Moses Takes Long View of Race History

Civil rights leader says that the candidate invites progress

Civil rights luminary Robert P. Moses gave his audience a lesson in constitutional history yesterday, tracing the expansion of American civil rights from the founding fathers to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Speaking at the Institute of Politics, Moses described early interpretations of the U.S. constitution designed to protect the rights of slaveowners, and outlined the way in which reformers from Abraham Lincoln to the activists of the 1960s had attempted to expand the notion of constitutional rights, a process he said was still not finished.

“We should embrace the constitutional reach of ‘we,’” said Moses, a former Harvard graduate student.

“We need to make good on our claim of ‘we the people.’”

Moses added that he saw Obama’s campaign—and the debate it has sparked over whether America is ready for a black president—as the continued expansion of the Constitution to include all Americans.

When asked by an audience member about the state of public education in America, Moses turned the question around, asking audience members to raise their hands if they would support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to an education.

“With regards to education, we are not citizens of this country,” he said. “There is no federal right to education.”

Moses was the keynote speaker at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Public Policy and Leadership Conference, which brings college students to the school to encourage careers in public service.

As a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, Moses led voter registration drives in the deep south.

In 1982, he founded the Algebra Project, a progressive math education program for low-income students that has been put in place in around 40,000 American middle schools.

Currently, he teaches math in Miami, Fla.

The civil rights leader only mentioned his own career in the question-and-answer session following the speech, when a former student asked him how he believed his role as an educator had furthered civil rights. Moses said that he saw education as a crucial step in expanding rights.

“There is nothing radical about voter registration. But bringing voter registration to Mississippi sharecroppers, that was radical,” he said.

“Doing math isn’t radical. But teaching kids in the bottom quartile as part of a larger political and cultural process, that’s radical.”

Despite the theoretical tone of his address, Moses said that the key to social change lies in individual hands-on initiatives, the sort he said formed the basis of the civil rights movement.

“It’s about the struggle to close the gap between what America preaches and what it practices,” he said.

—Staff writer Cora K. Currier can be reached at ccurrier@fas.harvard.edu.