Monday, November 17, 2014

Bob Moses Speaks--Fifty Years After Freedom Summer

A great man spoke on Sunday, Nov. 16, at JW Middle School's auditorium. Bob Moses is one of the most influential leaders of the civil rights movement, beginning with Freedom Summer in 1965. He began his talk by asking all the kids in the audience to come down to the front rows so he could speak "to them", not "at them", and then proceeded to lead them on a journey that began with the Preamble of the Constitution. In his talk with the kids, he was relaxed, patient, but firm in his goals--the embodiment of a movement for change that continues to the present day.

He began by asking what it means to be "a constitutional person". In the Constitution when first written, white men who owned property were constitutional people, while Africans were constitutional property. When one of the kids would give a good answer to various questions, he would have him or her stand up and repeat the answer to the audience. He then divided the movement for equality up into three periods of roughly 75 years each. The first extended from the Constitution's writing in 1789 to the Civil War's slaughter. The second period extended to 1941, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Roosevelt's Circular 3591 (he had the kids commit the number to memory) finally abolished slavery. It decreed that blacks could no longer be rounded up as vagrants and sent to work in mines for U.S. Steel and other industries. Douglas Blackmon, in his book "Slavery By Another Name", documents that second period.

It has been left to the third period, from 1941 up through the present, to deal with the contents of the 13th and 14th amendments, according to Moses. He said we still have only "a negative right to vote, not an affirmative right to vote", and asked "will young people become constitutional people?" I would extend that to include those generations still to come, the posterity who are included in the Preamble but left to fend for themselves as we permanently transform life and climate on this planet.

Some adults in the audience wished Moses would have spoken more about his role in the 1964 campaign to register African-Americans in Mississippi to vote, and his activities since then. (When asked afterwards if he is discouraged by recent efforts to restrict voter access, he said the movement has historically lurched forward and back, and this is one of those lurches backwards.) But his interactions with the kids were touching, and informative in a different way. We were in a school, after all. He ended by having everyone recite the Preamble of the Constitution.
"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Of additional interest is Moses' Algebra Project, which he founded in 1982 to "use mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every child in America." He sees algebra as the gatekeeper, critical for anyone wishing to go to college. His approach is student- and relationship-centered, not the teacher-centric approach that is a legacy of the industrial era. Afterwards, I told him about our efforts to restore the Veblen House, home of the famous visionary mathematician Oswald Veblen. Though the Algebra Project focuses on historically underserved communities, perhaps there's a way to connect. Moses' connecting of numbers and the civil rights movement, the increments of 75, Circular 3591, amendments 13, 14, and 15, Blackmon's birth in the meaningful year of 1964, and the importance of algebra in a kid's future--these suggest a special relationship to mathematics.

Additional events organized by the Princeton Public Library can be found through this link, including a panel discussion this Thursday.

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