Freedom Schools

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Background

In 1964 the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized its Freedom Summer campaign.

In 1962 only 6.7 per cent of African Americans in the state were registered to vote, the lowest percentage in the country. People in the community, both children and adults, needed to be empowered to exercise their civil and voting rights. 

. . . it would be a serious misperception to remember the Freedom School curriculum as a two-dimensional pedagogical instrument. The curriculum and the Schools themselves were from first to last part of the larger political effort. Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were killed when they went to look at the burnt church in Philadelphia that was to have been used as a Freedom School. . . . In September, when the public schools reopened in Philadelphia, black students showed up on the first day wearing buttons that said One Man One Vote and SNCC . . . This act of incredible courage created the legal precedent which protected white students when they wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam war

Staughton Lynd (1991) in Radical Teacher, No. 40, p. 43.

 

 

 

"This is the situation"

Charles Cobb

 
Purpose

Charles Cobb, a Howard University student, proposed the Freedom School project in late 1963. The purpose, he said, "is to create an educational experience for students which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities, and to find alternatives -- ultimately new directions for action."

The schools set out to provide African-American students with the basic literacy and citizenship skills they would need to organize for action and become a formidable voice of the civil rights movement. 

In the words of one volunteer, the purpose of freedom school was to:
start young Mississippians to thinking about how they could change the society in which they lived. . . . We tried to draw these students out and for the first time in their lives to express themselves -- in writing, in speaking. We encouraged them to have discussions and in Freedom School . . . how we taught was just to ask questions. We didn't have a political doctrine or ideology that we were trying to impose on the students, but simply ask them why or what is the problem. Then how are you going to solve it?

Paul Lauter and Dan Perlstein (1991) Introduction. Radical Teacher, No. 40, p. 3, quoting a White female volunteer.

The typical Freedom School has an enrollment of 25 to 100 and a staff of five to six teachers, and is held in a church basement or sometimes the church itself, often using the outdoor area as well. Typically, the morning will be taken up with a "core curriculum" built around Negro History and citizenship. The late morning or afternoon is taken up with special classes (such as French or typing (both very popular) or projects (such as drama or the school newspaper). In the evening classes are held for adults or teen-agers who work during the day."

Len Holt (1965) The Summer That Didn't End (New York: William Morrow), p. 317)

There were 41 functioning schools in 20 communities in the state of Mississippi.


 

 

 

Who

The Freedom Schools had hoped to draw at least 1000 students that first summer, and ended up with 3,000. 

 
 

 

 

 

Curriculum Purpose

To bring about a kind of 'mental revolution,' reading, writing and speaking skills were taught through the discussion of black history, the power structure and building a Movement to struggle against it.  Everyone took this basic 'civics' course and then chose from more academic subjects, like algebra and chemistry. 
 

 

In the words of one volunteer, the purpose of freedom school was to:

start young Mississippians to thinking about how they could change the society in which they lived. . . . We tried to draw these students out and for the first time in their lives to express themselves -- in writing, in speaking. We encouraged them to have discussions and in Freedom School . . . how we taught was just to ask questions. We didn't have a political doctrine or ideology that we were trying to impose on the students, but simply ask them why or what is the problem. Then how are you going to solve it?

Paul Lauter and Dan Perlstein (1991) Introduction. Radical Teacher, No. 40, p. 3, quoting a White female volunteer.

 Mississippi Freedom School Curriculum, 1964
THE BASIC SET OF QUESTIONS IS:

Why are we (teachers and students) in Freedom Schools? 
What is the Freedom Movement? 
What alternatives does the Freedom Movement offer us? 

THE SECONDARY SET OF QUESTIONS IS:

What does the majority culture have that we want? 
What does the majority culture have that we don't want? 
What do we have that we want to keep? 

UNIT I: COMPARISON OF STUDENT'S REALITY WITH OTHERS
Purpose: To create an awareness that there are alternatives. 

UNIT II: NORTH TO FREEDOM? (THE NEGRO IN THE NORTH)
Purpose: To help the students see clearly the conditions of the Negro in the North, and see that migration to the North is not a basic solution. 

UNIT III: EXAMINING THE APPARENT REALITY (THE "BETTER LIFE" THAT WHITES HAVE)
Purpose: To find out what the whites' "better life" is really like, and what it costs them. 

UNIT IV: INTRODUCING THE POWER STRUCTURE
Purpose: 
To create an awareness that some people profit by the pain of others or by misleading them. 
To create awareness that some people make decisions that profoundly affects others (i.e., bare power). 
To develop the concept of "political power." 

UNIT V: THE POOR NEGRO, THE POOR WHITE, AND THEIR FEARS
Purpose: 
To indicate that the "power structure" derives its power, in the final analysis, by playing upon the fears of the people - Negro and white. 
To come to an understanding of these fears - what has helped them to produce them and what they, in turn, have produced, namely, the myths, the lies, the system. 
To grasp the deeper effects of the system we have produced and have allowed continuing, the deep psychological damage to Negroes and whites. 

UNIT VI: MATERIAL THINGS AND SOUL THINGS
Purpose: 
To develop insights about the inadequacies of pure materialism. 
To develop some elementary concepts of a new society. 

UNIT VII: THE MOVEMENT
Purpose: To grasp the significance of direct action and of political action as instruments of social change. 

From: "Mississippi Freedom School Curriculum - 1964," Radical Teacher 40 (1991), pp. 6-29.

 

Statement by Jesse Lee Harris about his work in McComb -- made to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1965

Dangers

Freedom Schools were often targets of white mobs. So also were the homes of local African Americans involved in the campaign.  That summer 30 black homes and 37 black churches were firebombed. Over 80 volunteers were beaten by white mobs or racist police officers. 

 

(Freedom School teacher Peter Werner after being assaulted by a segregationist)


 

Lessons Learned

Freedom Schools left a positive legacy.  The well-publicized voter registration drives brought national attention to the subject of black disenfranchisement, and this eventually led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, federal legislation that among other things outlawed the tactics Southern states had used to prevent blacks from voting.  Freedom Schools also instilled among African Americans a new consciousness and a new confidence in political action.  The schools became a model for future social programs like Head Start, as well as alternative educational institutions.

As Fannie Lou Hamer later said, "Before the 1964 project there were people that wanted change, but they hadn't dared to come out. After 1964 people began moving. To me it's one of the greatest things that ever happened in Mississippi."  

"In Mississippi's stronghold of organized terror, the Southwest, the McComb Freedom School has proven the political value of the schools as an instrument for building confidence in the Negro community when canvassing is impractical. [Staughton] Lynd, [the originator of the idea of the Freedom Schools], cites the instance of Miss Joyce Brown's poem concerning the Freedom School held at a bombed home which moved the community to provide a meeting place for the school. "Thus," notes Lynd, "the presence of a Freedom School helped to loosen the hard knot of fear and to organize the Negro community." There are 108 students at the McComb Freedom School."

 Len Holt (1965) The Summer That Didn't End (New York: William Morrow), p. 319).