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Robert Moses, civil rights activist, remembered in Cambridge ceremony, jazz parade

Janet Jemmott Moses, widow of Robert Parris Moses, outside St. Mary’s of the Annunciation Church after Saturday's service for her late husband.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Jazz beats resounded through the air Saturday, as family, friends, and celebrities honored the memory of renowned civil rights leader Robert Parris Moses during a solemn morning church service, followed by a joyful New Orleans-style procession to a public celebration of his life at Starlight Square.

Moses, who died July 25 at age 86 in his Hollywood, Fla., home, had worked for years to build up political rights and educational opportunities for Black Americans. He helped register voters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964, and in the 1980s, he launched the Algebra Project in Cambridge to help the nation’s students of color take college preparatory math courses.


Moses is legendary for his work in the nation’s civil rights movement, and during Saturday’s service at St. Mary of the Annunciation Church, stories about that were weaved in with personal anecdotes revealing a man whose generosity and strength of spirit inspired loved ones as much as colleagues.

Janet Jemmott Moses, Moses’s wife, told mourners during the service that her husband had an indomitable will and that he taught by example.

“Our family learned how to lead a full, meaningful life by struggling to manifest, even in the smallest of ways, a vision for the liberation of our people. I miss him. He will linger in my mind and heart forever,” Jemmott Moses said.

Actor Danny Glover, left, a board member of the Algebra Project, with Albert Sykes after the memorial. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Speakers at Saturday’s church service included veterans of the civil rights movement, like Dr. Alvin Poussaint, who knew Moses since they were both students at Stuyvesant High School in New York City.

Poussaint said Moses was among the nation’s most outstanding leaders in social justice and equity.

“Bob was so much more than a hero. He was a game changer. He was also my dear friend. I miss him, we all miss him with love,” Poussaint said during the service.


Moses was born in Harlem, N.Y., and was one of three siblings. After Stuyvesant, he attended Hamilton College, where he was one of just three Black students in his class. He graduated in 1956, and after receiving a Rhodes Scholarship, attended Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree.

He returned to New York City and taught mathematics in the Bronx, but following a visit to a Southern relative, he spent a summer working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. He spent four years as an activist, and faced arrest and physical violence, including being shot at.

He avoided the Vietnam War draft by moving to Canada and later to Tanzania. He relocated to Cambridge in the late 1970s, after President Jimmy Carter granted unconditional pardons to people who had evaded the draft.

Moses received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1982, and later launched what became the Algebra Project initially to help his daughter Maisha study algebra in the eighth grade.

Moses talked about some of the civil rights efforts he participated in during a 2001 Globe interview.

“In the ‘60s, we seized on the right to vote in Mississippi and organized Blacks for political access, and eventually that came about,” Moses said. “So today we are seizing on math literacy as a tool of organizing economic access.”

On Saturday, another of Moses’s daughters, Malaika Moses, talked about a deep connection among those who had gathered Saturday to remember her father. Those ties, she said, were a “great gift to him.”


“He’s given us so much, he’s given the world so much, he’s given the family so much. Each of us has done our part ... to help him on his path, and at this point, we can certainly offer our love to him,” she said.

The memorial service was followed by a New Orleans-style funeral procession ending at Starlight Square. Here, members of the Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans entered the church.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Actor Danny Glover, who is a board member of the Algebra Project, praised Moses for his generous nature and called him a “beautiful spirit.”

“His spirit lives in every single one of us.... He continues to be with us in those moments that we need him most, when we are in doubt, when we smile, or when we see the achievements of our young children,” Glover said. “We’re going to smile, and we are going to remember one of the most beautiful men that I’ve ever met in my life.”

Cornel West, one of the nation’s leading scholars and progressive activists, called Moses a “spiritual genius of the highest order” and an intellectual titan who linked the world of ideas to action.

Gesturing to a nearby photo of Moses, West said that in the image, “You see a long, rich tradition of a great people.”

West placed Moses in the same lineage as other civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth.

“Bob Moses was such a humble brother, [he] did not have a fake bone in his body,” West said. “How did he do it? He decided to be a love warrior in the face of all that white supremacist hatred coming at him, [and he was] straightening his back up.”


Members of the Black Men of Labor from New Orleans danced with others in procession to Starlight Square, where festivities included dance performances and speeches about Moses’s legacy.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Following the church service, many of those in attendance joined together in a noontime procession to the city square celebration, where festivities included dance performances and speeches about Moses’s legacy.

Some, including Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, left messages honoring Moses written on banners.

“Cambridge is forever indebted to Dr. Robert Moses and his lifelong fight for equality,” Siddiqui wrote. “His legacy lives on in our city, this country, and across the world.”

Cliff Freeman, 28, who attended the event, said he met Moses as a high school sophomore. He credited the civil rights icon and educator for inspiring him to take education seriously and helping him develop a love for math.

“His legacy is the people, the voices,” Freeman said.

Java Galipeau, who described herself as “a product of” the Algebra Project and the Young People’s Project, spoke at length about the impact Moses had on her as a young student struggling to channel the effort she was investing in schoolwork into good grades.

In an interview, Galipeau said Saturday’s events “continued a tradition of celebrating.”

“His work speaks for him, so we should celebrate.”

Moses’s son, Omo, said during an interview in the square that the public event was an opportunity to help people celebrate the life of his father, who had worked “in the trenches” for civil rights.


“His spirit and his work are always with us,” he said.

Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Family and friends came out to honor the memory of Robert Parris Moses on Saturday. Daria Johnson marched during the procession to Starlight Square.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Charlie McKenna can be reached at charlie.mckenna@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @charliemckenna9. John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.