*Waves* Welcome Civil Writes vol xi, where I profile behind-the-scenes operations/admin badasses of the American Civil Rights Movement and document their data cultures and practices. If you’re primarily here for spreadsheet tips, stick around – there is more to come. As always, if you have a spreadsheet/database dilemma, write to my Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer column and I’ll write back, usually with puns. Onward!
There’s a famous story about revolutionary Bob Moses that goes like this: on the rare occasions that he was invited to make a public address, he would begin by standing at the podium for a few minutes just to listen. A man of quiet integrity, fierce bravery, and rigorous intellect, he defied many of the cultural tropes in his milieu. He was neither bombastic nor boisterous. I love this interview, because I think you can hear his thoughtfulness and generosity coming through, and a distinct absence of bravado and oratory. Almost every tribute describes him as “quiet.” For Moses, “quietness” was a sort of spiritual practice, a strategy that supported his deeply held notions of agency and warmth, and a method for his biggest triumph, which was inspiring others to talk and act in service of their own liberation.
I think this quote from Tom Hayden sheds light on this quality I’m struggling to describe: “Some say Bob was more a mystic than an organizer (…) If so, he was the most practical mystic I ever met. He was an organizer of organizers who organized people to free themselves of organizers” (as quoted in this Jacobin obituary). He wasn’t interested in recruiting people to execute his ideas, but rather, finding out what their ideas were, and making a plan to win them, slowly and doggedly.
I’ve sat down to write more than once this week, only to face the voice in my head that shouts, “Who am I to write a thought piece about Bob Moses?!” So instead, I’ve been marinating on the tremendous loss that is his passing. I’ve read about a dozen obituaries and none of them seem to capture the Bob Moses that I “know” through my humble reading and reflecting. I want to write about his legacy here, and why I think nonprofit data nerds should be paying attention.
Seeking more pragmatic accounts of Bob Moses’ work in the 60s, I turned to an SDS pamphlet that describes the early days of voter registration work in McComb, Mississippi (population 13,000):
To understand the choice of McComb for a pilot project, we must trace the actions of Robert Moses during 1960-1961. During the spring of 1960, Moses, a [math] teacher, spent his evenings working in the New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]. In July 1960, Moses went to work for SNCC in Atlanta
I know from Parting the Waters, the first in Taylor Branch’s epic civil rights trilogy, that this wasn’t just any SCLC office. This was the lair of none other than Jack O’Dell and Stanley Levison, a veritable bee’s nest of efficiency and administrative innovation. Bob Moses was reportedly shocked by the laid-back culture of the SCLC offices in Atlanta, perhaps one of many reasons that he ended up casting his lot with the SNCC crew. I have a vested interest in telling the story of the back-office operations of the civil rights movement, so it’s my occupational hazard to highlight this fact that seems so critically important, but never made it into the Bob Moses eulogies.
In the second volume of Branch’s trilogy, we hear about Moses’ fabled back-of-the-room leadership as SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) faced the threat of factionalization over strategy and philosophy decisions. (I’d pull a long quote, but unfortunately all of my books are packed up in boxes). I’m sure you can imagine that these conversations were nothing short of harrowing, stretching long into the morning hours. Many activists looked to Moses and his mentor, the illustrious Ella Baker, for guidance or an easy decision, but Moses famously kept his opinions close to his chest.
Testaments to Moses’ heroic organizing work deep in the Mississippi Delta are many, though I won’t enumerate all of them here. However, for enterprising readers, let me recommend I’ve Got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne. (For a shorter tribute, try this obit published in The Nation by the same author). Suffice it to say,
Stories about his physical courage abound, but it is hard to improve on the tale told by Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) about the time some SNCC workers were in a car trying to outrun a car full of gun-waving white men—and Bob deciding they weren’t a threat and just taking a nap.Charles Payne, link
In 1966, after years of non-stop grassroots organizing, Bob Moses and his family made a sudden shift. He was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War; instead, they headed to Tanzania where Moses went back to his first vocation as a math teacher. When he came back, he and his kids experienced paltry math education in Boston public schools, and he resolved to do something about it.
He decided to use the resources that he earned through his Macarthur Genius Award (!!) (1982) to establish The Algebra Project, which not only provides grassroots math education and pedagogy to teachers and students, but also asserts a political agenda that education is a human right that should be constitutionally protected. The Algebra Project and it’s sibling, youth-led organization The Young People’s Project now have a thriving, national presence. I first learned about them during the Baltimore uprising, but never knew that they were rooted specifically and deliberately in the freedom struggle.
For the past few years, I’ve been nurturing this hunch that operations tasks make for better organizers, and organizing experiences make for better administrative leaders. This not only improves morale in an organization, since it cultivates an attitude of mutual respect among its members, but it ALSO makes each of us better at our respective roles, drawing on the strengths and needs of the other. Organizers can benefit from robust, consistent systems, and attention to detail. Ops staff can benefit from proximity to action, from empathy, and from storytelling. Of course this is a false binary (like all are!) but bear with me. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to me that it was envelope-licking that brought Moses into the Movement and it was math education that garnered his energy in the last three decades of his life. I believe that the silo-ing of “data” from “organizing” (or “program” from “operations” in a more generic nonprofit) only serves to diminish our ability to move people and resources toward movement goals. I have a hunch that the activists of the Civil Rights Movement moved much more fluidly between these realms than we do today. And I think this is a detriment to our hard-fought claims to power.
Bob Moses must have imbued his organizing methods with math, just as he infused his math teaching with a sense of empowerment and social transformation. I would imagine that he did this effortlessly because his most brilliant work emerged from the intersection of logic and humanity. Where as I find myself battling this argument that I lose my activist cred when I turn on my spreadsheet brain, what I find when I study Moses is an exquisite fusion of these and many more influences. There’s no apologetics, just a firm belief in long haul changemaking, from the bottom up.
So often, I encounter the stereotype that STEM leaders are anti-social basement techie types, when what I see in my network is quite literally the opposite (most of us can’t afford finished basements, anyway, and we’re pretty gregarious). I think this notion only reinforces some other unhelpful attitudes in social movements that using math/logic/automation is a distraction from the “real” organizing, or worse, a symptom of “selling out.”
My heart breaks when I read obituaries of Bob Moses that peddle the stories of his martyrdom (yes, he was clobbered in Mississippi) without sharing the stories of his engineering mind. It’s like we only have room for activists to be one kind of person, when really, activists are literally EVERY kind of person, and nuanced infinitely within that. On the other hand, I worry that people in my movement community would have a hard time getting excited about math literacy, seeing it as direct service work, which somehow isn’t radical “enough.” So I lift up the story of Bob Moses, a quiet giant who teaches us, through his legacy, that we can be ALL of the contradictions!
What I see in studying Bob Moses is that he defied every stereotype presented to us. He was gentle within masculinity, embraced logic and empathy, experimented with electoral campaigns, grassroots advocacy, and direct service tactics, and honored the slow, quiet pace of transformation.
Thank you, Bob Moses, and rest in revolution!