Those of us who were in Mississippi to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer know very well none of it could have unfolded in the way it did without the quiet and courageous leadership of Robert Moses and David Dennis.
Bob, a Harlem-born son of a janitor and graduate of Hamilton College, had studied philosophy at Harvard. He left a job teaching mathematics at New York City’s private Horace Mann School to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and in 1961 began leading a voter registration project in Mississippi, where voting was a white sport with no or few blacks allowed to play in many counties.
Dave, who grew up in a Louisiana sharecropping family, had been a Freedom Rider and sit-in organizer in Louisiana before becoming the Mississippi director for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1962, Bob and Dave became co-directors of the newly-formed Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the major national and local civil rights organizations working in Mississippi.
After continuing frustrating and dangerous struggles to gain visibility for their efforts against Mississippi’s racist violence and exclusion of black citizens from political participation, including the right to vote, Bob Moses created the Freedom Summer strategy seeing the need to engage white volunteers for whom the country would care more.
He and Dave worked tirelessly with others to plan and coordinate the logistics for recruiting mostly white students aided by Allard Lowenstein who reached out to campuses across the county. Those students converged in the state to join with local black citizens, SNCC workers, and local civil rights workers to fight for the constitutional rights of black citizens including the right to vote.
Fifty years later, Bob Moses and Dave Dennis are still fighting passionately on another critical frontier in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1982 Bob founded the Algebra Project using math as an organizing tool – with a special focus on bringing math skills and advanced math courses to poor children, especially non-white children. After a career as a lawyer in Louisiana, Dave became a director of the Algebra Project’s Southern Initiative.
In June, the Children’s Defense Fund honored them both with our Ella Baker Leadership Award.
Dave said, “We’re looking at quality education as a constitutional right . . . And this is where you play that role . . . When the sharecroppers and others stood up and made the demand that ‘I want to be a first-class citizen,’ that’s when this country began to say, ‘I’ve got to look at this.’ Well, now, in terms of education, those sharecroppers – you are the sharecroppers. You have to make that stand and say, ‘I demand a quality education for myself and my children in the future.’”
Bob with his trademark powerful quiet simplicity and directness began by asking the young leaders to repeat the Preamble to the Constitution after him. Bob then said: “It does not say we, the president – it couldn’t, because there was no president. It does not say we, the Supreme Court, or we, the Congress, because they were not in existence. It did not say what it could have said – it could have said we, the citizens of the several states, but it did not say that; if it had, we would be a very different country. It just says we, the people. So, we, the people, have to take over this country . . . We, the people, folks. You, the people.”
I traveled to Mississippi – along with Bob Moses, Dave Dennis and hundreds of others, including young leaders from around the country – to celebrate the anniversary of Freedom Summer.
As much progress as has been made in Mississippi over the last half century, Mississippi ranks 50th among all states in the percentage of children who are poor (34.7%); 49th in the percentage of households that lacked access to adequate food; and 49th in the percentage of high school students graduating on time. It is tragic that 79 percent of Mississippi’s fourth grade public school students were unable to read at grade level and 74 percent were unable to compute at grade level; 89 percent of black fourth graders could not read and 89 percent could not compute at great level.
We often say with pride that Mississippi has the largest number of black elected officials in the nation—yet the political leaders of that state still feel they can deny more than 137,000 people health care and refuse the Medicaid expansion. I hope black elected officials will demand that health care be made available for those who need it and demand quality education for the children who cannot read or write or compute and are being sentenced to social and economic death and the prison system without education and jobs and hope for the future.
(Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.)