Freedom Schools Are Still Radical—and Necessary

Students at a Freedom School in 1964. Credit - Jackson State University via Getty Images

Sixty years ago, over 40 Freedom Schools opened their doors to all children in the state of Mississippi. Iterations of “freedom schooling”—clandestine or fugitive learning by and for Black communities—existed for centuries, since the era of enslavement. For those communities, education was linked to liberation and the democratic project itself.

But the Freedom Schools of 1964 were historically unique. Teacher activists and Freedom School organizers developed a curriculum that was barred in 1964—and the essence of that curriculum remains illegal today.

Since the Second World War, Black activists and activists of color amplified demands for fuller inclusion into the United States. But major milestones such as the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954—which deemed segregated education to be unconstitutional, but failed to enforce it—left many activists disillusioned. Segregation remained rampant for years to come.

Until 1964, education was rarely used on the front lines of the movement.

Bob Moses, Dave Dennis, Judy Richardson, Charlie Cobb, and other activists with the college-student-led Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a “Freedom Summer” campaign for the election year of 1964. Activists wanted to break the back of segregation in Mississippi with a volunteer corps of over 1,000 college students.

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By organizing the vote, they reasoned, Black voters could elect people who represented their interests. Voters could put someone in office who protected the rights of all in the interest of the larger public good. White supremacists could be voted out of office once and for all. But white people violently assailed these plans before the project even began.

White Christian nationalists burned down the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Miss. Earlier in the spring of 1964, the congregation agreed to host a Freedom School there. The Klan burned the church—not an uncommon act during the 1950s and 1960s at Black churches committed to the freedom struggle. It was a local movement center and part of the expansive Black church that uplifted the movement. Mississippi activist James Chaney and Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two volunteers who were organizing communities ahead of the summer project, were sent to investigate the burning and identify the site for a new school. Local police and Klansmen stopped and killed them on their way home.

Teachers and students of the movement understood the violent pushback their plans for liberatory education would inspire. Freedom schools directly challenged white nationalism and inequitable access to quality education at a time when the state sanctioned violence and joining the movement was criminal, regardless of age. Just one year before, Bull Conner and his police force in Birmingham arrested over 1,000 children in K-12 schools. The students were then expelled.

But they proceeded with their plans. Movement veterans developed a curriculum for the schools that was radical for its time. Arguably some of the greatest minds of the movement gathered to write it, including Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Bayard Rustin, and Myles Horton. These activist educators not only shaped the movement, but also understood the essential role education would play.

They met in New York in March 1964 to write what was arguably the most progressive curriculum in the history of education in the United States. The curriculum and the larger purpose of the schools pushed the boundaries of education in the United States. As curriculum writers noted, they aimed to instill a “more realistic perception of American society, themselves, the conditions of their oppression, and alternatives offered by the Freedom Movement.”

By May the curriculum was printed and copied on a ditto machine. The Freedom School coordinator, Staughton Lynd, a history professor at Spelman, weighed down his car and distributed it to the teachers.

When Freedom Schools opened their doors in early July of 1964, some schools like those in Hattiesburg had over 600 students enroll. In Canton, an area organized by Dave Dennis and the Congress of Racial Equality, over 200 students attended five different Freedom Schools.

Teachers were prepared to deliver seven formal units of study. It was equivalent to a social studies curriculum today that included history, civics, and current events.

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Students examined the power structure of United States society, who made the rules, and why. Students explored differences between “the North” and what they knew as the South and the former Confederacy. They discussed Black culture in relation to capitalism in a unit called “material things versus soul things.”

They learned of rebellions against enslavers predating the Declaration of Independence—a document that was also critically analyzed for its contradictions. Students explored the ongoing Civil Rights movement, linking what they were studying to what was occurring outside the classroom walls.

Freedom School students also learned how to change the system. Students examined the process of voting and writing laws. In the afternoons, students canvassed voters and engaged in the necessary though exhausting work of going door-to-door to register people to vote for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. As scholars of the movement, they also published Freedom School newspapers across the state. Through their own press, students shared information about upcoming events, they critiqued local representatives, and they published poetry.

The education front of the Freedom Summer campaign—Freedom Schools—was arguably the most successful part of the summer project. By the end of the summer, over 2,500 students enrolled in over 40 schools, doubling organizers’ original expectations.

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After Democrats, led by President Lyndon B. Johnson, refused to seat members of the activist MFDP at the Democratic National Convention at the end of the summer campaign, it was clear that the Freedom Schools would be a lasting legacy of the summer.

Marian Wright Edelman, the first Black woman to pass the bar exam in Mississippi, carried forth the promise of the Freedom Schools. In 1995, she established two Freedom Schools with her organization, the Children’s Defense Fund. Since then, over 200,000 children have attended Freedom School and over 20,000 young teachers have been trained in the curriculum and pedagogy of the historic program.

Much like in the 1960s, these schools operate free of charge to learners. They are supported by donations from philanthropists, communities, church congregations, and some school districts. Illinois legislators recently passed a grant that funded Freedom Schools across the state, albeit temporarily.

The Freedom Schools compel us to reimagine education even at a time when parents, school boards, and conservative organizers ban books. In the last academic year, books were banned across 23 states, with over 4,000 book banning incidents reported.

Books that could be in the Freedom School curriculum are among the prohibited lists. These books include Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb, Fred T. Joseph’s, The Black Friend, Ibram X. Kendi’s, Stamped from the Beginning, and other acclaimed books that have been targeted as a "Critical Race Theory" curriculum. Such books were banned based on false claims about "reverse discrimination" and the guilt it purportedly induced among white students.

This makes a historic curriculum essentially illegal and out of reach to our nation’s youth at a time when the entire nation needs it the most.

Today, the Freedom Schools continue to instill lessons of the past and for democracy. Freedom Schools will continue to assign books that center the experiences of children and families historically marginalized. Moreover, the Children’s Defense Fund each year designates a day of “social action” to work with students to address areas of inequality. This July, Freedom Schools will designate their day of social action to raise awareness about banned books. Students and teachers will take a national stand against book bans. Much like 1964, students will march, canvas, and attempt to educate a nation.

But it is yet to be determined if we will hear the call.

Jon Hale is the author of The Freedom Schools and The Choice We Face. He is a professor of education history and policy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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