In January 2014, I found myself sitting among a small group of fellow graduate students at the University of Michigan School of Education. We students seemed nervous, because at the end of the table sat Bob Moses — founder of the Algebra Project, educational justice advocate, and one of the key organizers of the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration campaign 50 years prior.
Although by that point Moses had spent three decades directing an initiative that “uses mathematics as an organizing tool for quality education for all children in America,” in my mind, Bob Moses was a young man in grainy black-and-white film clips. I knew him from snippets of his calm, but forceful demeanor while training activists in 1964 Mississippi. But here he was, in the middle of a Michigan winter, sharing his story of spending the better part of his life since Freedom Summer as an educator and advocate.
Each student in the room had responded to an invitation from the dean earlier that day, all eager to spend some time in the company of a renowned activist, teacher, and MacArthur fellow. I waited a while to speak up, but eventually summoned the courage to ask one of my heroes, now sitting in front of me, a direct question.
Dr. Kyle Southern
I observed that some of the other most notable leaders of the civil rights era of Moses’ generation had pursued politics—Ambassador Andrew Young and Representative John Lewis among them. I asked whether he had considered entering politics to try and undo the systems of oppression he had fought so long against.
Bob Moses took a long look at me, and his eyes darted around to the other faces at the table. “I just realized early in life,” he began to respond, “that there is joy in struggle.” His answer lingered in the air a moment, and then the conversation moved on. I was too busy absorbing our exchange to ask a follow-up question.
Moses’ words came back to me while watching the attorney general of Kentucky announce no police officer involved in killing Breonna Taylor would face state criminal charges associated with her death. They came back to me again when Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order, in legal limbo as of this writing, that restricts the number of mailed ballot drop-off locations to one per county in his state—a measure that would clearly suppress the vote in sprawling urban areas including Austin and Houston.
And so, where is there joy to be found in the struggle for justice?
Higher education may be as unlikely a place to find it as society as a whole. White people in power, after all, designed educational systems to perpetuate, rather than dismantle the racial and economic hierarchies of their time. But what we can do, perhaps, is to find joy through communities of shared advocacy.
Beyond grappling with what Bob Moses said to me, when I see in the grainy videos white students who came from across the country to learn from him and do the dangerous work of registering Black Mississippians to vote in 1964, I have to ask whether I would have done the same. I can never know the answer to that question, but there are things that I can do today. I can:
I also have the privilege of being able to vote without facing the hurdles so many Americans are still forced to clear to cast their ballots.
I hear in Bob Moses’ words now a reminder that love, like citizenship, requires action. He survived violent threats to his life and continued leading an interracial movement to secure the vote for Black Mississippians.
A historic election is weeks away—an election already fraught with suppression efforts that may lack the violence of the recent past, but are driven by a similar interest in disenfranchisement and holding onto power. Beyond the basic act of voting, however, is the work of enacting values, pushing America to live up to the principle of equal justice under law, and realizing the shared joy that comes from fighting for it.
Dr. Kyle Southern is Policy and Advocacy Director for Higher Education and Workforce at Young Invincibles.