"The Student as a Force for Social Change": The Mississippi Freedom Schools and Student Engagement

Article excerpt

"The Freedom School shaped my future, my thinking, my outlook on life, it challenged me to do the things I've done and to have the mindset that I have," Eddie James Carthan recalled about the impact of attending Freedom School in Mileston, Mississippi, during the summer of 1964. "If I had to attribute anything to my community involvement, I would attribute it to my attending the Freedom School." (1) Carthan was one of over 2,000 children and young people who attended the Freedom Schools in 1964 and cultivated their aspirations to contribute to "the Movement." Civil rights activists organized the Freedom Schools across the state of Mississippi to raise awareness about opportunities for young people to participate in the civil rights campaigns, and to mobilize and motivate youth who were not already involved. Student engagement in the Freedom Schools, the process of becoming involved in the larger movement through their educational efforts, translated into participation in protests and community organizing activities that included the demand for increased resources and better facilities in their public schools, the integration of all-white public schools, and the end of racially motivated disciplinary actions. This essay examines student motivations, and the learning processes within the Freedom Schools that translated into protest, and attempts to explain how some African American students used this education to define their approaches to political and social issues as adults. Through the analysis of student engagement in the Mississippi Freedom Schools, it becomes clear that the schools were instrumental in forging a political consciousness among African American youth in Mississippi who became committed to destroying the legalized oppression of Jim Crow segregation.

Many of these African American students became politically conscious and committed to the larger Civil Rights Movement through the knowledge and training they received at the Freedom Schools and this essay illuminates this sometimes overlooked moment of broad-based student engagement in the history of the 1960s civil rights campaigns in Mississippi. Historians Clayborne Carson, Charles Payne, John Dittmer, Neil McMillen, and others have analyzed the organized struggle for equal opportunity among "the local people" in Mississippi, a state known for its violent enforcement of legalized segregation within a highly racialized political environment. (2) Doug McAdam, Mary Ann Rothschild, and Bruce Watson have examined the "Freedom Summer" campaign, the major mobilization statewide during the summer of 1964 to register black citizens and focus attention on the civil rights violations in Mississippi, directly challenging the myth that black southerners would not vote even if provided the opportunity. The Freedom Schools, as these and other researchers have noted, were a significant part of the Freedom Summer campaign. When thousands of people organized to challenge Jim Crow practices in Mississippi in 1964, deeply entrenched racist practices were exposed and made visible throughout the world through television news programs, and the participants acquired the tools needed to carry on the struggle for racial equality. Examined from the organizers' perspectives, this literature historicizes the legacy of the grassroots mobilization in Mississippi. (3)

The historiography on the Freedom Schools has focused on education as a catalyst for social change. Daniel Perlstein examined the connection between the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) grassroots organizing and the internal development of the Freedom School program. Curriculum specialists George Chilcoat and Jerry Ligon discussed the curriculum and modes of instruction in the schools, and noted their significance for contemporary educational practice. Sandra Adickes published her memoir on teaching in a Freedom School, and John Rachal revealed important aspects of adult education during the Freedom Summer campaign. …


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