Hamilton Mourns Civil Rights Leader Robert Moses ’56
Robert "Bob" Moses ’56, educator and civil rights crusader, died on July 25 at his home in Florida. Below are two pieces on Moses' life and legacy — one an announcement from President Wippman and another by Maurice Isserman, the Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History, that appeared in the Utica Observer-Dispatch.
President Wippman shared news of Moses’ passing in an email to the Hamilton community on July 26:
Dear Members of the Hamilton Community,
Robert Parris Moses ’56, an icon in the civil rights movement and one of Hamilton’s most distinguished alumni, died yesterday in Florida at the age of 86.
Bob Moses was the Mississippi field director for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the founder of the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, which sought to register as many Black voters in Mississippi as possible. Soft-spoken and determined, he endured threats, shootings, beatings, and arrest. In 1982, after being named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, he created The Algebra Project, which views mathematical literacy as a modern civil rights tool. Earlier this year, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Former President Barack Obama called Bob Moses “a hero of mine” and in his memoir A Promised Land, Obama included Moses as one of the “young leaders of the civil rights movement” who inspired him. He said Moses’ “quiet confidence helped shape the civil rights movement, and he inspired generations of young people looking to make a difference.”
Bob Moses returned to campus regularly and was awarded a Hamilton honorary degree in 1991. When he met with students in Professor Sally Cockburn’s “Mathematics in Social Context” class in 2019, he said, “The fundamental issue of citizenship and ‘what does it mean to be a citizen of the nation as opposed to just being a citizen of the state?’ was at the heart of the civil rights movement then, and it’s at the heart of the movement now.”
Bob Moses was committed, courageous, and principled. He represented the highest ideals of a Hamilton education. You can learn more about Bob Moses by reading the tributes that are being published about his life and impact on American society.
‘Essay: Remembering Bob Moses, freedom fighter and Hamilton College alumnus’ by Professor Maurice Isserman that originally appeared in the July 28 Utica Observer-Dispatch, part of the USA TODAY Network. Republished with permission:
Bob Moses died Sunday, July 25, at his Florida home, age 86. The front-page obituary in The New York Times the next day described him as “a soft-spoken pioneer of the civil rights movement who faced relentless intimidation and brutal violence to register Black voters in Mississippi in the 1960s.”
From 1960 through 1964, Moses repeatedly risked his life in the struggle for racial equality and human dignity in that violence-prone state. Mississipian James Chaney, and New Yorkers Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered by local Klansmen in the heroic “Freedom Summer” voter registration campaign directed by Moses in the -summer of 1964. The Voting Rights Act, proposed by President Lyndon Johnson and passed by Congress the following summer, was in significant measure -Freedom Fighter Bob Moses’ achievement.
There is a local angle to the Bob Moses story that may be of interest to readers of the Observer-Dispatch. Born in New York City in 1935, the son of a Harlem janitor, and a graduate of Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, Bob arrived at Hamilton College as a freshman in 1952, one of just two Black members of the Class of 1956.
With the exception of Utica-born -Gerritt Smith, Class of 1818, a militant abolitionist, and friend and supporter of Frederick Douglass and John Brown, it’s hard to think of another Hamilton alumnus who made a greater contribution to the cause of American social justice.
On the surface, Moses had a highly successful four-year career at Hamilton: co-captain of the basketball team and vice-president of his senior class, among other distinctions. But in the mid-1950s, as Moses told me in an interview I conducted with him in 2002 for the Hamilton Alumni Review, the college was “still part of the country. And the country was living under Jim Crow, and Jim Crow had its tentacles all over…” The fraternities at the College were lily-white. He also remembered the roommate who had to withdraw an invitation to visit him at home when the parents discovered his race. “One of the things I learned to do at Hamilton served me in good stead when I went to Mississippi,” Moses recalled in our interview, “and that was to keep a blank face. In Mississippi when you were confronted by th authorities, it wasn’t your actions that got you in trouble, it was your reaction…I’d learned to keep a blank face at Stuyvesant, and I learned to do it more here at Hamilton. So I became a kind of quiet observer.”
Moses spoke gratefully of a number of professors he’d studied with at Hamilton, including Professor of Political Science Channing Richardson, a Quaker and social activist, who encouraged him to join American Friend Service Committee summer relief projects in Europe and Japan while an undergraduate — and in doing so may have planted some of the seeds for 1964’s Freedom Summer project. And in small ways, Moses had an impact on some of his white classmates. Wayne R. Mahood, Class of 1956, remembered Moses discouraging fellow sophomores from engaging in the then-traditional hazing of freshmen.
“In his quiet style,” Mahood recalled, “he tried not only to dissuade but to educate the rest of us. He was simply practicing civil rights long before the rest of us came of age.”
To honor the legacy of Bob Moses ’56, friends, classmates, trustees, and others have initiated the Robert Moses Scholarship Fund, which will further secure the College's commitment to making a Hamilton education possible for any student who is accepted, regardless of their family’s financial situation.
The national commitment to voting rights that Bob Moses risked his life for in Mississippi in the early 1960 has eroded in recent years, through court decisions and state laws intended to suppress voter turnout. The quiet courage that Moses brought to the struggle for freedom and equality is today more relevant than ever.