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Civil Rights Activist Bob Moses Dies At 86

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to take a few minutes to remember Robert P. Moses, a key figure in the movement for civil and voting rights, anti-war activist and a pioneer in math education for Black youth. He died this morning at the age of 86. Bob Moses, as he was also known, was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who volunteered to lead a drive to register Black voters in Mississippi in the early 1960s. He quickly became a leader in the committee's efforts.

Moses was a northerner from New York, a math teacher with multiple degrees. But in a 1993 interview with Terry Gross, Moses said he never felt like an outsider in rural Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB MOSES: And I think the reason I didn't feel that way is that my father and my family, we grew up in the Harlem River Houses in New York City, which was a low-rent income project. So I grew up really with a very close base to working-class, average, you know, workers and people in Harlem.

MARTIN: At one point, when the voter registration drive in Mississippi turned tense, Moses and others were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct. Decades later, he remembered the ensuing trial and an exchange with federal District Judge Claude Clayton.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOSES: And I'm on the witness stand. And he looks at me, and he says, why are you taking illiterates down to register to vote? Basically, we said, well, look; the country can't have denied a whole people access to literacy and then turn around and deny people access to voting.

MARTIN: Moses may not have been as well-known as others in the civil rights movement, but historian Taylor Branch says his influence was profound.

TAYLOR BRANCH: To this day, he is a startling paradox because I think his influence is almost on par with Martin Luther King, and yet he's almost totally unknown.

MARTIN: Bob Moses would later turn his attention to anti-war activism. Later, in the 1980s, he turned once again to his first love, mathematics, founding The Algebra Project, which aims to help middle and high school students who struggle with math attain the skills they need to be ready for college. In a 2013 interview with NPR, Moses look back on his efforts this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOSES: I've lived most of my life. What I would like to see happen in this country in my lifetime is the next generation get ready to take the next lurch forward.

MARTIN: That was civil rights pioneer Robert P. Moses, who died this morning in Hollywood, Fla. He was 86.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON (KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE)")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK AND JAMES HORNER: (Singing) Paul and Silas, bound in jail, had no money for to go their bail. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.