Bob Moses presents next feasible steps for civil rights

Bob Moses is a transformative figure in the African American community and in the United States. He leads the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which sought to end racial inequality and to increase voter registration in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. He is also the founder of the Algebra Project, an organization that uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every child in America. This Thursday, Carnegie Mellon hosted “An Evening with Bob Moses” to hear his opinions on the current educational setbacks the country still faces and what action needs to be taken in order to fix them.

Surrounded by a group of young, enthusiastic Carnegie Mellon student panelists, Bob Moses stood cool and collected. This behavior was highlighted by his quiet assertiveness over Carnegie Mellon’s overpopulated audience in Porter Hall 100. “People who know Bob Moses repeatedly underscore his quiet demeanor, and his inner resolve, courage, and determination to lead not by preachment…but to lead by example,” said director of Carnegie Mellon’s African American Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE), Dr. Joe William Trotter.

Dr. Trotter reflected back on his time growing up in the south and his generation’s association with Bob Moses on the same level as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Many audience members shared their gratitude at the fact that Moses was gracious enough to spend time and share his words of wisdom with the Carnegie Mellon community. Bob Moses began his talk by reflecting on his time on the witness stand during a court case that occurred in 1963, which brought to light the issue of sharecropper illiteracy being a subtext of the right to vote. Back then, sharecroppers were denied literacy because of their line of work. Moses recalls that this was a direct result of this country’s tendency to “pre-assign” work to people and then giving them the education they need for it. Because of their illiteracy, sharecroppers were denied their right to vote.

Moses connects this point to the 1970 case of San Antonio vs. Rodriguez, which was the result of 400 disgruntled Mexican American students demanding the federal government provide them with a better high school and better teachers. Moses summarized the court justices’ denial of their demands as hinging on the fact that “there is no substantive constitutional right for education.” He cited the constitution of New York, which states that young people should be educated to serve on juries and to vote, which gives them adequate knowledge to be able to perform low paying jobs. “This is your 21st century version of sharecropper education,” Moses said.

One of the student panelists sought Moses’ opinions on the differing college preparation programs that this country offers. She recounted her realization that “in order to get to a competitive college like Carnegie Mellon, my public school in Baltimore was not going to be able to do that for me” which led to her switching to a more advantageous school. There are many failing public schools that, instead of being fixed, are simply left to run. This has led to the creation of various rescue programs, such as magnet schools, the voucher system, A Better Chance program, and affirmative action.

“Lately, this country seems to be focusing on ways to close the widening achievement gaps between students,” Moses said. Moses believes that in place of this, this country should work on creating a standard that will provide structured opportunities for students that are at the bottom. “It was radical to do voting for sharecroppers in Mississipi,” Moses said. “It’s radical to make sure that kids at the bottom get the math they need so they can meet a standard.” Moses defines this standard as having students “leave high school, graduate on time, ready to do college math for college credit.” Moses believes that this is a necessary step to stop kids from graduating directly into the American criminal justice system.

From 1970 to 2010, the Southern Education Foundation observed the percentage of students that graduated from college in terms of their income brackets. Mr. Moses said, “For the top quarter of the nation’s income bracket in 1970, 40 percent graduated from college; 40 years later in 2010, 80 percent graduated from college.” This shows a very impressive trend of upward educational mobility, right? Mr. Moses goes on to relay that “In 1970 for the bottom quarter, 7 percent graduated from college; 40 years later, 9 percent graduated.” These numbers were received by the audience with staggered gasps of surprise and dismay. If students do not demand the change they seek, it won’t happen. The current generation needs to be more focused on finding ways to form an alliance between lower tier students and officials that can incite educational change, Moses said. This may seem like a large task to tackle, but in the words of Bob Moses, “You’ve got to think really small about how you’ll get your start, because everything starts really small.”