The 2020 Democratic National Convention promoted “We The People” as its framework for moving the nation through the current existential threat to its practice of democracy. Its presidential nominee, Joe Biden even reached into revered Civil Rights history to quote Ella Baker: “Give people light and they will find the way”. Ella also put her faith in the youth: “To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail”. And she offered them some advice: “One of the things that has to be faced is the process of waiting to change the system, how much we have got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going … easier said than done.”
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNICK or SNCC) field secretaries, the 18 to 22 year olds who initiated its 1961 Mississippi Voter Registration Insurgency (I was an outlier at 26) had the courage. Courage enough to earn the respect for and commitment to a voter registration insurgency by black sharecroppers, day laborers, domestic workers, and small farmers. With tenacity and pluck we made plain who we were, where we came from and where we wanted to go. We absorbed Ella’s ways of working: to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which organization might come. Our biggest and, in hindsight, extraordinary outcome in this regard was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) which included the emergence of Unita Blackwell, Annie Devine, Victoria Gray, Fannie Lou Hamer and Hazel Palmer as exemplars of Ella’s theory: Strong people don’t need strong leaders.
Ella’s light lit the MFDP when, at the 1964 Democratic Convention, it challenged the caste system which the National Democratic party harbored from 1875 down to 1964 in the Southern Wing of the Party which, Judge Wisdom identified as the “manifestation of the will to white supremacy”.
My own journey was straight forward. When black students from HBCUs were pictured on the front pages of the NY Times in February and March of 1960, I went to see what was going on at Hampton University where my father’s brother, Bill Moses, taught architecture. At a mass meeting in Newport News, Wyatt T Walker announced that Dr. King would establish a Harlem Office. Every afternoon I left my job teaching middle school math at the Horace Mann School to volunteer at the Office. Bayard Rustin ran it and I asked him to arrange a summer internship with Dr. King’s organization; he sent me to Ella Baker in Atlanta. The SNCC coordinating committee met in Atlanta that summer and made plans for its first South-wide conference that fall. The SNCC office was managed by Jane Stembridge, who had dropped out of Union Theological Seminary to volunteer. She huddled with Ella and convinced me to use my savings and Ella’s list to scout for student sit-in activity across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Amzie Moore, head of the Cleveland Mississippi NAACP, was on Ella’s list. He told me what SNCC should do: recruit students to come to Mississippi and conduct voter registration. I wrote Jane that I would finish my contract with Horace Mann and return in the summer of 1961 to work for SNCC on Amzie’s program.
When SNCC put a notice in Jet magazine about its new voter registration program, C.C. Bryant, the head of the McComb NAACP wrote Amzie requesting students. Amzie put me on a bus, C.C. and Webb Owens the treasurer met me at the bus terminal in McComb. The funds I had saved to take me back South was running low, but C.C. and his wife, Emma-Jean put me in the room vacated by their oldest daughter and fed me as part of their family. For my first two weeks in McComb, Webb arrived in a local taxi early every morning like clockwork to escort me to meet local black business people and discuss SNCC’s plan to initiate a voter registration program in McComb. A simple plan to bring in two SNCC field secretaries and house and feed them for six weeks. Webb was the much trusted treasurer of the local NAACP and after each meeting would make a pitch for $5 or $10 towards a fund to support this plan. A fund he kept at home and in his back pocket with meticulous notes about who gave and how much. Together we made the rounds of the churches on Sunday and after two weeks SNCC sent us Reggie Robinson from Baltimore and John Hardy from Nashville.
Clearly I was passed along and had sense enough to do what I was asked or told to do. Obviously there was already an organization, the local NAACP, to provide backbone for the program. In the language of Ella, our job as SNCC field secretaries was to “put together pieces” out of which we could launch a voter registration insurgency. Initially there were C.C. and Webb and the local NAACP, the SNCC field secretaries and a small group of high school students cultivated by Webb. In hindsight, it was the iteration of this process: expanding the local organizations to create the Council Of Federated Organizations (COFO: local NAACP chapters, CORE, SCLC, SNCC and local groups such as the Masons); recruiting more young people from Mississippi to become SNCC field secretaries, reaching into adult populations to recruit small farmers, day laborers, sharecroppers and domestic servants. Fully operational, SNCC and CORE field secretaries organized the infrastructure that enabled the adult populations to gather monthly at the Masonic Temple in Jackson to tackle different pieces of their problems. The adult populations traveled on their own dime; SNCC field secretaries had graduated to a $10 a week subsistence check and a fleet of second hand Chevys. This grass-roots ground game lacked funding but had the collateral benefit of complete autonomy. In effect COFO took the time to excavate for itself the meaning of Ella’s warning: “One of the things that has to be faced in the process of waiting to change the system, how much we have got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going”. COFO took on what is “easier said than done”.
While their incubation periods have been much longer, the Algebra Project and its offspring the Young People’s Project continue to negotiate analogous domains. However, such negotiated domains are not immune to outside turbulence, disruptions, and violent displacements.
It is helpful to recount the most important of these for the Mississippi Voter Registration Insurgency. The first concerned Direct Action vs. Voter Registration. When extreme violence and death disrupted CORE’s 1961 Freedom Rides on Greyhound and Trailway buses, SNCC field secretaries out of Nashville carried them forward into Mississippi. While the strains and stresses of Federalism dominated the news, the more fundamental issue was raised when Attorney General Robert Kennedy “threatened” Dianne Nash that some freedom riders could be killed, to which she replied, “We have all made our wills”. This drive, this disposition to complete the Freedom of a whole people is rarely confronted and barely understood in a society dedicated to maximizing individual opportunity and power under the guise of Freedom. The Student Sit-In Movement penetrated Mississippi on the backs of this drive, this disposition to free African-Americans from Jim Crow. But Mississippi was not without its own plan.
The current Constitution presents a deep difficulty, not in what it requires, nor in what it forbids, but rather in what the Federal government or a state scopes out as constitutionally permissible. The law permitted Mississippi to handle the Freedom Riders one at a time and to impose on future direct action insurgents long term jail sentences. It was this latter threat that got the attention of SNCC’s Atlanta leadership in McComb. When the local black high school students walked out of school and marched downtown, insurgents in the March over 18 were sentenced to two years in jail and had 40 days to raise thousands of dollars for bail. SNCC’s chairman, Chuck McDew was bailed out, raised the bail money and mailed it on the 39th day. SNCC decided to focus solely on voter registration in Mississippi. A decision which had a collateral benefit.
The 1957 Civil Rights Act forbade Mississippi from arresting people for voter registration activities, which meant our identities as voter registration insurgents opened a “legal crawl space”. The 1957 Civil Rights Act neither required nor forbid the Department of Justice from intervening on behalf of voter registration insurgents. Again the dimension of what the Constitution permits was in play. Mississippi could lock us up, but the feds held the jailhouse keys and a legal apparatus that freed us from legal worries and entanglements.
The Mississippi Voter Registration Insurgency involved beatings, jailings, confrontations with highway patrols and sheriffs to be sure, but it also involved murder, Herbert Lee in September ’61 and Lewis Allen in January ’64, but the violent disruption that murdered Medgar Evers in June ’63 changed our plans. We shifted our foci from the Justice Department and the Executive Branch of the Federal Government to running candidates and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).
The lessons we learned in the Mississippi Voter Registration Insurgency have all been revisited in the context of the Algebra Project and the Young People’s Project over the past three decades (1982 – 2020). While the terrain of Public School Education for 21st Century math literacy is more complex by an order of magnitude, nevertheless certain fundamental requirements remain. The following excerpts from an article in a Skoll Foundation newsletter by Atti Worku about her experiences as a community organizer in Ethiopia cut to the chase.
I realized that the best solutions to issues like poverty and inequality come from the people who are most affected. The families we serve have always determined the direction of our interventions. We understand that our beneficiaries have the most knowledge about the tools they need to transform their lives and transcend poverty, and our programs are thus designed from the bottom up.
It is imperative that we acknowledge and bring to the forefront the real consumer: the marginalized people on the ground. We must ensure that beneficiaries are included in setting the agenda, that their needs are addressed, and that success is primarily measured from their unique point of view.
Why the “Algebra” Project? What’s math got to do with it? Public School math is, at one and the same time, collateral damage and collateral opportunity induced by a planet-wide transformation from industrial to information-age economies, politics and culture. It places math on the education table alongside reading and writing and highlights the transition from Arithmetic to Algebraic ways of thinking. In this environment Algebra is available as an organizing tool to demolish the educational caste system and replace it, just as voting was available in the 1960s as an organizing tool to demolish “Jim Crow” and organize for political impact. The question remains, what to replace it with, what constitutes a quality education for young people who will live their lives in the 21st century?
Algebra and Math are available if we can figure out how students and teachers who have been saddled in the 21st Century with a public school education which, at best, is worthy of the 20th, learn to see themselves as people who have the drive and dispositions to read, write and do math and pursue opportunity structures to be active problem solving participants in any solutions. Education, like happiness must be pursued. In other words, there are the students and teachers encapsulated in the education caste who need to be deeply involved in the crafting of the opportunity structures needed to deliver 21st Century math literacy. But a one-handed shake will not close this deal. The other hand of students and math teachers to engage the opportunities and pursue the math are needed to close the deal.
Bob Moses August 24, 2020