This is Civil Writes, vol xvi! In this series, I chronicle the themes of data and administration behind the scenes of the American Civil Rights Movement. In today’s post, I draw on two mathematician-activists, and suggest that this might not be such a rare combination.

Tonight, I was reading transcripts from interviews from children of the Civil Rights Movement, as digitized in the Library of Congress. There are hundreds to go through and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

In this blog post, I’m lifting up the story of Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, III – a celebrated and self-described math nerd who’s career spanned from the Birmingham Childrens’ Crusade to national leadership in STEM, higher education, pedagogy, and philanthropy. He’s still alive, so don’t let any of these accolades read like a eulogy! If you want to be inspired about people from underrepresented groups succeeding in STEM fields, learn more about the Meyerhoff program, which Dr. Hrabowski established in 1988.

I was not the kind of kid who could protect kids physically. I really was a fat math nerd [..] – chubby little kid, loving blueberry pie and math, alright? That was my life. I mean heaven for me was eating some pie and doing math problems.

Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, III

I don’t have a lot of commentary that improves on his own words but I’ll add a bit of context.

Dr. Hrabowski was a voracious student of math and science, hailing from a middle class Black family in Birmingham. He was pushed ahead in school (finished college at 19!); even as a young kid, he knew that he was missing opportunities for advanced learning because of racism and segregation. As he tells the story, it was his love of math (and learning in general) that motivated him to take a leadership role in the Birmingham Childrens’ March.

I love this story SO MUCH because it contradicts the conventional idea that activists are born rabble rousers. There are SO many avenues in to movements for social change – why shouldn’t be math be one of them?

I’m also aware that love of social movements can eventually push activists to embrace math in a way that they did not before. I know this is true for me! Bob Moses is a wonderful example of this trajectory, going from over 10 years of deep, rural organizing to becoming a math teacher and founding The Algebra Project. In the words of Dr. Hrabowski, “He [Bob Moses] saw math as the ability to think logically and critically and, therefore, that it was a civil right.”

I wrote more about Bob Moses and the Algebra Project here:

Continuing with a more generous excerpt from Dr. Hrabowski’s interview:

And I’ll never forget that first day [in Church] that I saw that, after hearing Dr. King, I said, “Mama, Dad, I’ve got to go!” And they said, “Absolutely not! [Laughs] No way!” And I did something you just did not do. I said, “You guys are hypocrites.” Well, you see, that may not sound like a big deal today, but at that time you did not say disrespectful things to your parents. My dad could not believe I had said that. He said, “Go to your room. And stay there.”

And it was the next morning that they had been up all night – after being up all night, they came in and said I could go. Now, I tell my students all the time, by this point, while I thought my parents were unfair, because my point was you make me go to all these meetings. I hear all this stuff. You tell me to think for myself. I’m thinking for myself. I want to do the right thing. I want to do what Dr. King, somebody you say you admire, wants me to do. And yet, you’re saying no. And they came in to explain. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust me. They did not trust me to be in that jail with those white people who didn’t care about our children, about black children. And they said, “You are our treasure. We don’t trust you to them.” And I understand that now.

I often ask myself, “Would I have allowed my child to go?” I’m not sure I would have. But somehow, they came in. They had been praying, and literally their eyes were red. And we prayed together and we cried. Now, I was crying because I was worried about them worrying about me. But quite frankly, all of a sudden, I got really frightened. I said, “Oh, my God!” [Laughs] And my cousin, who was in the other bed, was laughing, because he said, “No way am I letting those dogs bite me! I am not going!” [Laughs] He was two years older and he said, “Freeman can be stupid if he wants to!” Uh, so it wasn’t that I was that courageous. I did believe in the cause, I had said I was going to go, and I couldn’t back out. Let’s just be honest about it, you know. I wanted to go, but I was frightened. And this is what happens to people so often, right? And because I was in a higher grade, and kids below fourteen went to the juvenile place, they chose me – and because I was asking a lot of questions in the little training session, they chose me to lead a group of kids. [Someone coughs] And I learned what that meant. You’re singing the songs, you’re leading people in singing the songs, and you’re keeping the kids from focusing on the police officers, because the police officers were trained to try to upset us.

This lengthy quote is written/spoken like a mathematician! Even using the term “hypocrisy” (as blasphemous as it is) screams logic brain to me – there’s nothing more irritating to a data-minded person than discrepancies. It’s clear to me that Dr. Hrabowski, even at such a young age, thought in terms of logic and consistency. He took problems apart and boiled them down to their distinct parts. He did not make decisions based on impulse or emotion (although who am I to fault people who do? I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that all activists are not hot-headed). He took a structural view of roles to play in the Civil Rights Movement and describes them almost like a mathematical proof. His curiosity and success as a student made him an organic leader. He goes on to say that he used a variety of songs and techniques to distract the younger children in jail, but whenever the guards came by, he pretended to read verses aloud from the Bible.

There’s another layer that I want to highlight from this long quote. Folks interested in data/math/operations/accounting are truly some of the most stubborn people I’ve ever met – and I include myself in that statement. Once we start tackling a problem, we lament being torn away. I’ve noticed that we have a propensity to take on challenges that we don’t quite know we can accomplish – and while I don’t think that is unique to data, I do see an echo in how Dr. Hrabowski talks about joining the Childrens’ Crusade. That quality of being resigned to a really hard thing (“I had said I was going to go, and I couldn’t back out”) resonates with my proclivity to take on data challenges and then feel stuck with them until I can somehow eek out a solution or at least some meaning from the ordeal. We don’t go into problems with a set solution in mind – we have to learn as we go. I think that’s also how good organizers think!

Every time I write on the topic of data in the Civil Rights Movement, I erode the bias that I brought to the project when I started this years ago. I came with such hubris and angst – that data is missing from the topic of Civil Rights history, that something MUST BE DONE ABOUT THIS! But the more I look, the more I see that it was here the whole time. So, as I commit and recommit to telling these stories, I celebrate how nice it is to be wrong. I thought I was surfacing something that was missing in action, but really, all I have to do is dust off some archival documents and pay attention.

4 thoughts on “proof that math nerds make great civil rights activists

  1. I shared this with some of my colleagues at school (Math, History, etc…). They loved it! Thank you for sharing this research exploration!

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