Civil rights icon Robert Moses promotes middle school algebra

There were more than three-dozen witnesses at this week’s D.C. Council roundtable on middle schools, but one appearance carried a special historic resonance. Robert Moses, the legendary SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) organizer, came to town for the cause that has taken up much of his last 30 years: algebra as a civil right for middle school kids.


(AP File Photo/Rogelio Solis)

Moses is founder of The Algebra Project, a non-profit that works with schools to make algebra more available to middle schoolers as a way of fostering careers in math, science and engineering. Algebra I and II are offered in high school in DCPS.

Moses, who risked his life organizing voter registration drives in Mississippi for SNCC in the early 1960s, became interested in math literacy as an engine for social change through his daughter Maisha. In 1982, she was entering the eighth grade when he discovered that her school did not offer algebra at that level. He used a MacArthur Fellowship to help set up The Algebra Project to train teachers across the country. Moses and his group also do community organizing around education issues.

Moses said there is a direct line connecting his work with disenfranchised sharecroppers for SNCC and with teachers and students for The Algebra Project.

“What is our problem?” he told the council Wednesday. “We run failing schools for the poor and rescue some of them by lottery and other education devices....The horizon of black sharecroppers’ education was to be no higher than the station of the work assigned them. We now run sharecropper education for the poor and the nation continues to wink and blink.”

Moses, who lives in Boston, came to D.C. to discuss bringing The Algebra Project to some city schools. His appearance reunited him with another former SNCC organizer, Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). who praised him as “singularly responsible for the massive change in attitudes in Mississippi.”

“People have missed the significance of what you did,” said Barry, wants to see Moses and his organization active in Ward 8 schools.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.

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