SEP 2001

Radical Equations:
Math Literacy & Civil Rights

by Robert Moses & Charles Cobb Jr.

Beacon Press
2001. 240 pages.

Robert Moses, the 1960s Mississippi civil rights icon, has taken the freedom struggle in a new direction: toward math literacy. In his 2001 book Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights, Moses (with co-author Charles Cobb, senior editor at the information agency) makes the argument that strong training in mathematics is the key to entry into the competitive, high-tech job market, without which there is no improving the lot of disenfranchised communities. "In today’s world," writes Moses, "economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy. I believe that the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered Black voters in Mississippi was in 1961."

What enticed me to read this book was, even more than its subject matter, its author: the legendary Bob Moses. Moses, in 1961, was the 26-year-old, quiet, bespectacled northern educator who entered the hostile territory of Mississippi and, by building a movement one sharecropper at a time, opened the state to voting rights. Freedom for Mississippians came at a high price: Moses and his friends in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as well as the local people allied with them, were repeatedly beaten and jailed, and more than a handful were killed. (Mississippi, home to a thriving Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils—both of which had extensive ties to what was called "law enforcement"—led the nation in lynchings, beatings, and unexplained disappearances of African Americans in the early 1960s.)

If you’ve never heard of Bob Moses, perhaps that’s because he never sought the limelight: in fact, he shunned it. At one point he even took on his mother’s maiden name, Parris, to escape the cult of personality that was developing around him. Moses’ role model—his fundi (Swahili for "one who shares knowledge")—was Ella Baker, considered the godmother of the civil rights movement, who believed in creating lots of leaders. In contrast to the leader-centered movement of Martin Luther King Jr. (with whose tactics Moses is quick to disagree), Moses and Baker sought to shape a people-centered movement. Their goal was to empower sharecroppers, domestic workers, and other voiceless people to stand up and demand what should have been theirs all along. "History demonstrates that taking responsibility for one’s own life, one’s own learning, can change a person," writes Moses in Radical Equations.

One of the real treats of Radical Equations is that Moses devotes two chapters to his 1960s organizing experiences—the first time I know of that Moses, himself, has told his own story. He puts a refreshing spin on events typically described in disappointing tones. For instance, whereas historians generally bemoan the fact that monumental voter registration efforts resulted in only a few new Black voters, Moses celebrates the reality that for the first time, sharecroppers were thinking about voting. And while others focus on the reluctance of older Black people to join the movement, Moses analyzes the consensus for change and renewal of spirit that gradually developed in Black communities. In contrast to what has been written by former civil rights activists about the ever-present fear that created a knot in their stomachs, Moses explains how he was able differentiate between times when he was truly in danger and times when he was not, and how important it was to relax and forge friendships on front porches of local people during relatively safe times. For Moses, political organizing was all about the creation of caring and courageous communities—of young and old, rural and urban, formally educated and informally educated. Perhaps that philosophy is what has sustained him for all these years.

In Radical Equations, which is part autobiography, part organizing manual, and part math primer, Moses finds common ground in the math crusade of the ’80s and ’90s and the voting-rights crusade of the ’60s through the following statement: "If we can do it, then we should." In Mississippi, the we was civil rights workers, sharecroppers, and their allies, and the it was "one person, one vote." With math literacy, the we is community organizations, educational institutions, and governments at local, state, and national levels. The it is "the goal of educating all our children well." Moses sums up his current endeavor as: "If we can teach students algebra in the middle school years, then we should do it."

Like the fight for voting rights, Moses theorizes that a battle for education can only be won when consensus exists in the community regarding what needs fixing and how to fix it. He presents anecdotal evidence of a consensus regarding the failure of schools to educate all children—especially Black children—and the need for systemic educational reform. (In Mississippi in 2000, only 38 percent of eighth graders scored at or above the minimum measure of math proficiency). As stated by Mae Bertha Carter, a Black Mississippian who fought for school desegregation in the ’70s and ’80s, shortly before her death in 1999: "The way to control Black people or anybody is to keep them dumb....Back in slave time they catch you reading and they would whip you. Education, that’s the goal....If you are uneducated you don’t know nothing...So what they’re doin’ is handicapping these kids. These school systems ain’t doin’ nothing but handicapping these children."

In 1982 Moses founded the Algebra Project with the prize money from his MacArthur "genius" award (given primarily for his 1960s civil rights work in Mississippi). "The work of the Algebra Project," writes Moses, "is to help close the gap between universal free public education and universal completion of a college preparatory math sequence in high school." The A.P. began as a pilot program in the Cambridge public school classroom of Moses’ eldest daughter, Maisha. Since that time, the A.P. has spread to schools in several major cities (Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, San Diego, Milwaukee, Louisville, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and others) and covers large swaths of the rural South from the Mississippi Delta to North Carolina. In many of the schools where the A.P. is in place, students’ math scores on standardized tests have improved tremendously.

Educators, organizers, and parents alike will be interested in Moses’ pedagogy—how he uses experiences relevant to students’ lives to teach them algebra (a subway ride, for instance, is used to demonstrate concepts of distance, direction, starting and ending points, and the use of symbols—all important to algebra—and graphing calculators are used in classrooms to capture the interest of the push-button Nintendo generation) and how he and his team of young trainers (including his own children) work their way into the hearts and minds of young people in underserved districts.

The A.P., as described by Moses, has managed to rekindle an interest in learning even in cynical and disillusioned young people. One indicator of the project’s success is the involvement of students themselves in furthering their education. A few years ago, A.P. students formed their own organization, the Young People’s Project. The Y.P.P. is now a network of youth-directed groups through which students offer each other support and encouragement and develop strategies to push school boards to meet their educational needs.

Radical Equations is a literary odyssey that will challenge readers to formulate their own responses to questions that are posed several pages before they’re answered. What Moses has given us with this book is nothing less than his accumulated years of wisdom, courage, and inspiration. He leaves it to us to make a change for our youth that will result in a more just society.


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