November 19, 2014

Civil Rights Activist Robert Moses Launches Freedom Summer Events

Parking around the John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) was hard to find Sunday afternoon and it wasn’t just because there was a swim meet and a football game in progress. More than 130 people turned out to welcome guest speaker Robert Pariss Moses to the school to inaugurate a series of programs at the Princeton Public Library, JWMS, and Princeton University marking the 50th anniversary of the events in Mississippi during the summer of 1964 С the Mississippi Summer Project or Freedom Summer as it became known.

But although he was expected to reminisce about his part in the 1964 campaign to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote, Mr. Moses launched into a conversation with the young people attending. Instead of the lecture podium on the stage, he chose to stand on the floor of the auditorium directly in front of the stage and invited the middle schoolers to join him in conversation. As their elders watched and listened, the veteran teacher gave everyone a lesson in history and in pedagogy.

One of the most influential black leaders of the civil rights movement, Mr. Moses initiated and organized voter registration drives, sit-ins, and Freedom Schools for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He led the campaign to bring a thousand volunteers С primarily enthusiastic young white supporters — to Mississippi to encourage African-American voters to register to vote, to provide education via summer schools, and to convene a more representative delegation to attend the Democratic National Convention.

Today, Mr. Moses runs the Algebra Project that he founded in 1980 to improve math education in poor communities. His book, which he co-authored with Charles E. Cobb, Jr., is titled: Radical Equations: Civil Rights From Mississippi to the Algebra Project.

Co-sponsored by the library, Not in Our Town Princeton, Princeton Public Schools, Princeton University, and the Princeton Garden Theatre, Sunday’s event was introduced by Tim Quinn of the Princeton Board of Education and Janie Hermann of the Princeton Public Library.

Taneshia Nash Laird, founder of the Baker Street Social Club, introduced the speaker, who was so well known to the audience that many stood to applaud him before he began to speak.

Ms. Laird said that she had been so nervous about introducing the iconic figure that she had asked her pastor how she should go about it. “Humbly, like the man himself,” was the reply.

The conversation between Mr. Moses and the students centered on the meaning of the Preamble to the Constitution, which begins with the words, “We the people.”

In classic Socratic manner, Mr. Moses explored the concepts of “constitutional person” and “constitutional property” with the middle-schoolers. He asked them to think about the Preamble’s words. “Who were the ‘we’ when the country first got started in 1787?” he asked.

In less than one hour, with patience and encouragement, Mr. Moses and the young students explored the meaning of the Preamble and the exclusion of women, Africans, and Native peoples from the collective “we,” as well as chattel slavery; the Civil War; the implications of The Constitution’s Article 4, Section 2, Paragraph 3 (The Fugitive Slave clause); constitutional amendments 13 (abolishes slavery), 14 (addresses citizenship rights), and 15 (addresses voting rights); and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Circular 3591 (concerning peonage and debt-slavery), which he urged them to “Google” when they got home; Brown v. The Board of Education, among other aspects of United States history.

Describing American history in terms of balancing two opposing ideas of constitutional person and constitutional property, Mr. Moses said that the country had lurched forward after the Civil War and backwards since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. After Freedom Summer the country is now in a “third constitutional era,” he said and asked students to think about the kind of country they will create in 30 years time. “Who then will be the ‘we’ in ‘We the people,’” he asked.

He urged his listeners to learn the Preamble and recite it; to think about it as “something we do.” In other words he suggested the Preamble not as a record of history but as a living document that could be “enacted” for each new generation of speakers, encompassing a wider group as time goes on.

Asked afterwards why he had chosen to focus on the constitution rather than reminiscence on his past, Mr. Moses explained: “The country is at a point of choice, democracy is unstable and huge forces are operating. As we shift from industrial to information-age technology, we need a deeper understanding of the Constitution and the force that it has.”

Thirteen-year-old Denzel, an eighth-grader at JWMS described Mr. Moses’s talk as “inspirational. “I learned a lot,” he said, adding that he would be “Googling” Circular 3591 as Mr. Moses had suggested and that he was eager to learn more about the work of Douglas Blackmon, the Pulitzer Prize winning author cited by Mr. Moses for his book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Mr. Blackmon’s book examines how the enslavement of African-Americans persisted deep into the 20th century.

Traveling Exhibition

After Mr. Moses’s talk, the audience enjoyed a reception and viewed the traveling exhibition, “Risking Everything: A Freedom Summer Exhibit for Students,” from the Wisconsin Historical Society, which has one of the nation’s most extensive collections of Civil Rights material.

“Risking Everything” features 70 photographs, manuscripts, diaries and other primary source materials documenting the Freedom Summer volunteers’s efforts to integrate “all-white” businesses and to register residents to vote. It shows residents and volunteers who came to Mississippi from all over the United States and the opponents they faced. Having toured major museums and libraries throughout the year, the exhibition is making a last stop in Princeton, the only stop in New Jersey.

The exhibition will be on display at JWMS through November 23 before it moves to the Princeton University’s Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding where it will be on view November 25 through December 5.

Upcoming Events

Freedom Summer programs continue Thursday, November 20, at 7 p.m. when Princeton residents and others share their memories of Freedom Summer and civil rights events a Freedom Summer Panel Discussion, moderated by Shirley Satterfield and members of Not in Our Town, in the library’s Community Room.

Princeton Garden Theatre at 160 Nassau Street will screen the documentary film Freedom Summer Sunday, November 23, at 1 p.m. Director Stanley Nelson captures the volatile months of Freedom Summer and Mr. Moses’s campaign to bring a thousand volunteers–primarily enthusiastic young white supporters–to Mississippi to encourage African-American voter registration, provide education and convene a more representative delegation to attend the Democratic National Convention.

Tickets for the 1 hour and 53 minute film are free, but limited, and may be reserved through the theater’s website,

For more information about library programs and services, call (609) 924-9529 or visit