My People, Let Pharaoh Go

The Biblical story of Moses resonated deeply in the black community. Antebellum blacks embraced the story of a man inspired by God to win the freedom of his long enslaved people. “Moses” was a logical name for Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who returned south 19 times to lead 300 plus slaves to freedom.

A little more than a century later, another freedom fighter went south to continue the work started by Tubman. That man’s surname was Moses. Robert Parris Moses grew up in Harlem where he became a brilliant student admitted to New York’s best schools. In 1961 the 26 year old Moses went south to participate in the Freedom Rides.

Moses ended up in Mississippi and he worked on education and voting rights in that most inhospitable of states for the next five years. Truly visionary leaders go places most people don’t go and they make connections that most people can’t make.

Community organizing in Mississippi in the early and 1960s invited harassment, intimidation and violence. That’s why only five percent of the state’s black residents registered to vote. The power structure targeted outsiders, and especially black northerners. That explains the unwillingness of national civil rights leaders to work in Mississippi. Moses risked and endured persecution to push for voting rights for the state’s black residents.

The Ivy League educated Moses gained instant credibility with the rural blacks because he listened to them. In 1964 more than 1,000 college students nationwide to converged on Mississippi. Their goal was to register people to vote. The effort became known as Freedom Summer and the work – registering voting age blacks, educating students and organizing the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the credentials of the segregated Mississippi  Democratic Party at the presidential nominating convention – was dangerous.

The Ku Klux Klan burned churches and beat volunteers. Three volunteers lost their lives. Yet, by the end of 1964, Moses, the Freedom Summer volunteers and activist residents such as Fannie Lou Hamer disproved the belief held by Mississippi whites and some black elites that rural black sharecroppers could not be mobilized.

By the early 1980s, Mississippi had more black elected officials than any other state. However, Moses observed economic changes that threatened the hard won advances blacks made during the civil rights movement. American’s transition to a post-industrial economy was under way by the 1980s. Moses, a brilliant math student, understood that modern society would reward people who gained math literacy and would punish those who failed to grasp higher level math – especially algebra.

Moses perplexed long time allies such as Dave Dennis when he started talking about math literacy being the next phase of civil rights movement. Dennis stated as much in the forward that he wrote to Moses memoir “Radical Equations.

“Poor Bob, I thought, disheartened. He’s lost his mind, “flipped out.”… “He’s out here comparing math to the civil rights movement, saying algebra is some kind of ‘gatekeeper’ course.” Of course, history proved the visionary leader Moses correct.

Moses won a MacAuthur Fellowship in 1980 for his work on what he calls the Algebra Project, an effort to improve math literacy among the poor with a particular focus on blacks and Hispanics. Moses uses the first chapter of his book to lay out his case for why such a literacy project is necessary. We’ve all heard the data that Moses uses because we’ve seen how the great recession delivered a punch to the gut – to use a phrase used by Mitt Romney during last year’s presidential campaign – to those trained to work in the old economy.

I will share one data point from this book that was written in 2001. Moses notes than 1.3 million high tech jobs went unfilled that year, and that number was expected to double by 2006. Moses makes a call for society to double down on math literacy in an insightful way that comes from being a leader who thinks about issues with the aim of taking transformational action.

Moses writes that society made great strides to combat illiteracy. Most people believe that it is unacceptable if a child can’t read at grade level. Yet, the same people assume that it is inevitable for all but the most gifted students to struggle in math. That mind set is simply not acceptable in post industrial America. Moses explains why and lays out his vision to combat math illiteracy in “Radical Equations.” I will spend the next few days reading Moses’ book and blogging about each of the chapters.

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