July 28, 2021

One of a kind

 I was saddened to learn of the death last Sunday of one of my heroes, the aptly named Robert “Bob” Moses, who passed at the age of 86.

I came of age after the heroic age of the Civil Rights Movement. Over 30 years ago, at the beginning of my career with the American Friends Service Committee, I read Taylor Branch’s masterful book Parting the Waters: American in the King Years. It was there that I learned of Moses' harrowing work on behalf of voting rights and his deep commitment to grassroots leadership.

Moses, who earned a doctorate in philosophy, and Dr. Martin Luther King had much in common while being polar opposites. Both were brilliant African-American civil rights leaders and tacticians

King was a public spokesperson who did well on the public stage--and thank God for that. Moses, on the other hand, avoided the limelight and often worked behind the scenes to promote voting rights and elevate grassroots leaders in the deep south, while enduring beatings, gunshots, threats and jails.

The philosopher Aristotle long ago argued that the truly brave person wasn’t incapable of feeling fear. Such people might be foolhardy or ignorant. A truly brave person does what the situation requires however fearful. I don’t know what Moses felt in the many times he put his body on the line for justice, often at the cost of physical brutality, but his courage never seemed to waver.

It's an added irony that he passed just as we're bracing for another assault on voting rights aimed and rolling back the gains of the past.

Moses’ aversion to star status seems to me to have embodied the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where Jesus taught that his followers should do their good deeds (prayer, fasting, charity) away from public display or scrutiny.

Moses left the US around 1966, eventually spending several years in Tanzania working as an educator. On his return to the US, he developed the Algebra Project, which aims to improve math skills and ultimately educational and occupation success for disadvantaged students, particularly those in the Black community.

I'm kind of jealous that my wife, Anna Megyesi, got the chance to meet Moses in the 1990s when she was working for the AFSC in western Massachusetts and invited him to speak at an annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day. He accepted, but declined to speak about his work in the deep south in the early 1960s, preferring to talk about his work in promoting math skills.

He was the real deal. After learning of his death, I kept thinking of a line from Bob Marley's song Exodus: "send us another brother Moses"...but I have the feeling they broke the mold when they made him.

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