The seeds for the principles underlying The Algebra Project were sown during the period of Robert Moses's civil rights work in Mississippi during the 1960s. At this time, he and fellow activists were working to realize the concept of "one person one vote". In a state where only 5% of the black population was registered to vote, this slogan provided black citizens and their supporters what Moses' calls a minimum of common conceptual cohesion, or a shared goal. Agreement on the meaning of this slogan gave rise to self-organization.

It was not enough that people had a common goal. They needed a protected environment in which their organization could grow. Moses describes this protective environment as a "crawl space", a space in a larger political and social world that supports and protects grassroots movements. Moses says the size of the space is not important; it can be a very small space. The "crawl space" of the voter registration of black citizens of Mississipppi was the 1957 Civil Rights bill.

These two concepts were the basic building blocks for organizing people during Freedom Summer in 1964. In addition, Moses discovered in Mississippi a longstanding tradition, where organizations were built around three concepts: involvement of the family; development of local participants into the future leaders of the movement; and working with people and the situations you know to solve problems.

See what "crawl space" meant in the context of Civil Rights