Last summer, when the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, the decision dealt a major blow to the courageous efforts of thousands of civil rights activists who, during a summer 50 years ago, weathered the hostile Jim Crow South to help blacks in Mississippi reclaim their civil rights.
Robert P. Moses was one of those activists. As a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary, he helped organize the Mississippi Summer Project, better known as Freedom Summer, in 1964 to challenge the brutal oppression and disenfranchisement that Mississippi blacks faced at the polls. His efforts—backed by black activists and hundreds of Northern white college students—highlighted the need for federal voting-rights legislation and built momentum for the Voting Rights Act.
Two decades later, Moses, a former math teacher, created the Algebra Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing math literacy among low-income students and students of color so that they are prepared to complete college-level math.
From June 25 to 29 a number of organizations, including the Algebra Project, will host the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., not only to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer but also to encourage dialogue and build a coalition around education for the nation’s most marginalized students.
A soft-spoken and thoughtful Moses, 79, talked to The Root about how he would like his Freedom Summer legacy to be remembered and whether we can actually achieve a post-racial America.
The Root: What anniversary activities are you helping to organize this summer to commemorate Freedom Summer?
Robert P. Moses: We have four activities. And there’s a whole youth wing to the summer for the 50th celebration. The young people are organizing their own activities. One of the major ones that will happen in Mississippi is a ballot initiative to collect a couple hundred thousand signatures to fully fund public school education in Mississippi.
On the adult side, we have workshops that will deal with voting, education, health and work. We’re hoping that we will be able to put the summer project of Freedom Summer in perspective for each of those areas, but also begin to see if there is a consensus about a way forward and, if so, what some next steps might be.
TR: How would you like your legacy in Freedom Summer to be remembered?
RPM: As part of a legacy of people who learned how to live a life of struggle in the country. They carved out a piece of work … to get the country to work on its main problem: slavery vs. freedom dimension; its justice vs. injustice dimension; education vs. illiteracy dimension. I’d like to think of myself as a member of people who did that line of work.
TR: What advice would you give to today’s young activist who wants to continue the fight for civil rights?
RPM: They need to find the other people, particularly people who want to assume a public stance, to enter into a public conversation. It’s not what you can do by yourself. It’s not too early to begin to think about what kind of country do they envision and what will their role be. How will they assume their responsibility for sustaining it?
TR: Many people claim that since America has a black president, we’re living in a post-racial society, but clearly that’s not true. What does a post-racial America look like to you?
RPM: A century from now, it’s possible that we could have a post-racial America. If we do, it means … people in the country will have decided that they can actually share their living space within their families with different races, the same way that in the last century they figured out to do that with people of different European heritages and across different religious spaces.
There’s not much indication that this is going to happen anytime soon, although the younger generation has loosened up some of its sensibilities. But it won’t happen unless we make a commitment to educate everyone in the bottom quartile. We won’t be able to generate a post-racial society unless we solve the education issue, because in the 21st century, the economic issue is tied up with knowledge work, so the diffusion of knowledge across all spectrums of society becomes crucial. Without that, there’s very little hope of narrowing the growing inequality.
Erin C.J. Robertson is a summer intern at The Root.