The education of a community’s children is a potentially contentious issue, and rightly so. It is, after all, an exercise in determining the future; of the children and of society. It is for this reason that those in power are intent on controlling how schooling is conducted. This means that everything from textbook choice to student dress codes are potential battlegrounds where histories, languages, cultures are attacked and defended. In today’s United States, certain elements from the elites have determined the best way to control education is privatizing it and, by default, destroy a public school system designed to bring education to everyone. Those supporting such privatization, mostly through the mechanism of corporate charter schools, simultaneously decry the state of the public schools while they destroy them by transferring their funds to the charter system.
This isn’t to say that public schools were or are perfect. However, the fact that they exist for education and not profit ideally makes them responsive to the communities they serve. Of course, even this assumption is not always true. Indeed, the history of public education in the United States is rife with unequal funding based on racial and economic demographics. This meant that, even after the Supreme Court ordered schools to desegregate after the decision reached in the Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, school across the United States—and especially in its Deep South—were still intentionally segregated by race. For African-American students, not only did this mean that their facilities were worse physically, it also meant the content of their education was designed to keep them in their second-class status.
By 1964, this was not bound to last. The Black freedom movement was well underway and schools were in the forefront of the struggle, both in the courts and in popular protest. Already, students and faculty had boycotted school systems north of the Mason-Dixon Line when they failed to desegregate. As the struggle to register voters and desegregate public spaces in the South intensified, educators sought ways they could join. The summer of 1964 was being called Freedom Summer. The members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had determined the best way to push their struggle dramatically forward was by bringing students from the northern United States into Mississippi to help register Black voters. The racists in the state of Mississippi (in and out of government) were determined to prevent this from happening. Needless to say, tensions were rising.
Understanding that education is almost always a contested terrain and as part of the voter registration project, organizers decided to also open up a number of so-called freedom schools. These schools would engage Black Mississippians not old enough to vote, while simultaneously providing them with both a standard education and a political one. The inspiration for these schools had come from the aforementioned endeavors in some northern school districts. The difference, though, was that these schools would be conducted in one of the most violently racist places in the United States.
This is the history Jon N. Hale relates in his book The Freedom Schools: Student Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. The book combines stories from activists, students and others involved in the campaign with Hale’s analysis and understanding based on his study of papers, news articles and other records regarding the period. The narrative reads smoothly and leaves the reader with a greater sense of the hopes, desires, and goals of the movement, especially as it related to the freedom schools. Furthermore, it also discusses the fears and potentially deadly risks they faced as participants. It is a lesson in total commitment; these young people lived in communities where their lives were under threat while also working their hardest to become part of the communities they were hoping to help organize—attending church, socializing and living in their homes. It is a commitment rarely seen in most of today’s movements for social justice.
Hale discusses the problems in the freedom school project, as well. He writes about the preconceptions many of the northern middle-class white college students brought with them to the schools and how those preconceptions did or did not change. In reading about this, I was reminded of a section of Paulo Freire’s classic text on education Pedagogy of the Oppressed where he discusses this phenomenon:
“…the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other… Theirs is a fundamental role, and has been throughout the history of this struggle. It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know. Accordingly, these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change…”
It was this tendency among certain white SNCC members that helped lead SNCC, which was predominantly an African-American organization, to embrace the concept of Black Power. From the first publicly acknowledged expression of this concept by SNCC organizer Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Toure), it would become clear that SNCC would eventually no longer have white-skinned members. The students of the freedom schools would ultimately form both a bridge and inspiration to the black power movement. In addition, these young students also took their knowledge and experience into this next stage of the struggle. Challenging the accepted history that the rise of Black Power meant the end of the civil rights movement, Hale makes the argument that the actual result of this decision was a heightened definition of the movement’s goals. In other words, it furthered the struggle for equality, not just integration, by forcing white people to see that Blacks were capable of running their own institutions. The role played by the freedom school movement in encouraging young African-Americans to do so is certainly one of its greatest achievements.
Alongside the advent of Black Power was a growing awareness of the US war in Vietnam. Since African-Americans were the most over-represented demographic racial/ethnic group in the front lines of that war, the young activists of the Black Freedom movement were under the most threat to be drafted. This caused them to openly challenge the war and, from there, the entirety of US imperialism. This further alienated both white and Black liberals, while further radicalizing Black youth.
It is important to understand the value of education in liberating a people. The activists of SNCC and Freedom Summer understood this well. The success of the Freedom schools in the summer of 1964 and afterwards proves their suspicion that young African-Americans in Mississippi would be drawn to classrooms where they not only learned mathematics and reading, they also learned the history of their people and those that had enslaved their ancestors. Combined with the growing demand for justice across the US South, the greater nation and the world itself, the experience of the freedom schools remains a valuable lesson for those interested in creating social justice. Jon Hale’s text does a great job of teaching that lesson.