As the lights went up on the stage of the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium and the evening’s keynote speaker approached the podium, the audience was hushed. Here in their midst was a figure of American history, a major participant in the 1960s civil rights struggle, Robert Moses. He spoke in a voice that was soft and resonant with experience.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation has been sponsored by UC Santa Cruz for 29 years. Every year, a speaker connected to the movement for civil rights addresses the audience. Past speakers include the environmentalist Van Jones and the author Alice Walker.
In the 1960s, Moses was a leading figure in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped to organize projects such as the Freedom Summer of 1964, where many young volunteers helped black Americans register to vote in Mississippi. Many of these volunteers were white college students from the north and the west coast.
On the evening of Feb. 6, Moses’ speech focused on the arduous efforts of Americans of color to obtain the same rights as white Americans. Moses referenced the legacy of Dr. King and how his work laid a foundation for future activism.
“We are 50 years out from 1963, a momentous year for Dr. King and for the nation,” Moses said. “Momentous and, in some respects we have yet to understand, overwhelming.”
Moses also addressed the disparity between citizenship and the granting of full rights under the U.S. Constitution, examining at length the history of people of color who were not allowed the same rights despite technically being citizens.
“To pick up where Dr. King left off, I’m going to ask us to think about a clear path to constitutional personhood for all the nation’s youth,” Moses said, “and to contemplate that throughout our history, citizenship has in no way guaranteed constitutional personhood.”
Since 1982, Moses has sought to bridge the racial divide in American society in a different area — education. He founded the the Algebra Project, an organization which encourages “communities [to] maximize local resources and take ownership of their own community building and mathematics education reform efforts,” according to the project’s official website. The project focuses chiefly on increasing mathematical literacy among school districts that serve children of color and low socio-economic status.
“We have a culture that says that in order to do math, you have to have the ‘math gene’,” Moses said. “So the question is, how does the culture change? We have to decide that we are going to be a country that does math. That’s what we’re trying to do in the Algebra Project — trying to grow a generation of people who’ve decided to do math.”
To Moses, quality education is one of the fundamental rights that every American must be granted.
“[We must seek] for all the nation’s children their constitutional right to a quality public school education,” Moses said.
In the last four years, the memorial convocation has also honored local activists whose work emulates that of Tony Hill. The Tony Hill Memorial Award, named after a prominent Santa Cruz activist, has been presented at the convocation to a person who exemplifies this spirit of community service and advocacy. Hill was a member of the Santa Cruz community whose life work mirrored the efforts of King and Moses. He embraced many causes, including the construction of affordable housing in Santa Cruz and addressing the inequities between North and South Santa Cruz County.
“He was very committed to the concept of interdependence and the belief that we all are connected,” said Melanie Stern, his widow. “He also was very active doing work around diversity and helping people to see their gifts and their strengths.”
This year, the Tony Hill Award was presented to Stephen Nelson, an activist at the Homeless Services Center in Santa Cruz. Having been homeless for several years, Nelson now devotes his life’s work to helping others who are suffering from the adversity he overcame.
“I know adversity. I know what down is and I look forward to up,” Nelson said. “I think that if we work together and we don’t always seek to tear down the mountain, but join hands and find a way to go around, we can do this and things will change.”
Stern praised Nelson’s innovative work in the community.
“Connecting the homeless community to the larger Santa Cruz community is about bridging,” Stern said. “We in society tend to have some fear around people who are homeless or different and we tend to stereotype. Getting to know Stephen is a great motivator for us to begin to break some of those stereotypes.”
In his speech, Moses challenged the audience to reconsider their concept of what the U.S. Constitution promises to the American people, making his historical role more immediate and tangible. He exhorted his listeners to reevaluate the way they perceive the motives and behavior of fellow citizens they do not know.
“The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept,” Moses said. “In common sense terms, it depends on that generosity of spirit, which seeks the best, not the worst, from a stranger.”