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Freedom Summer organizer Bob Moses came to Mississippi 50 years ago, leading the historic voter registration drive for blacks. On Thursday, the civil rights icon was back with a new passion: Improving education.

“We are a country lurching backwards on the issue of education,’’ Moses said during a panel discussion at Tougaloo College. “For the purpose of education, young people are not public citizens.”

Mississippi education
Marian Wright Edelman and Walt McDonald watch Todd Belcore address the audience about what Mississippi can do to improve education. (Photo: Kayleigh Skinner/The Hechinger Report)

The conference at Tougaloo is an effort to acknowledge Mississippi’s problems and its progress, and move toward new solutions – while energizing a new generation of activists.

Moses, 79, now manages the Algebra Project, a non-profit organization that helps low-income students prepare for college. He came to Jackson to focus on ways to improve Mississippi’s lagging public education system, and he lamented that little has changed.

Edelman called for programs similar to ones the organizers of Freedom Schools attempted to start 50 years ago, emphasizing literacy and cultural history. And she called for empowering students and their parents.

The state still posts some of the lowest test scores in the U.S, and Moses pointed out that its poorest students are still being taught a “sharecropper’s education,” — meaning children from low-income families learn only enough to allow them to do low-income jobs, and not enough to prepare them for higher education.

“Unfortunately, that is still the case today,’’ said Moses, whose panel was part of an ongoing series about education in the state to mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.

On Wednesday, a separate panel at Tougaloo discussed ongoing education problems, while Thursday’s talk focused on solutions. Walt McDonald, president of the Educational Testing Service, and Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, served as panelists alongside Moses.

McDonald, who had never been to Mississippi before Thursday, stressed the need to adequately fund the state’s schools.

“Education is the civil rights of our time,” McDonald said. “If we don’t invest in education, we’re not going to fix things.”

During the 90-minute session, both panelists and audience members called for better funded schools, more access to pre-kindergarten, higher quality teachers and more plentiful summer and after- school programs.

Edelman suggested that Mississippi could make more progress with a larger investment in early childhood education. Until recently, Mississippi was the only state in the south without publicly funded pre-k; new programs are now available, but for only less than six percent of four-year-olds.

“God didn’t make two classes of children,” Edelman said. “You’ve got to get them all ready for school.”

Edelman called for programs similar to ones the organizers of Freedom Schools attempted to start 50 years ago, emphasizing literacy and cultural history. And she called for empowering students and their parents.

“Children just need to understand that they are powerful,’’ she said.

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