Bob Moses was a quiet man with a huge impact.
He first came to prominence as one of the brave student leaders quite literally putting their lives on the line fighting for civil rights during the “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi in 1964. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he was a comrade of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a confidante of Stokely Carmichael.
After moving to Cambridge in the late 1970s, Moses founded the Algebra Project, a math-education program with social justice at its core. He won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1982.
Though he was a celebrated civil rights leader, in person Moses — who died in 2021 — was soft-spoken, humble, and deeply philosophical. Moses was a giant who didn’t need, or particularly want, public attention, unless it helped to advance the causes he held dear. (Typically, when he was being portrayed as a character in the play “All the Way” at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, he told me he wasn’t sure he was going to see it.)
While some of those he worked closely with — like Carmichael and John Lewis, the late congressman — went on to become famous national figures, Moses was always closely drawn to the idea that change begins at home.
As befits a grassroots organizer, his brand of activism was powerfully rooted in local communities.
And it is that legacy that his family is now preserving and extending as it establishes the Bob Moses Fund for Education and Organizing. Administered in collaboration with the Cambridge Community Foundation, the fund will honor — and provide financial lifelines — to community activists. The initial two recipients received grants of $75,000 apiece.
Janet Moses, Bob’s widow, explained to me that her husband deeply believed in supporting the work of those making a difference in the places where they lived. That was true of many of the people he worked alongside in the movement, whose names aren’t well-known, and whose deeds will never be memorialized on the Boston Common.
“In every community there’s local brilliance, and there is leadership, and it’s our job to unearth that, to find it, to work with it, and to understand that they in many respects are our teachers,” she said in an interview.
The first awardees are Derrick Evans and Jeremy Dennis.
Evans, a retired Boston schoolteacher and longtime Roxbury environmental activist, has been leading an effort to preserve a historic community of Turkey Creek, Miss. Established by formerly enslaved people, it is now imperiled by development and coastal flooding driven by climate change.
The other honoree, Dennis, is a photographer and member of the Shinnecock nation who has established a residence and communal arts space for people of color in Southampton, N.Y.
Significantly, the money comes with no requirements.
“Usually, these resources come with strings attached,” said Omo Moses, Bob’s son. “And it’s about doing more work, but work that other people think you should be doing. This is an attempt to just honor who they are, and the work that they do.”
To fund the project, the Moses family has raised over $400,000, mostly from private donors. (Omo’s boyhood pals Matt Damon and Ben Affleck kicked in $100,000 apiece.)
The fund also supports an annual conference at MIT devoted to social justice ― specifically, to education, voting, and incarceration. Like the grants, the conference recognizes that the work Moses was committed to remains unfinished.
That work, ultimately, was about building a democracy that everyone can participate in. That was the cause that drew Moses from New York to register voters in the Deep South in the 1960s, and it was the focus underlying the project he undertook in later years.
“Unless we find our way across this chasm of caste in every institution in this country, then we are not going to have this democracy,” Janet Moses said.
His family is determined to continue the work of fighting for equality and social justice, and to supporting others in the fight. Just as Bob Moses would have wanted.