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Willing to die for justice? Comparing post-Katrina student activism to Freedom Summer

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­Two of the most significant student movements in the United States occurred in Jackson, Mississippi and New Orleans – separated by less than a three hours’ drive and fifty years. En masse, high school students and coeds migrated to these cities leading up to Freedom Summer of 1964, and they came in the years immediately following Hurricane Katrina. Those cities served as classrooms that taught students sociology lessons like no other, but what parallels and distinctions can we draw between the two time periods?

I asked that question to panelists who participated in a discussion and screening of Freedom Riders, a documentary directed by Stanley Nelson Jr., that was hosted by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH).

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“External voices can certainly illuminate conditions of the oppressed,” said Brian Boyles of LEH. Some accounts have more than 1,000 youth volunteers, primarily from northern colleges, participated in some form of non-violent direct action during Freedom Summer. In the summer of 1961, a multiracial coalition of students road buses to protest the non-enforcement of segregated buses and accommodations across the interstate. Freedom Riders traveled directly into brutal mob violence and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. Freedom Riders consequently endured beatings by the hands of people who hand very different perspectives of community.

In the summer of 1964, youth erected approximately 30 Freedom Schools that taught a curriculum that included black history, the philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement, leadership development as well as remedial instruction in reading and math. The nadir of Freedom Summer occurred with the Klan killings of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner who all worked on the voter registration efforts. Still, the non-violent, civil disobedience and grassroots activism of young women and men from 1961 to 1964 have been deemed widely influential in the passage of the Civil Rights Act and other related legislation.

“If people think there’s a lack of urgency people are not listening,” — M.K. Nguyen, St. Paul Promise Neighborhoods

Freedom Summer taught us that students don’t and can’t wait for adults to bring social justice.

Katrina also sounded an alarm to which students responded. Almost immediately after the breeches in the levees in 2005, undergraduates from all over the country came to assist in New Orleans’ recovery. They came to help rebuild schools as part of social justice organizations like Common Ground Collective. Law student volunteers from universities and non-profits like Equal Justice Works came to deliver free legal aid victims as a direct result of the storm, but much of the assistance saw that residents were victims of failed public policy that made a hurricane disaster into a national calamity. In addition, so many students elected to come to New Orleans for their spring break that the city became synonymous with Alternative Spring Break.

However, it may be the extent and nature of student activism that differentiates between the two eras.

Panelist Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons gave insight from her involvement in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and her activism during the Freedom Rides of 1961. “We were not afraid of dying. Through the study of non-violent direct action, we were made aware and accepted the possibility of death.” A late addition to the program, Smith-Simmons laid bare the type of courage students exhibited for the advancement of civilization. She reiterated and confirmed what others CORE members said and showed during the film – young people were willing to die for justice.

Do today’s students take similar risks for prison reform, education, and women’s reproductive rights? Examples of this form of activism can be readily found in Egypt, Syria and the West Bank. However, what to extent are youth willing to take a stand on issues of education, health care, criminal justice and women’s reproductive rights?

“If people think there’s a lack of urgency people are not listening,” said M.K. Nguyen of St. Paul Promise Neighborhoods. Nguyen spent several years as an organizer for Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans.

In 2013, the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association filed a federal discrimination complaint against the Recovery School District and the Orleans Public School Board. The complaint argued schools don’t provide equal access to Latino and Vietnamese families who are not fluent in English. The association has also organized for access to transportation, language services and healthcare services.

In education in particular, young people are very active in social justice movements. There has been a percolating student-led backlash against New Orleans’s charter schools. On the flipside of that backlash, recent college graduates have been a driving force behind charter school growth. Mission-driven men and women are working as teachers who see themselves as part of delivering the civil rights issue of our time.

However, Nguyen warned that many student-led movements don’t authentically represent the people they supposedly serve. “Nothing about us without us is for us.” Nguyen quoted her fellow organizers Curtis Muhammad and Miguel Nunez to explain that authentic representation empowers communities in ways that are sustainable.

Stephanie McKee, artistic director of Junebug Productions served as a panelist and offered her insight of the difference between the two eras. “Activists today are often too invested in the systems they need to deconstruct.” McKee believes that the context has certainly changed over the last 50 years, but the issues are no less important. “The intensity and radicalism of the movements in criminal justice and education are just not televised. Institutional power muffles the sounds of the people who are radical.”

To what extent are people willing to take a stand? I believe people are willing to die for justice whenever oppression is killing people. Issues and context change; therefore, strategies must change. For instance, residents of certain zip codes in New Orleans are living twenty years less than those in area codes a few miles away. Place can be a proxy for race, but the same heat and urgency of 1964 is required now.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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