People didn’t know what to think when Robert Moses made math literacy a civil rights issue in the 1980s. A lot of people knew exactly what to believe. They thought Moses was crazy. Moses saw a connection that movement veterans did not see when he started the Algebra Project.
The skepticism never fazed Moses because he confronted the same doubts when he and a group of college volunteers joined teenagers, sharecroppers and long time activists decided to bring the franchise to black MIssissippians.
Moses writes in Standin’ at the Crossroads, the third chapter in his book “Radical Equations” that the establishment erected a wall of silence around the state. All forms of horrible oppression took place behind that wall. Elites didn’t think black Mississippians could change their situation. “One argument, originating from Mississippi whites and echoed by the federal government was that Mississippi Black people were apathetic.”
State officials built their unjust laws on the foundation of fear and apathy among the state’s black population. The establishment was more than willing to use violence, intimidation to maintain that foundation.
Moses learned leadership lessons during his work in the state in 1962, 63 and 64 that guided the Algebra Project initiative. Through his work with veteran activists such as Amzie Moore and Aaron Henry, young students like Hollis Watkins and sharecroppers such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Moses learned that the people of Mississippi voting would solve many of their problems. He learned that people would mobilize when the power structure made nakedly oppressive power plays such as cutting food aid to delta sharecroppers.
Once mobilized, Moses learned that leaders would emerge organically. These local leaders worked to organize voter education and registration campaigns throughout 1963. They combined their efforts with the 1,000 volunteers who traveled to the state during Freedom Summer in 1964.
Moses saw how those local leaders grew and matured as they faced oppression and intimidation. The black volunteers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worried about a plan to integrate the movement during Freedom Summer. Leaders such as Hamer argued in favor of a mass integrated movement of out of state volunteers and like minded Mississippi whites. Hamer noted that the groups fighting the segregationists would lose the moral high ground if they kept whites out.
Moses realized that math literacy had to be the movement’s next great project while working to bring the vote to Mississippi blacks. Automation allowed plantation owners to do more work with fewer people. A machine could pick 100 pounds of cotton in a day. The most hearty person managed to pick about 30. The big planters who immediately began working on plans to force blacks out of the state. That would be called ethnic cleansing three decades later in Bosnia.
Blacks and poor people would always be victimized by the technological change if they did not master math. More importantly, many working class blacks understand this fact and are ready to play a leading role in the change to transform their communities and their lives, if elites trust them to make the right decisions.