Former Freedom Rider Commemorates MLK in Keynote Speech

Emily Drewel

As part of Colgate’s annual Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, Algebra Project founder Robert P. Moses spoke to a chapel full of stu­dents and faculty on the importance of quality public school education as a Constitutional right. The Of­fice of Diversity sponsored the talk as one component of a three-part “Legends of the Civil Rights Move­ment” series, meant to encourage the continuance of the struggle for civil rights and racial equality. Mo­ses’ Algebra Project was founded in 1982 through a MacArthur Foun­dation Fellowship. The foundation aims to achieve educational equal­ity by promoting mathematical skills and organization.

“I entered history as a Freedom Rider,” Moses said, remembering his days as a civil rights activist. He was on the front lines of the 1960s movement. He was beaten, arrested and chased by unmarked cars while ensuring voting rights for Missis­sippi sharecroppers. He recalled a particular day when a “hailstorm of bullets” rained down upon his car, killing his friend Jimmy. Moses’ inspirational memories were meant to discourage students from taking civil rights progress for granted. He also encouraged students not to think the work is done. Civil rights issues, such as the lack of equality in education, still affect the nation.

Educational inequality, Moses said, creates a “tight caste system as a substitute for legal slavery.” Today, he works with the Algebra Project on the intersection of civil rights and education. Problems such as insufficient supplies and a lack of qualified teachers contribute to an unequal society, keeping tradition­ally disadvantaged groups down by denying them the tools required for advancement. This, Moses said, is where we need to focus our efforts to promote civil rights today.

The legal struggle over public edu­cation is a long-standing issue. Moses described many legal battles, including a Texas lawsuit requesting equality in school funding, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional. Accord­ing to the court, funding equality is guaranteed neither explicitly nor im­plicitly in the Constitution. To coun­ter those who hold this position, Mo­ses makes the important distinction between the “legislative Constitution” and the “invisible Constitution.”

“We need to move away from debates over what the Constitution says [and] towards debates over what the Constitu­tion does,” Mo­ses said. To him, these ideas are neither necessar­ily conservative nor liberal, but concerned with the “dignity of the human per­son,” the essence of American lib­erty. Moses wor­ries that getting bogged down in debates over se­mantics often causes us to lose sight of the human issues at hand.

At the end of his lecture, Mo­ses asked the audience to repeat the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence after him. The chapel echoed with the words this nation’s values are based upon – it resounds because, as Moses reiterated, it begins “sim­ply, without pretention, among it’s people.”

“This is your struggle,” Mo­ses said in closing, speaking di­rectly to the audience, genera­tion of college students. Moses encouraged students to take up the spirit of the Freedom Riders, and challenges themselves to continue the struggle for equal­ity – not to simply remember once a year the heroes of the 1960s civil rights movement.