Robert Parrish Moses: An Influential Black Leader of the Southern Civil Rights Struggle

Written by Jae Jones

, became one of the most influential leaders of the southern civil rights struggle during the late 1950s. His vision was grassroots, community-based leadership was a lot different from Martin Luther King’s leadership style. However, King was very interested and appreciated Moses style and fresh ideas. Dr. King referred to Moses ideas as, “an inspiration,” according to King Encyclopedia.

Moses was born on January 23, 1935 in New York. Like many of the Black children during that time, he grew up in the lower income housing projects of Harlem. He attended Stuyvesant High School, an elite public school, and won a scholarship to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He went on to earn his Master’s degree in Philosophy in 1957 from Harvard University. While Moses was completing his PhD at Harvard, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘‘Genius’’ award, which he used to promote the Algebra Project, a national program to improve the math literacy skills of children in poor communities. He later became a mathematics teacher in New York at Horace Mann School.



Moses became increasingly interested in the civil rights struggle in the 1950s. In 1959 he helped Bayard Rustin with the second Youth March for Integrated Schools in Washington, D.C. Although he was willing to stuff envelopes along with other office volunteers, Rustin encouraged him to do more, suggesting in 1960 that he use his summer teaching break to go to Atlanta and work with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Moses volunteered in Atlanta to travel on behalf of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC), which was then a nascent student organization sharing offices with SCLC. Moses soon met NAACP activist Amzie Moore. It was a Moore’s request that Moses travel to Mississippi in 1961 to work on voter registration. Originally Moses was just a volunteer, however, he quickly joined SNCC’s staff of three as the special field secretary for voter registration based in McComb, Mississippi. The following year he was named the co-director of the Council of Federated Organizations, a cooperative of civil rights groups in the state.


By 1964 Moses had developed the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. The project recruited northern college students to join the Mississippi Blacks conducting a grassroots voter registration drive. When local blacks were excluded from participating in the all-white “regular” Democratic Party, Moses suggested creating the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which sought recognition as the representative delegation from Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention of 1964. He later resigned and began working on a campaign against the Vietnam War in 1964, using his middle name Parrish. He spoke at the first massive anti-war demonstration April 17, 1965 at the Washington Monument. Moses arranged a trip to Africa, and after returning back from his, he cut off all relationships with White people, his reason was he felt that Black people needed to learn to work independently from Whites. He even made the decision to cut ties with former SNCC activists. Read more.



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About the author

Jae Jones

Jae Jones has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She holds a degree in Business Administration, and enjoys writing on various topics.

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