Freedom School Legacy Lives On: From 1964 to 2004, Project Battles Racism with Education
Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter
They were Freedom Schools. Forty-one schools across Mississippi meant equally to draw attention to racism in the Mississippi's education system, to further the voter education drives that had been a civil rights priority in the state for three years, and to educate the undereducated in what the civil rights movement was about.
It was summer, 1964.
There's a tendency, in the photographs of smiling faces then and now, to underestimate the tension and dangers of the times, the courage of the organizers, young teachers and students, more than 2,000 of them.
The 1,000 "student-teachers," mainly college-age white kids (though not exclusively so, there were many African-Americans, too) from Southern and Northern colleges were not do-gooders. This was a risky battle against a violent and entrenched hatred. There were church bombings, random and widespread beatings. More than 1,000 black and white volunteers and civil rights workers were arrested statewide.
Freedom Summer and the schools came out of a concerted effort by the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which came together that year with the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the Mississippi Council of Federated Organizations Freedom Summer Campaign to push for more voter registration in the state that had the lowest percentage of registered voters in the country.
Staughton Lynd, Mississippi Freedom Schools director, later said the idea grew from Bob Moses of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and others who set up voter registration schools in 1961, and "Nonviolent High," established for expelled black high schoolers. The first curriculum was devised in the Lynd's apartment on Spellman College campus in Atlanta.
Nonviolence was the intent, education was the means for Mississippi students trapped in poorly funded, badly supplied, inadequate buildings in a state with a huge racial divide.
Yet before the summer was over, three young civil rights workers were dead. Arrested on phony traffic violations as they went to Philadelphia, Miss., to investigate a church bombing, then released, the bodies of black volunteer James Chaney, and white coworkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were not discovered for six weeks. The whites were dead from gunshot wounds, Chaney had been beaten to death.
The murders, the schools, the three years of Mississippi voter registration and the invigorated media attention shifted a lackadaisical nation into one that began to understand and then press for what became the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Today's six Freedom Summer Schools--for the concept continues on in Mississippi and five other states this year--should be seen as living testimonials to a courageous generation.
The utility of the Freedom Summer School to those involved has not abated. Here are some of the voices from then and now.
John O'Neal, actor, playwright and artistic director of Junebug Productions, a traveling theater:
I was 23 during Freedom Summer. I felt like one of the youngest SNCC employees but was actually one of the oldest. I wondered about the people I worked with--how did they know so much about what they were doing? How could they be so bold? And bold they were. Our staff made $10 a week and hadn't been paid for three or four months. …