Imagine a country where you are a slave. You have no rights. You cannot attend public schools, visit the public library, eat in restaurants, enjoy public parks, go to churches or attend movie theaters.
You cannot vote or meet and organize with others like yourself who are also denied these rights.
That country is the United States of America in the state of Mississippi. The year is 1964. You are Black.
These are facts I observed and wrote about in my book “Remembering Freedom Summer,” but in 2021 many states have outlawed teaching such facts in their public schools and in trainings for educational staff.
Eight states have outlawed the teaching of critical race theory, or CRT, a concept they believe will negatively influence their K-12 students. The idea behind CRT is that racism is not a matter of individual bigotry, but is systemic in America, embedded in our educational system, our system of justice, our economy and society.
We must insist that the American History we teach in our schools includes discussions of the systemic racism that has defined and divided our country.
Clearly, the states banning CRT are legislating that the American History taught in their schools cannot include the history of American racism; in doing so, many incorrectly claim that racism’s role in American history is overstated. Yet, at the same time, many states are effectively making voting more difficult for Black people by passing voter suppression laws that limit absentee voting and voting hours on election day.
That combination of suppressed knowledge and suppressed voting is why we must insist that the American History we teach in our schools includes discussions of the systemic racism that has defined and divided our country.
I am a primary resource when it comes to American History and civil rights, particularly in education. I began my teaching career as a Freedom School teacher during the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. I attended the March on Washington in 1963, was a project co-director during the Mississippi Freedom Summer and helped organize the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.
For decades I have been sharing my experiences with educational institutions and civic organizations. The National Education Association presented me with the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Award in July 2019 for engaging students about the civil rights movement.
In my presentations, I include a factual account of my experiences, showing the movie “A Regular Bouquet,” by Richard Beymer, the only film record of Freedom Schools in Mississippi in 1964. I also share my book, which recounts the four goals of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer: organize Freedom Schools, create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, organize Black farmers and promote voter registration drives.
In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King’s transformative “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington had helped the public grow more aware of citizens being denied the right to vote, a fair trial, a quality education and jobs just because of the color of their skin.
Yet in 1964, some 10 years after the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. the Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, Mississippi’s schools were still segregated and unequal; white schools were in session for nine months a year, whereas many Black schools were in session only four or five months. (Many schools remain segregated today.)
My presentations also include lessons about the Freedom Schools, which provided meeting places for the Black community in the summer of 1964, and forums for people to openly express themselves on all issues. They were also a place where students and their parents could obtain the educational skills that Black schools did not often instill.
Our accomplishments included tutoring Joe Williams and Otha Williams: Joe later obtained admission to the College of Emporia, in Kansas, and was awarded a scholarship. I watched him leave Valley View, a small community just north of Canton, for Emporia, lying out of sight in the back seat of a car so he would not be seen with white people.
I also watched the progress of Otha Williams, an adult who could not read or write when he began attending our Freedom School. He progressed quickly and was soon able to read his Bible and the newspaper and fill out orders for his store, a task previously undertaken by his wife.
All of the goals of the Freedom Summer were realized, but voter registration had to wait until 1965 for passage of the Voting Rights Act.
In 1965, the Selma to Montgomery March challenged the lack of respect afforded the U.S. Constitution and Black citizens across Alabama. The right to peacefully protest and present political leaders with a list of grievances, enshrined in the First Amendment, formed the legal basis for the federal court decision that ordered the state of Alabama to allow the march.
The summer of 2014 was the 50th reunion of civil rights workers from the Mississippi Freedom Summer. As part of the reunion, we attended a reception held in our honor in Canton, Mississippi.
We were given certificates of appreciation by the Canton City Council, and copies of a Mississippi State Senate Resolution thanking us for our work.
Even though we were happy to receive these awards, they illustrated the irony of the passage of time, as both bodies had wanted us gone 50 years earlier.
Charles O. Prickett is an author, attorney, educator, lecturer and speaker who brings the history and lessons of the civil rights movement alive. He is the author of “Remembering Mississippi Freedom Summer.”
This story about critical race theory was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.