To Write in the Light of Freedom: The Newspapers of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools
As late as , Mississippi was spending an average of approximately four times as much on white pupils as African American students.
Some individual school districts were even more unbalanced. By the time civil rights activists began planning Freedom Summer in the early s, African American students still attended inferior schools and generally had far less access to basic educational resources than white students.
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Moreover, the curriculum and faculty at many black public schools were closely monitored to prevent teachers from discussing or promoting certain aspects of African American history or the Civil Rights Movement, or from joining organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People NAACP. Decades of educational disparities wrought devastating economic consequences for black Mississippians. Although most could read and write, fewer than five percent of black Mississippi adults held a high school diploma in Many did not know basic facts about the government of the United States of America, such as how many states were in the nation, the purposes of the three branches of federal government, or that black people had been guaranteed the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment.
Many white Mississippi schools also struggled mightily, and the state lagged behind most of the rest of America in high school graduation rates. However, the disproportionate resources afforded to black Mississippi schools had been specifically designed to maintain a relatively uneducated and politically inept labor force that undergirded a commitment to white supremacy. A handful of extremely well educated black doctors and teachers helped develop pockets of resistance and some strong classrooms for African American youth, but across the state, many black Mississippians in the earlys remained woefully undereducated about their own basic civil and political rights.
In , representatives from a variety of civil rights organizations began working aggressively with local black Mississippians for the right to register to vote. COFO coordinated public protests and voting rights campaigns across the state, encountering some encouraging successes, but also experiencing devastating setbacks, due to persistent economic intimidation and racial violence.
To break the deadlock, COFO in planned a civil rights campaign of unprecedented scale. Freedom Schools were largely modeled on the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which had for decades served as a major training center for labor and civil rights activists. The Freedom School curriculum and pedagogy reflected that approach. Students were given both the opportunity and responsibility to shape their processes of learning and liberation.
Jon N. Hale, Ph.D.
Unlike other schools where mandatory attendance and examinations coerce student involvement, the Freedom Schools were voluntary and provided the young African Americans with an experience that was immediately relevant to their own lives. Freedom School teachers were trained to ask students questions and challenge them to find their own solutions.
Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. COFO Freedom School organizers had initially planned for about 1, students, but by the end of the summer, the schools drew an estimated 2, to 3, students. The six Freedom Schools in Hattiesburg alone had over students.
Jon N. Hale, Ph.D.
Meridian was the largest, single Freedom School with more than regular students. Freedom Schools were organized in municipalities throughout the state, including Batesville, Canton, Columbus, Gulfport, and Jackson. All told, at least forty-one Freedom Schools operated across Mississippi during the Freedom Summer. Students ranged in age from five to eighty, but most were between ten and eighteen years-old.
A typical day in Freedom School began within the singing of Freedom Songs to invigorate students and teachers.
The Mississippi Freedom Schools | Mississippi History Now
From there, the Freedom School curriculum varied widely by school and classroom. Some students were most interested in learning remedial skills in arithmetic, writing, reading, and even French. This evidence helped prove racially-discriminatory voter registration practices that demonstrated the need for more comprehensive voting rights legislation in the South.
In addition to these duties, Evers also served as a conduit between the national NAACP and Mississippi activists who desperately needed financial and legal assistance because of repercussions they faced for their activism. On top of his formal duties, Evers was a relentless grassroots organizer who spent much of his time driving to covert meetings across the state with a.
During his first three years as field secretary, Evers drove over 42, miles in his Oldsmobile. Because of the dangers of civil rights activism in Mississippi, Evers did not maintain detailed minutes of these stealthy meetings. Records indicate who signed affidavits or requested financial support, but most details of these small gatherings are lost to history. What is clear, however, is that Evers travelled to nearly all corners of Mississippi to meet with small groups of extremely dedicated NAACP leaders in church basements and the backrooms of Black businesses.
In an era when NAACP officials were increasingly targeted, his bravery in undertaking this type of activism cannot be overstated.
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In addition to small private meetings, Evers also worked to ensure that NAACP branch leaders could meet and communicate. To facilitate networking among NAACP branch leaders, Evers held annual meetings in Jackson and intermittent gatherings at rotating regional sites across the state. From there, the Freedom School curriculum varied widely by school and classroom. Some students were most interested in learning remedial skills in arithmetic, writing, reading, and even French. Many were drawn to African American magazines such as Ebony or Jet and novels by black writers such as Richard Wright that featured colored photographs of influential African Americans and told stories from black perspectives.
Freedom School students were also deeply interested in learning about historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and used these heroes from the past to draw parallels to their own processes of liberation. Some classroom activities offered even more direct connections to the Civil Rights Movement, asking students to comment on goals and tactics and encouraging them to debate movement strategies such as non-violence versus armed self-defense.
Written expression was crucial to the Freedom School experience. Through poems, short-stories, essays, and even theatrical productions, Freedom School students shared their feelings toward Jim Crow segregation laws and practices and asserted their desire to claim liberation and equality. Students in at least fourteen Freedom Schools published their own civil rights newsletters that contained an array of creative literary works and updates about local movement activities.
The newspapers, which were distributed in the local black community, were filled with the encouraging words of Freedom School students who challenged their elders into action and resolved to fight for equality the rest of their lives. Enthralled with the movement, many Freedom School students became active participants and leaders.
Attending Freedom Schools alone was a political act, but students went even further, attending mass meetings, canvassing potential voters, joining protest marches, and writing letters to government leaders, such as the governor of Mississippi and even President Johnson.
In McComb, a group of young teenagers organized a program to help older African Americans learn how to complete voter registration cards, and all across the state, young, black Freedom School students conducted sit-ins at local libraries, restaurants, and department stores to test the newly passed Civil Rights Act of Many of these developing leaders helped guide the direction of local protests after many of the outside volunteers left the state at the conclusion of Freedom Summer.
In early August, Freedom School students helped organize a statewide Freedom School Convention in Meridian where delegates from across the state held a two-day meeting to discuss the primary issues facing black Mississippians. Splitting into a series of subcommittees, the young black leaders analyzed specific sets of problems such as employment, housing, voter registration, and medical care.
They even drafted a series of resolutions designed to improve these issues. Across Mississippi today, there are hundreds of former Freedom School students whose lives were changed during their experiences in the summer of Many of them went on to become teachers, social workers, lawyers, and lifelong activists.
Even those who did not become civil rights activists or community organizers finished that summer with a new sense of expectations about their civil and political rights. For virtually all who attended, Freedom Schools served as a powerful moment of intellectual liberation. One of the most important legacies of the Mississippi Freedom Schools extends beyond the original students. Conducted in a new era, they differ in many ways from the Mississippi Freedom Schools, but they can trace their intellectual and spiritual roots to those Mississippi Freedom Schools that operated in the summer of He, along with Dr.
Jon N. Bolton, Charles. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, Dittmer, John. Urbana: University of Illinois Press,