In President's Lecture, civil rights pioneer encourages 'constitutional conversation'


Robert Parris Moses received a standing ovation
before he uttered a word.

The raucous reception greeting Moses as he took the Razzo Hall stage to deliver the Oct. 8 President's Lecture was a display of deep appreciation for the life and career of the prominent Civil Rights leader, who defied the violent racism of early-1960s Mississippi to register black voters at his own peril.

Soft-spoken and deliberate, Moses told the Clark University audience that the United States has lurched through three distinct "constitutional eras" — each about 75 years in length — that continue to define and redefine the concept of "We the people." The first era, from 1787 to the end of the Civil War, was marked by the finding that African slaves were the constitutional property of their owners. (That concept was successfully challenged by a slave named James Somerset, but not in the United States. Somerset, while accompanying his owner to England, challenged his slave status in court and was set free by a British judge, Moses recounted.)

Following the Civil War, the second constitutional era established the rights of former slaves as U.S. citizens, but southern states defied the federal mandate, leading to the enactment of Jim Crow laws that reinforced segregation.

"As soon as Africans became citizens the concept of citizenship was demeaned and downgraded, and the concept of states' rights was elevated," Moses said. In effect, he said, the descendants of slaves were not fully acknowledged as constitutional people.

A third constitutional era, Moses said, was launched in 1941 in the shadow of the attack on Pearl Harbor when U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle issued Circular 3591, which criminalized slavery and other forms of forced labor, which still persisted in some places.

Twenty years later, Moses served as a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), initiated SNCC's Mississippi Voter Registration Project, and was appointed committee director in 1962. He helped lead the Council of Federated Organizations into the Mississippi Summer Project (1964 Freedom Summer), which introduced the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the National Democratic Convention. He cited several Civil Rights victories of the 1960s, which involved getting Jim Crow laws out of three distinct areas: public accommodations, the right to vote and the national Democratic power structure. "But we didn't get Jim Crow out of education," he said, noting there are 45 pending cases over the issue of education equity.

Moses is founder and president of Algebra Project, Inc., a national nonprofit organization that uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every child in America. The Algebra Project has worked with cohorts of high school students who previously performed in the lowest quartile of standardized exams and proposes a "benchmark" for them: to graduate high school on time, in four years, ready to do college math for college credit. He said young people should be recognized as constitutional citizens, and it's critical that students' educations give them a "public voice."

The country is moving backward in several areas as the Supreme Court appears to be trying to institute another era in which state rights supercede those established by the federal government, Moses asserted.

He concluded by urging the United States' acceptance of undocumented immigrants — "anyone who takes this country as home" — into the "constitutional conversation," noting that earlier generations of European immigrants arrived on U.S. shores without invitation and established themselves here.

During a question-and-answer session, Moses was asked how he felt when the United States elected Barack Obama as its first black president. "I felt the country had turned a corner," he said, though the "shearing" of society on race and class distinctions is still acute. "We don't have ‘we the people' politics in this country," Moses said.

Prior to the lecture, President David Angel announced that alumni, colleagues, friends and family have created a permanent endowment for the Robert J.S. Ross Social Justice Internship, honoring the retired longtime professor of sociology at Clark. The endowment supports stipends for undergraduate social justice internships with an organization or other entity whose principal mission is to promote social, economic or environmental justice.