"I Want to Become a Part of History": Freedom Summer, Freedom Schools, and the Freedom News

Article excerpt

  If we are concerned about breaking down the power structure, then
  we have to be concerned about building our own institutions to
  replace the old, unjust, decadent ones which make up the existing
  power structure.
  --Charles Cobb,
  Freedom Schools Coordinator,
  Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 1964 (1)

For many young African Americans in Mississippi, the Civil Rights Movement did not enter their lives until the famous "Freedom Summer" campaign in 1964, a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. (2) The most publicized aspect of Freedom Summer was the voter registration drives, and people throughout the nation watched on television the campaign's crescendo in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in late August during the Democratic National Convention. Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, and black and white Mississippians testified before the Democratic National Committee's credentials committee and protested the seating of the all-white delegation representing Mississippi's Democratic Party. (3) But Freedom Summer's ambitious campaign was not just about the right to vote and political participation. Freedom Summer volunteers and local people sought "freedom" in many ways, such as through the opening of "freedom schools," free and independent of state control. These autonomous institutions employed unique strategies and programs to educate young black Mississippians about their past and present to prepare them for a more promising future. Freedom school students took advantage of these radical sites of learning to conduct an intellectual coup against "the state," which was depriving them of information and training for individual and collective liberation. (4)

Freedom schools were designed not just to educate the students, but to motivate and activate them. The schools provided unique opportunities for young Mississippians to participate in civil rights organizing activities. While some African American youths were involved in civil rights campaigns before Freedom Summer, they were often subject to direct reprisals for their actions in the form of school suspensions and expulsions, as was the case with school children participating in the demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, in 1961 and 1962 and Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Youth activism was limited to local civil rights campaigns where students played supporting roles to adult leadership. But the youths who attended the freedom schools took the lead in the creation of "freedom school newspapers" and participated in organizing activities led by civil rights workers in Mississippi. (5)

Freedom school students were offered the opportunity, many for the first time, to enjoy literature and pursue intellectual freedom. They used the newspapers to join in the ongoing dialogue about the meaning of freedom, full citizenship rights, and increased access to educational opportunities. Most black Mississippians were victimized by the discriminatory and impoverished system of black public schooling that failed to provide sufficient resources for the acquisition of basic literacy skills. Education was always important to black Mississippians, but it had been severely restricted and significantly underfunded following black political disenfranchisement in Mississippi beginning in 1875. Historian Christopher Span discussed the schools opened by African Americans prior to emancipation. The freed-people in Mississippi created schools in church basements or abandoned buildings that provided important opportunities for literacy training for African American children and adults. These privately funded "freedom schools," normally funded by church groups or philanthropic foundations, were prominent in Mississippi before the end of Reconstruction, and offered employment opportunities for black teachers and a more religiously based curriculum. (6) Some schools, funded by industrial capitalists, placed restrictions on the courses of study and programs offered, especially after the expansion of the Hampton-Tuskegee model of normal and industrial education in the late 19th century. …