As he approaches 80, Robert Moses — the civil rights movement icon, education visionary, and longtime Cantabrigian — is having a cultural moment.
Moses figures prominently in a new PBS documentary on Freedom Summer, the seminal struggle in Mississippi that brought the fight for racial equality to the forefront of America’s consciousness in 1964.
Moses is also a character in “All The Way,” a play about Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights era movement, also set in 1964. The play premiered at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard before becoming a Broadway hit. It recently won multiple Tony awards, including best play.
Moses views these events with the detachment of a philosopher. He doesn’t think they have much to do with him personally, never mind his major roles in them. In fact, he had not even known that he was the inspiration for a character in “All The Way” until the play was well into its run. At the same time, the producers didn’t know that one of the play’s two living characters lived in anonymity just a few blocks from the theater.
Moses, Harlem born and Harvard educated, made his name as a community organizer in Mississippi. He was teaching math at Horace Mann, a fancy New York City prep school, when he heard about sit-ins down South and decided, in 1960, that he needed to see them for himself. Working in some of the most highly charged areas of the South, he became a confidant of the leaders of the civil rights movement, including the Rev. Martin Luther King. A planned PhD program at Harvard was put on hold while he joined the movement.
“Freedom Summer” tells of the events that changed Mississippi. The story has been told and told again, yet remains hard to absorb. Three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — were murdered while attempting to register voters in Philadelphia, Miss. Their killings outraged the nation in a way previous events hadn’t.
Moses attributes the outrage not just to the killings themselves, but to the participation of white college students in the movement.
“The country could not see itself through the eyes of SNCC workers or through the eyes of black Mississippi natives,” Moses said. “But the white students who were college students, who were part of the social geography of the country, that penetrated. And the country was shocked to see what it hadn’t wanted to see, hadn’t been able to see in some very deep sense about itself.”
After the movement he spent a few years in Tanzania, then moved to Cambridge to finish his doctorate on the philosophy of mathematics. He later founded the Algebra Project, an innovative program that teaches math to inner-city students, winning a MacArthur “genius” grant along the way.
Settling in Cambridge was something of an accident. When he returned to graduate school at Harvard in 1976, his children found the move from rural Africa a bit difficult, but they adjusted. Moses looked up one day and realized that, as far as America was concerned, this was home. So the Moses family stayed put.
But something of Mississippi had claimed a piece of him. He would eventually spend years commuting back and forth, teaching algebra and calculus to the children and grandchildren of people he once marched beside.
Now, a version of him is on Broadway, a fact that brings a twinkle to his eye. He’s seen the show three times. It’s a play, he acknowledges, not a historical transcript; his character says things in a way that he never did, exactly, in meetings that didn’t really happen. But he says it accurately captures a turbulent moment in history, a time the country, against all odds, holds dear.
“It was one campaign in the movement that no one group really owned,” Moses said. “Everybody who felt they wanted to own a piece of it could, and they have.”