the questions out: ‘Why do you think that is? What do you think we ought to do about that?’ He’d listen to what you said and force you to think about it. That was his genius. He could hold his own ideas in abeyance and wait for you to finally develop the picture.”

His refusal to lead in the traditional sense created a powerful organization — but it also maddened people desperate for guidance and caused SNCC meetings to drag on into the night. Freedom Summer registered 75,000 blacks and elected representatives to oppose the state’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention. But the victory came at a heavy price. Four people were killed and 80 were beaten that summer, the party refused to seat the black delegates, and the model integration among SNCC organizers fell apart in bitter arguments over race and black consciousness. Within a year, Moses left SNCC and the South.

”He was finely attuned to the implications of what they were doing,” says Branch, the Civil Rights historian. ”Would people be hurt? Was he leading them down a primrose path? His sensitivity could be seen as a weakness. King was more like General Sherman when his people were killed, and you need this toughness to keep going. It tore Moses apart.” Moses, who dislikes talking about his feelings, sums up that period in his life by saying only, ”It wasn’t a happy time.”

In 1968, when his draft board refused to grant him conscientious objector status, Moses left the country. He and his wife, Janet, a Civil Rights worker who now is a pediatrician, lived in Tanzania, where three of their four children were born and Moses taught math at a school where nobody knew his past. ”I lived a life as just another person,” he says. ”That helped me get grounded again and helped our family be just a family.”

What would become the Algebra Project began after Moses moved to Cambridge in 1976 and began work on a Ph.D. in the philosophy of math at Harvard. Freed from financial burdens by a MacArthur ”genius grant,” he was ”fishing around for a kind of movement” — and he found one that combined the two previous chapters of his life. Upset that his oldest daughter Maisha’s middle school did not offer algebra, he asked the teacher to let her sit with him in a corner of the classroom and do more advanced math. The teacher asked if he would take a few other students too. Recognizing that many children were falling behind, Moses drew on the organizing skills he had honed in Mississippi to bring parents together. Within a few years, the school was offering algebra to all eighth-graders.

But Moses didn’t stop with his daughter’s school, expanding the project to other states. In the classroom, he noticed that some children had difficulty moving from an arithmetic understanding of numbers to an algebraic one. One student in particular kept getting the wrong answer because he didn’t pay attention to whether the numbers were positive or negative. ”He had only one question, the arithmetic question of ‘how much?’ I had to add another question you need for algebra: ‘which way?”’ From this insight, Moses developed the Algebra Project curriculum.

To add ”which way” to ”how much,” Moses takes students on trips that make the concepts real for them — the subway in Cambridge or a tour of Civil Rights landmarks in Mississippi. ”On the subway, the first decision you are faced with is inbound or outbound,” he says. ”Then you get into how many stops.” The students draw a trip line with any stop as the benchmark, which is assigned the coordinate zero. The stops to the left are assigned a negative value, to the right, a positive, so any trip represents a number of stops (how many?) in either direction (which way?).

This method of teaching math produces ”aha!” moments even for some of the more experienced teachers trained in the Algebra Project. ”When I went to the training, I began to understand math concepts I had only memorized, to be honest with you,” says Lynn Moss, a former sixth-grade teacher at Brinkley Middle School in Jackson. ”More than that, I learned an instructional practice — starting with an experience — that is so much more meaningful.”

The innovative curriculum may excite students and teachers, but Moses knows that it’s not enough, by itself, to turn schools around. For this, the Algebra Project relies on community organizing to try to produce a demand from the ”target population” of students and parents for more math and better education. ”People will not follow other people’s agenda,” Moses says. ”Goals have to be internalized.” He considers the ”most strategic part” of his approach to be the Young People’s Project, which mobilizes teenagers to run math camps and workshops for younger students. Some 70 students in Cambridge and Jackson tutor math on a regular basis, with another 40 helping in the summer camps.

The youth project is led by Moses’ daughter Maisha, now 31, and son Omo, 30. During the week, Moses lives with Maisha and Omo in their ranch-style home on the outskirts of Jackson, and students involved in the project often meet here. Moses considers these teen-agers his real success stories, and whenever he speaks in public about the Algebra Project, he brings some of them with him to demonstrate math exercises. Just as the Civil Rights movement required African Americans to challenge not only the white power structure, but their own fears, the students who accompany Moses must push themselves to learn something well enough to stand up in public and explain it. ”I used to say, ‘Man, this is hard. I can’t do this,”’ says Jessie Sims, a 16-year-old. ”When I finally stopped saying, ‘I can’t do it,’ I started doing it.” Another 16-year-old, Sylvester Davis, agrees. ”I use what Mr. Moses does in my other subjects,” he says. ”Like I’m taking Spanish. Those verbs scare me. I think of what Mr. Moses says: ‘Look at it. Apply what you already know.”’

One thing Moses didn’t expect when he began the Algebra Project was that it would bring him back to Mississippi. He first returned to Jackson in 1989 after the release of Mississippi Burning, a movie about the murder of three Civil Rights workers during Freedom Summer. Distressed that the heroes in the movie are FBI agents, Moses and others met to discuss how to respond. At the gathering, he convinced Dave Dennis, another veteran of the movement, that math literacy is the contemporary Civil Rights issue.

Dennis, who’d become a lawyer in Louisiana, agreed to join Moses in bringing the Algebra Project to schools in the South. Moses began teaching classes at Jackson’s Brinkley Middle School in 1996, and the following year he came to Lanier. At first, Moses says, his interest in returning to Mississippi was primarily strategic. ”Because of the history, Mississippi is a theater where we can lift our program out of the ‘let’s teach math better’ box and take it to the country as a Civil Rights issue.” But when he began driving down the roads he had traveled decades earlier, the history became more personal. He made contact with the doctor who had stitched up his head after one beating and another doctor who had treated a fellow SNCC worker when he was shot. ”I began to feel that this was a good place for me,” he says.

Almost every week, Moses drives an hour and a half to the town of McComb to visit C.C. Bryant, the local NAACP leader who put him up when he first came to Mississippi in 1961. Bryant, now 85, still lives in the little yellow house where Moses stayed, though today it is located on C.C. Bryant Drive. Entering through the back door, Moses finds Bryant and his wife watching television. As they talk politics and exchange banter, Moses visibly relaxes, even breaking into laughter. His host knows the reason for the change. ”When he comes here,” Bryant explains, ”he’s comin’ home.”

When Moses isn’t in Mississippi, he’s often on the road, training teachers in his method, speaking at conferences on education reform, visiting university math departments, and lobbying to put math literacy higher on the national agenda. His book about the Algebra Project, Radical Equations, was published last year. He’s equally driven in his spare time, maintaining a vegetarian diet, meditating regularly, and swimming 1,500 yards each day. He is known for following his principles even in minor matters. ”You won’t find Bob in a tuxedo even at a fancy fundraiser,” says Harvard psychiatry professor Alvin Poussaint, a friend since childhood. ”He sees this as a way the upper classes pull rank on the lower classes.”

Poussaint, who serves on the Algebra Project board, says the organization once lost a research grant because Moses insisted community people be involved in designing the research to be funded.

The available evidence indicates that the Algebra Project works. An evaluation of four schools across the country conducted by researchers at Lesley University in Cambridge found that graduates of the program enroll in upper-level courses at a much higher rate than their peers, making it more likely that they will go on to college. Standardized-test scores improve at schools where at least half of all students learn math from Algebra Project-trained teachers. At Lanier, enrollment in geometry and advanced algebra has gone up substantially since Moses arrived, and his students surpass their peers on standardized tests. The school has now expanded the program to include all ninth-graders.

But despite the progress, the Algebra Project faces serious obstacles. Even with the special curriculum created by Moses, getting students to pay attention remains a problem. Enlisting parents and community leaders in the education of their children is also slow going. When Moses called a special meeting for parents at Lanier one evening, just 18 showed up. Clustered in one corner of the school’s cavernous auditorium, the tiny group seemed to symbolize just how far Moses remains from his goal.

Everyone gives Moses high marks for his commitment, but some suggest that his methods and personality may not always be the most effective. One advanced math teacher at Lanier faults him for letting his students use calculators too much and not requiring them to do more math drills.

Other criticisms mirror those made against Moses in the 1960s. His insistence on including everybody in meetings — and requiring meetings for just about everything — can exhaust even the most faithful. ”The more inclusive you are, the less efficient,” says Stewart Guernsey, a lawyer who helps raise money for the project. Poussaint notes that ”some people wish Moses would be more forceful.” His speeches at fundraisers are often less than rousing and he dislikes socializing with wealthy donors, making it harder for the project to raise money.

Moses responds to such criticism by doing exactly what he’s been doing for 40 years — listening to people no one else listens to, asking probing questions in the hope that they will figure out what’s wrong and take it upon themselves to improve their lives. One afternoon, a student he had suspended comes in with his mother to see him after school. ”Mothers seem to be the one place where there’s a real connection,” Moses explains. As the three of them sit at a table in the empty classroom, the boy looks subdued. Moses explores in a tone of inquiry, not judgment, why the boy wasn’t paying attention. If you couldn’t see what I was doing, why didn’t you move? he asks. Why do I have to keep after you? What are your plans after high school? Do you have a backup plan if the NBA doesn’t work out?

After that, Moses spends an hour patiently going over, step by step, the wingspan exercise.


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