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Institute for Social Justice at Union Institute & University to honor legacy of Bob Moses

Civil rights icon believed everyone could lead
Bob Moses is looking intently at another person in this undated photo taken during his days as a civil rights organizer. He's wearing glasses, a t-shirt and overalls.
Posted at 3:33 PM, Aug 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-05 08:54:37-04

CINCINNATI — Bob Moses isn’t exactly a household name in most Greater Cincinnati homes.

But if the Walnut Hills-based Union Institute & University has its way, the late civil rights icon’s leadership style soon will become much better known.

The Institute for Social Justice at Union Institute & University is working to create a Bob Moses educational series using the archive of materials assembled there over the years. One of the goals will be to train students – starting as young as middle school – to tap into their leadership potential and organize others to make change, said Stewart Burns, a professor of ethical and creative leadership in the Union Institute & University’s interdisciplinary PhD program.

That is exactly what Moses did, Burns said, because he believed “that everyone was a leader – at least potentially.”

Moses, who died July 25 at the age of 86, learned that perspective from the influential civil rights activist Ella Baker. Moses met Baker when he traveled to Mississippi to join the fight for civil rights, said Burns, who also was a friend of Moses.

“He believed that developing the leadership of rural people, sharecroppers and others, you know, very poor people in Mississippi was really the way to build the movement from the ground up – not from the top down,” Burns said. “He tried to carry out what Ella Baker called group-centered leadership, where the focus was on the group, not on the charismatic leader, but on the group, and everyone was pretty much on an equal level.”

Education as a civil rights issue

Moses quickly became a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which Baker helped create. He directed SNCC’s Mississippi Voter Registration Project from 1961 to 1964 and was a lead organizer for the 1964 Mississippi “Freedom” Summer Project.

Bob Moses, right, listens intently in this undated photo taken during his days as a civil rights organizer. In the photo, he and two other young organizers are gathered talking with an older person.
Bob Moses, right, listens intently in this undated photo taken during his days as a civil rights organizer.

His role in the civil rights movement was not widely celebrated because Moses preferred to stay in the background, but Burns said that his contributions were just as important as some of the nation’s greatest civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Moses earned a PhD in the philosophy of mathematics from Harvard University. He was a MacArthur Foundation Fellow from 1982 to 1987 and used his fellowship to launch the Algebra Project. The nonprofit works with middle and high school students who previously performed poorly on standardized tests to help them boost their math skills. The goal is to help them can graduate on time in four years and take college math for credit.

“Bob Moses contextualized education as a civil rights issue and created the Algebra Project as an innovation and example of teaching for liberation,” Dr. Michael Simanga, a scholar, educator and artist on the doctoral faculty of Union Institute & University, said in a news release. “One of his great gifts as a freedom fighter was to seek and develop new ways of organizing and serving those with the least resources. He did this in Mississippi with Freedom Summer and with his work as a teacher. As an activist educator, his impact on the movement for social justice cannot be overstated.”

More information about The Institute for Social Justice at Union Institute & University is available online.

Information about the Algebra Project is available online, too.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.