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Robert Moses, civil rights activist and education advocate, has died at 86

"What a brilliant, conscious, compassionately active human being," tweeted the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in response to Moses' death.
Civil rights activist activist Robert Parris Moses in New York in 1964.
Civil rights activist activist Robert Parris Moses in New York in 1964.Robert Elfstrom / Villon Films via Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Robert Parris Moses, a civil rights activist who endured beatings and jail while leading Black voter registration drives in the South during the 1960s and later helped improve minority education in math, has died. He was 86.

Ben Moynihan, the director of operations for the Algebra Project, said he had talked with Moses' wife, Dr. Janet Moses, who said her husband died Sunday morning in Hollywood, Florida. Information was not given about the cause of death.

Reactions to Moses' death poured in across social media from admirers, educators and activists.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center called Moses a "leader," among other accolades.

"#BobMoses has died. What a brilliant, conscious, compassionately active human being. Educator. Organizer. Leader. Rest well, sir," the center tweeted.

José Vilson, an activist, educator and author, tweeted that he was thankful for Moses' contributions and shared a picture of the two together.

"I was fortunate to give Robert 'Bob' Moses his flowers while he could still smell them. When I read 'Radical Equations,' I felt a pathway open up in my math pedagogy that I hadn't seen before. Thankful for the work this giant put on this Earth as he now joins the ancestors. RIP," he wrote.

Cornel West, the scholar and progressive activist, said "words fall short" of describing Moses.

"My dearest brother Bob Moses – spiritual genius, intellectual giant and moral titan – has left us! Words fall short! He was larger than life and one of the great exemplars of our humanity! Let us never forget him!" he tweeted.

Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, wrote that Moses was a "giant."

"Throughout his life, Bob Moses bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice. He was a strategist at the core of the voting rights movement and beyond," he tweeted. "He was a giant. May his light continue to guide us as we face another wave of Jim Crow laws. Rest in Power, Bob."

Director and activist Ava DuVernay shared a quotation from the activist Tom Hayden after the news of Moses' death.

"'When people asked what to do, he asked them what they thought. At meetings, he usually sat in the back and spoke last. He slept on floors, wore overalls, shared the risks, took the blows, he dug in deeply.' - Tom Hayden on Bob Moses, who has journeyed home and who loved us so," she wrote.

Nate Powell, a graphic novelist who included Moses in his book about the life of John Lewis, "March," shared an image of Moses he had drawn as part of the series.

"Rest In Peace to Bob Moses, a powerhouse of compassion and action. He was the person I most enjoyed learning about while drawing March, and I've kept his example in my heart since," he wrote.

The official account for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called Moses "one of the greatest crusaders for civil rights."

"Today, we mourn the loss of one of the greatest crusaders for civil rights, access to education, and the pursuit of justice. Bob Moses will always be remembered as one of the most courageous leaders in American history. Rest in Power," a tweet from the account read.

Moses worked to dismantle segregation as the Mississippi field director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, during the civil rights movement and was central to the 1964 "Freedom Summer," in which hundreds of students went to the South to register voters.

Moses started his "second chapter in civil rights work" in 1982 by founding the Algebra Project thanks to a MacArthur Fellowship. The project included a curriculum Moses developed to help poor students succeed in math.

Moses was born in Harlem, New York, on Jan. 23, 1935, two months after three people were killed and 60 others were injured in a race riot in the neighborhood. His grandfather William Henry Moses had been a prominent Southern Baptist preacher and a supporter of Marcus Garvey, a Black nationalist leader at the turn of the century.

Like many other Black families, the Moses family moved north from the South during the Great Migration. Once they were in Harlem, his family sold milk from a Black-owned cooperative to help supplement the household income, according to "Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots," by Laura Visser-Maessen.

While he was attending Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he became a Rhodes Scholar and was deeply influenced by the work of the French philosopher Albert Camus and his ideas about rationality and moral purity for social change. Moses took part in a Quaker-sponsored trip to Europe and solidified his beliefs that change came from the bottom up before he received a master's degree in philosophy at Harvard University.

Moses didn't spend much time in the Deep South until he went on a recruiting trip in 1960 to "see the movement for myself." He sought out Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta but found little activity in the office and soon turned his attention to SNCC.

"I was taught about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe," Moses said later. "I never knew that there was denial of the right to vote behind a Cotton Curtain here in the United States."

Moses tried to register Blacks to vote in Mississippi's rural Amite County, where he was beaten and arrested. When he tried to file charges against a white assailant, an all-white jury acquitted the man, and a judge provided protection to Moses to the county line so he could leave.

He later helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to challenge the all-white Democratic delegation from Mississippi. But President Lyndon Johnson prevented the group of rebel Democrats from voting in the convention and instead let Jim Crown Southerners remain, drawing national attention.

Disillusioned with white liberal reaction to the civil rights movement, Moses soon began taking part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and then cut off all relationships with whites, even former SNCC members.

Moses worked as a teacher in Tanzania, returned to Harvard to earn a doctorate in philosophy and taught high school math in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Later in life, the press-shy Moses started his "second chapter in civil rights work" in 1982 by founding the Algebra Project.

The historian Taylor Branch, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Parting the Waters," said Moses' leadership embodied a paradox.

"Aside from having attracted the same sort of adoration among young people in the movement that Martin Luther King did in adults," Branch said, "Moses represented a separate conception of leadership" as arising from and being carried on by "ordinary people."