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Roy DeBerry was one of the first to attend Mississippi’s so-called Freedom Schools as a teenager in Holly Springs in 1964. More than 40 of these schools were set up that year to encourage black residents of all ages to become politically active in their communities, and to help educate children on racial inequality in the South. As part of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, DeBerry is trying to teach Mississippi’s youth about the state’s troubled past. He now heads the Hill Country Project, an oral history project that collects stories from residents in Benton County who lived through the Civil Rights Movement. This fall, he will join the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation as an activist in residence.

Freedom Schools
Left: A young Roy DeBerry poses for his high school graduation picture. DeBerry was 15-years-old when he became a Freedom School student in 1964. (Photo courtesy of Ellen Devine with Freedom’s Children) Right: Roy DeBerry, currently the executive director of the Hill Country Project, will soon join the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to help educate students about the civil rights movement. (Photo courtesy of Aviva Futorian)

The Hechinger Report sat down with DeBerry to discuss his involvement with Freedom Summer on the eve of its 50th anniversary.

Q: How did you get involved with Freedom Summer 50 years ago?

A: Prior to 1964, at least in my hometown of Holly Springs, we had local people who were involved but we also had people associated with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) who came and were community organizers. Some of them sort of embraced me because I think they had the good sense to know that the local people, meaning me specifically, knew where the back roads were, knew who were the players in town, what to do and what not to do, that sort of thing. Later on I started getting more involved with the actual canvassing – taking students out to various homes to get people to register to vote. At that time, it was very dangerous for people to even register. People had been killed for that, people had been harassed for that, kicked out of their homes and sometimes encouraged to leave town altogether. So there was some danger when people were asked to register to vote. If you don’t register you don’t have political power, you don’t have the right to vote. You obviously aren’t going to be treated as a “citizen.”

You don’t have to live in the past, but you need to know about the past. If you don’t know about it then it’s possible it could be repeated.

Q: Do you think students are aware of Freedom Summer and know what it was?

A: Probably not. I think some students do. I think there are students throughout the South and throughout the country that have an interest in that era. But then a lot of students are just not aware of the power and the impact that the Civil Rights Movement had. Not just in terms of dealing with black folk getting liberated, but white folk getting liberated as well. The Civil Rights Movement, I think, was the most significant nonviolent social change that we’ve ever had in this country. Not only did it impact what happened in this country, it impacted what happened throughout the world. The women’s movement, the anti-war movement, even movements that you see in Egypt and Libya and places in the Middle East have gotten cues from what took place during the Civil Rights Movement. If we don’t make it part of the curriculum then the students won’t know. The older generation is going to pass on.

Q: Why is it important for students to know?

A: If you don’t teach it, people will forget about it and then someone else will come along and rewrite history and say it didn’t happen. A lot of times when people go through war – and the Civil Rights Movement was a kind of war – they get shell-shocked. They don’t want to discuss it; they don’t want to talk about it. And yet they need to talk about it, otherwise it’s forgotten. You don’t have to live in the past, but you need to know about the past. If you don’t know about it then it’s possible it could be repeated.

Q: Do you think the state of Mississippi has made progress since Freedom Summer?

A: I’ve always been pleased with the fact that at least Mississippi is making some effort to deal with its past as it relates to segregation and Jim Crow. I think one of the things that Mississippi needs to do is not only just come to terms with reconciliation, but first of all admit that they have done some wrongs. And I think officially, as a state we have not done that really.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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