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“Civil rights issue of our time” is the catch phrase no advocate can resist. From transgender discrimination and gun violence to inequality and education, it’s used with astonishing regularity. This slogan – favored by national and local politicians, as well as Secretaries of Education from the left and the right – is overused and abused to the point of parody. Because there’s never been a time when education was not a “civil rights issue.”

The black community has always seen education as the primary tool to combat discrimination and promote equal treatment. Following the Civil War and during the Reconstruction era, freed blacks, young and old, flocked to schools previously denied to them and the literacy rate increased dramatically. In the years leading up to Brown v. Board of Education and continuing today, black parents and students fought segregation, under-resourced schools, and educational injustices ranging from schools with no counselors and nurses to life-risking routes to and from school.

Freedom Schools
Melinda D. Anderson

From the time of slavery, when it was illegal for blacks to learn or to teach reading and writing, education was viewed as the foundation for self-sufficiency. So it was with this history and tradition that hundreds of student activists – some accounts say close to 1,000 – flocked to Mississippi for Freedom Summer.

Fifty summers ago, in June 1964, the NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights organizations joined with white volunteers from northern colleges and universities in a courageous campaign. Activists fanned out across Mississippi and the South in an incredible show of youth-led civil rights activism. They created Freedom Schools in churches, on back porches and under trees. Their student body ranged from children who had never been to school to black elders who had spent their lifetime working the fields. The assignment was much more daunting than teaching the 3Rs: “They set out to replace the fear of nearly two hundred years of violent control with hope and organized action.”

The Freedom Summer Project coupled literacy with civil rights empowerment. People came together to change the trajectory of black children’s lives through education. Textbooks were rebuffed in favor of activities based on students’ lived experiences – this was central to the Freedom School Curriculum. Black adults’ lives were also changed through voter education and registration.

Most stunning is the heroism it took to do this work in Mississippi, a bastion of white supremacy and racial terror in June 1964. No one understood this better than black Mississippians. While out-of-state volunteers were integral to Freedom Summer, it was black residents, numbering in the thousands, who opened their homes, shops and churches for Freedom Schools and risked their lives as well as their livelihoods for this movement.

I’m struck by the bravery and ingenuity of witnesses to history like Erma Sanders, 80, of Greenville, Mississippi:

“We would meet in churches and people’s homes. But then several churches were burned down. People were afraid to be inside. So we learned school was anywhere we could gather a group. You carried the material in your car. If you saw six people standing on the corner, you set up school. We would teach them to how to fill out the (voter registration) forms. Then we carried them straight to the Courthouse.”

Freedom Summer was a dramatic demonstration of educational empowerment, conceived, led and organized within the black community. Youth-led education movements in PhiladelphiaChicago and Newark are the progeny of this unstoppable crusading. And its 50th anniversary should compel us to redouble efforts to banish the ghosts of Jim Crow that remain in public education.

Fifty years later no one is burning down buildings because blacks are reading and writing inside, but the complexion of discrimination remains the same. Urban school closures are ripping apart black communities. Black students are expelled at a rate three times higher than white children. They are underrepresented in college-prep courses and overrepresented in out-of-school suspensions. They are less likely to be in well-resourced schools and more likely to be taught by under-prepared teachers.

After visiting Freedom Schools in l964, educator and historian Howard Zinn reflected on their importance. His words echo true today:

“The Freedom Schools’ challenge to the social structure of Mississippi was obvious from the start. Its challenge to American education as a whole is more subtle … honestly accepting as an educational goal that we want better human beings in the rising generation than we had in the last, and that this requires a forthright declaration that the educational process cherishes equality, justice, compassion and world brotherhood? … Would it be possible to declare boldly that the aim of the schools is to find solutions for poverty, for injustice, for race and national hatred, and to turn all educational efforts into a national striving for those solutions.”

Melinda D. Anderson is an education writer in Washington, D.C. with special interest in educational equity and justice. She is a founding member of EduColor, an inclusive collective of educators, parents, students, writers and activists that cultivates and promotes diverse voices in the public education conversation and policymaking process. Follow her on Twitter @mdawriter.

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  1. Thank you so much for this piece and for helping people see part of the unbroken thread of passion for education that has always been part of African American culture. The goal of the Freedom Schools, as summarized by Zinn, captures the mission statement of generations of Black educators, including many of my mentors in the profession. My young adult community college students have been learning much about the Freedom Summer and Freedom Schools by doing field work and interviews with people like Mrs. Erma Sanders. They have been shocked and inspired by the great work done by their parents and grandparents (many when they were their age) to win the rights they now have to fight to keep. These are lesson we should never forget because the work is not yet done.

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