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21st century civil rights

Second Acts: 1960s Activists Become Today's Educators

Two veteran activists turn their purpose and passion to the Algebra Project.

WHEN BOB MOSES AND DAVE DENNIS describe their roles in the 1960s voter registration drives in Mississippi, their reminiscences sound like war stories in the literal sense of the term. They were beaten, shot at, and narrowly escaped death. Close friends died. Herbert Lee, a farmer and father of nine and the first black voter Moses got registered, was shot, unarmed, in broad daylight by a local politician in Amite County.

Bronchitis kept Dennis from riding in the car with three Civil Rights workers he was training, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, the night they were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan on a back road in Neshoba County. Dennis delivered the eulogy at Chaney’s funeral, and to this day he wonders if there was something he could have done to prevent the tragedy.

In some ways, the United States has become a more equitable society as a result of the activism of the 1960s. More than a quarter of Mississippi’s state legislature is now African American, and the state has the largest number of black legislators in the country. But access to the ballot box has not translated into providing true equality of opportunity. “We’ve learned that a political voice is not enough,” says Dennis. “We need to get the target population into the economic flow.” The key to realizing this goal, both men say, is high-quality education.
And so in the second chapter of their lives (Moses is 71, Dennis is 65), these men are focusing their activism on expanding educational opportunities, or, to be precise, providing a rigorous math education to disadvantaged students. Their enterprise is aptly called the Algebra Project. It began in 1982, when Moses, then a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard, was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, freeing him from financial worries. Dismayed that his daughter Maisha’s Cambridge, MA, school didn’t provide algebra in the eighth grade, he started tutoring her and two other students.

Gateway to the Mainstream. Algebra is a gateway subject—kids who take it in middle school are more likely to be on a college-bound track (a path minority students too often are dissuaded from pursuing). Plus, students who aren’t math literate will be at a marked disadvantage in a technology-based economy. To realize his hope of improving math education in marginalized communities, Moses started pulling together a curriculum that brought the subject to life by linking it to everyday experiences. To spread the program, Moses decided to adopt a “bottom-up” model: Participants in local sites would plan how to further math literacy in their schools and partner with Algebra Project trainers to make it happen. The program has mushroomed since Moses did his solitary tutoring in Cambridge. Today it has a budget of more than $1 million and is operating in seven states and many major cities.

As he explains his vision, Moses, who has a calm, almost yogi-like aura, frequently uses the phrase “earned insurgency.” In the 1960s, the sharecroppers themselves had to demand that the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed them the right to vote, become more than an empty promise. Similarly, students themselves need to demand the right to a high quality education. “To get that, they have to think they can do it,” says Moses. “The Algebra Project works on that sense of empowerment.”

To head up the effort to expand the project in the South, Moses turned to his old Civil Rights colleague Dennis. Moses was with SNCC (founded as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and Dennis with CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) when they met in the 1960s. The two men had different backgrounds. Moses was born in Harlem and was teaching mathematics at Horace Mann, an elite school in New York City, when he headed south in 1961 to join the Civil Rights Movement. Dennis arrived in Mississippi a little later as one of the Freedom Riders who were attempting to desegregate the interstate bus system. He had been raised in Louisiana by sharecropper grandparents.

Fateful Reunion. The Moses-Dennis reunion took place at a symposium in Jackson, MS, that was convened to rebut the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. Though Moses and Dennis hadn’t seen each other in almost a quarter century, they easily fell into a conversation that stretched for hours. Dennis was happily practicing law in New Orleans at the time, but Moses’s purpose and passion recruited him into the Algebra Project. To the chagrin of Dennis’s children, he relocated his family to Jackson in 1992 so he could dedicate himself to the new civil rights work.

As he spreads the Algebra Project gospel, Dennis draws on the fundamentals of organizing. “The only way it works is if people take ownership,” he explained to NRTA Live & Learn.  Regular meetings are held so students, teachers, and parents can agree on their goals and draw up an action plan to realize them. Once inspired and trained, students often develop a deep commitment to education.

Demanding to Learn Algebra. Dennis points to the example of middle school students in Weldon, NC, who demanded that the school board provide them with an algebra teacher. When the demand wasn’t met, Algebra Project trainers worked directly with the kids on evenings and weekends; at the end of the year, eighty-five percent of the students passed the state’s Algebra I exam.

Moses is convinced that students learn best with a program that taps everyday experience. Students start their studies going on a trip (in urban areas they’ll take the subway; in rural schools they get on a bus). Then they distill their field-based experience into a symbolic representation such as a map, a timetable, or a chart that shows how math concepts can help explain the world around them. “The point is to get them to value reflecting, as opposed to reciting, repeating, and memorizing,” says Moses.

He often works with teachers, but he also teaches algebra and geometry to 9th and 10th graders in Jackson, MS. “It keeps us honest,” Moses told Live & Learn. “The only way to know what we’re doing is to be in the classroom.” The walk-the-talk approach can also be traced to his 1960s work. “One of the core parts of the Movement philosophy was, never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t yourself,” says Dennis.

Both Moses and Dennis are in a period of transition. Since Hurricane Katrina, Dennis has devoted half of his time to rebuilding the education system in New Orleans as Project Manager at the Vanguard Public Foundation. Moses is planning to relocate to Miami this year but he intends to keep teaching there as well. Organizing is his métier, as he discovered nearly half a century ago when he saw photographs of the four freshmen from North Carolina A&T University who sat at a “whites only” lunch counter in Greensboro and asked to be served. “They looked like I felt inside,” he recalls. Joining the effort to make the United States live up to the promise of freedom and equal opportunity that was enshrined in its self-image, and yet so routinely flouted, was irresistible, says Moses. He had found, he says, “the real purpose of my life in this country.”

Alexandra Starr often reports on education. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Summer 2006. Updates have been added in the sidebar material by L&L editors.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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