Mississippi Freedom Schools

A Project from the Past Suggests a Lesson for the Future

By David Levine

Her classmates responded with angry silence, finally broken by voices denying Black inferiority. A student insisted, “We’re not Black slaves!” But another retorted, “She’s right. We certainly are. Can your poppa vote? Can mine? Can our folks eat anywhere they want to?” Soon the class plunged into animated discussion, trying to puzzle out what it meant to be young and Black at a time when the first big cracks were appearing in the segregated society they had known all their lives.

This episode captures much of the spirit of the Mississippi Freedom Schools: an informal setting, an idealistic college student with no teaching experience, an animated group of Black adolescents, a pedagogy that nurtured student voices, and a discussion through which literature sparked consideration of daily oppression. 

The heart of the Freedom School endeavor, the source of its vivid and creative energy, was the insistence of its planners and teachers that learning could (and should) be shaped to serve a liberation struggle. In the late 1990s, educational goals are more likely to focus on how students can best be turned into “human capital;” what modes of control steer children clear of sex, drugs, and violence; and whether the dismantling of a common education through vouchers is the best way to salvage education. Schooling is thus reduced to a privatized journey toward personal prosperity and prestige. The 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools offer a compelling countervision that suggests that while personal success is a valid goal of education, our schools are enriched when they also engage young people in collaborative quests for social justice. I believe that the Freedom Schools demonstrated that education can both help transform society and inspire young people to attack intellectual tasks with a vigor and emotional intensity that deepens learning.

Freedom Summer was coordinated by a Mississippi organization called the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which included the NAACP, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and CORE (Congress on Racial Equality). SNCC provided most of the staff, running the project in four congressional districts, with CORE taking responsibility for the remaining district. The project included three main initiatives: Freedom Schools and community centers, voter registration, and a freedom registration plan designed to elect to the 1964 Democratic National Convention a slate of delegates which would challenge the credentials of the segregated Mississippi Democratic Party delegation.

Before the summer program began, its architects worried about the cultural mismatch between teachers and students. Would privileged, northern white college students have the empathy to connect with poor, Black southern students growing up under the shadow of Mississippi segregation? Wildly exceeding the expectations of Freedom Summer planners, Freedom Schools were created in 50 locations during July and August. Working with the constant threat of violence in church basements or ramshackle community centers, 250 volunteers taught between 3,000 and 3,500 students ranging in age from pre-teens to adults in their sixties. Despite fundamental differences in life circumstances, Freedom School teachers and students were able to build a strong sense of community and achieve substantive personal growth.

In making education a prominent part of Freedom Summer plans, SNCC was acting on the intuition that the new generation of Blacks in Mississippi was ready to take a crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement. In the words of SNCC staffer Charles Cobb: “There is hope and there is dissatisfaction—feebly articulated—both born out of desperation of needed alternatives not given. This is the generation that has silently made the vow of no more raped mothers—no more castrated fathers; that looks for an alternative to a lifetime of bent, burnt, and broken backs, minds, and souls. Where creativity must be molded from the rhythm of a muttered ‘white son-of-a-bitch,’ from the roar of a hunger-bloated belly.… What they must see is the link between a rotting shack and a rotting America.” 

The idea of bringing 1,000 mostly white, northern, middle-class students into Mississippi was the product of SNCC frustration with the notably vicious and intransigent system of white supremacy which governed the state’s race relations from the end of Reconstruction into the early 1960s. Emmett Till’s unpunished murder in 1955 typified a pattern of terror employed to ensure the economic and political subordination of the Magnolia State’s Black population. Between 1882 and 1952, 534 lynchings occurred in Mississippi—more than any other state. In 1960, the median income of Black Mississippians was $1,444, the lowest in the United States and one-third lower than the income of the state’s white citizens. Black communities suffered from high infant mortality, and two-thirds of Black homes lacked flush toilets. 

The separate education provided white and Black students was patently unequal. The 1964 average state expenditure per pupil was $21.77 for Blacks and $81.86 for whites. Freedom School teacher Gary DeMoss commented on the Ruleville Negro public school: “Whole classes go out and pick cotton, though they’re never given any accounting where the money goes. A freshman algebra class has 72 students; they sit two to a desk and have only one teacher. Sometimes three and four classes meet at the same time in the gym, and the entire library is a couple of incomplete sets of encyclopedias.”

SNCC staff member Charles Cobb wrote a prospectus for the Freedom Schools that served as a guiding document. Describing Mississippi classrooms as “intellectual wastelands,” Cobb criticized the state’s segregated schools for giving Blacks an inferior education and punishing them for challenging the status quo. He suggested that Freedom Schools could provide effective academic instruction which African-American students weren’t getting in regular schools, encourage them to articulate their own aspirations and to question authority, and recruit students to SNCC organizing efforts, thus laying the groundwork for a statewide student movement. 

Cobb suggested a curriculum that emphasized political and social studies, cultural programs, and communication skills. A curriculum packet for volunteer teachers included a Citizenship Guide with lessons on the Civil Rights Movement, the Mississippi power structure, and COFO’s program. A section entitled “Material Things and Soul Things” was designed to help students question the materialistic orientation of American culture and explore what values could animate a new society which put a higher priority on human relationships. The introduction to the Citizenship Guide urged teachers to help students focus on three questions which reflected SNCC’s concern with Black identity and the dangers of uncritical assimilation:

What does the majority culture have that we want?

What does the majority have that we don’t want?

What do we want to keep? 

Freedom School planners stressed that the project should deliberately reject the teacher-dominated, lecture-centered procedures that characterized most regular schools. Volunteer teachers were urged to ask questions, listen carefully to the answers, and encourage discussions in which students could reach into their own experience to produce knowledge and articulate their own perspectives. Planners warned teachers to avoid traditional school practices that inhibited students. Testing, grades, and formality were discouraged. In regard to writing activities, a memo on teaching suggestions urged volunteers to concentrate on content and clear expression rather than grammar, spelling, and academic jargon. The project organizers hoped that many students would participate in voter registration canvassing and other organizing activities. The idea was that the academic program would simultaneously support and build from this work by focusing on leaflet writing, effective oral communication, the creation of posters, and sociological investigations of the community.

Each Freedom School functioned autonomously. Intensive supervision would have been difficult, since the only staff support consisted of program coordinator Staughton Lynd. In any case, the curriculum’s designers realized that the success of the program depended on the capacity of the teachers to function independently and flexibly. They were encouraged to tailor their teaching to the needs of the students and communities they were working with, and, according to Lynd, teachers were told, “If you want to begin the summer by burning the curriculum we have given you, go ahead!”

This deliberately antibureaucratic stance was a natural expression of SNCC’s egalitarian ethos. SNCC values also shaped the program through the insistence that the relationships between students and teachers were just as important as the curriculum. This reflected the early SNCC propensity to believe that meaningful change had more to do with forging genuine and loving relationships between people than with elaborate programs or ideology. The volunteers were told that their rapport with students depended on their ability to be honest, to be “real” and “trustworthy,” and to admit when they didn’t know something. Expressions of feelings were to be explored rather than repressed, even if doing so made students and teachers uncomfortable. By participating in political work with students, teachers would build up a fund of shared experience out of which classroom work could grow. When Lynd and SNCC planners admonished teachers to ask questions more readily than they gave answers, they were expressing a pedagogical preference, but more deeply, their desire that the volunteers open their lives to the summer experience and be willing to learn from the communities they were entering.

In the aftermath of the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, it is easy to forget the massive quantity of white resistance to equality in Mississippi. The summer project operated in the context of continual threats and physical attacks. By the end of the summer the movement had endured 35 shooting incidents, the bombing of 30 homes and other buildings, the burning of 35 churches, and 1,000 arrests. This litany of attacks leaves out the constant strain of harassing phone calls, threatening cars driving by, and interaction with hostile law enforcement officials who were sometimes in collusion with vigilantes. Even before the end of the second Freedom Summer orientation for volunteers in Oxford, Ohio, the participants learned of the disappearance of Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney. The three civil rights workers had vanished while returning from inspecting a church that had been burned down after its congregation had agreed to let it be used as the site for a Freedom School. In August their bodies would finally be discovered buried beneath an earthen dam in rural Mississippi.

In the face of this repression, the Black communities that hosted the project generally extended the volunteers a cordial welcome. Black families housed and fed volunteers, often at considerable risk. The dialectic of white repression and Black support sometimes played out around the Freedom Schools. In McComb, teachers held class for 75 students on the lawn in front of the second church to be bombed in two days. When the Freedom School staff arrived in Carthage they were greeted by a welcoming committee of 40 residents who had been awaiting their arrival for nearly four hours. Community members worked with the teachers to clean out and refurbish an old abandoned school building that the Black community had built in the 1930s. 

When they finished, the sheriff evicted them from the school under the pretext that the building was the property of the county school system. Residents moved the school library to a temporary new site in pick-up trucks. When a legal challenge to the eviction failed, community members and staff worked long hours in the hot Mississippi sun to build a new community center to house the school and posted an armed guard at night to protect the new building. Soon after the building was completed, school district authorities moved up the fall starting date of the Black schools by three weeks to block attendance at the Freedom School and to make Black students available to chop cotton in October. The Black community responded with a school boycott that demanded several improvements in the Blacks’ schools.

Not bound by a standardized curriculum, each Freedom School evolved its own schedule, topics, and activities, and there was considerable variety across the state. Most of the schools offered three categories of instruction: academic subjects, politically oriented social studies, and recreational and cultural activities. A glance at the Holly Springs Freedom School daily routine offers a good sample of the range of activities in many of the schools. The school served about 60 students, ranging in age from four to 25. Activities began at 9:00 a.m. with civil rights songs, followed by an hour of instruction for all students in Citizenship and Negro History. The morning ended with electives: dance, drama, art, auto mechanics, guitar, games, and sports. After a long lunch break, classes were offered in playwriting, debate, journalism, French, religion, and nonviolence. An evening session offered voter education, sewing, and health classes. A record player and records, and a library were also available for community use. Although volunteers lectured and provided individualized instruction, they preferred to teach through small group discussion. 

Typical descriptions of classes convey enthusiasm and intellectual engagement. Pam Allen taught a group of 15 women ranging in age from 15 to 25. She reported, “The atmosphere in class is unbelievable. It is what every teacher dreams about—real, honest enthusiasm and desire to learn anything and everything. The girls come to class of their own free will. They respond to everything that is said. They are excited about learning. They drain me of everything that I have to offer so that I go home at night completely exhausted but very happy….” Staff members often commented on the disparity between the poor academic preparation of many of their students and their sophisticated social and intellectual skills. 

Much of the curriculum centered on student writing, with young authors producing short essays, poems, and letters. Their themes included critiques of housing and working conditions experienced by Blacks, exhortations to register to vote, and accounts of personal encounters with discrimination. Several schools produced mimeographed newspapers of four to six pages with names like The Freedom Fighter, The Freedom Flame, and The Benton County Freedom Train. An August issue of The Freedom Echo, produced by students at the Mount Nebo School, contained an account of a parents’ night, a report on a guest speaker from Ireland, an article on the Democratic National Convention, an excerpt from a speech by the student editor, and a page of comments about the school by students titled “What We Liked and Learned.” Freedom School students in Palmer’s Crossing collaborated on a manifesto which detailed several pro-equality demands and concluded, “We, therefore, the Negroes of Mississippi assembled, appeal to the government of the state, that no man is free until all men are free. We do hereby declare independence from the unjust laws of Mississippi which conflict with the United States Constitution.”

Class activities often challenged students to understand and articulate varied points of view. One teacher listed Barry Goldwater’s reasons for opposing the civil rights bill on the board. His class reviewed the arguments, with one student portraying Goldwater and another trying to counter his reasoning. In Palmer’s Crossing, two Freedom Schools held a debate on the proposition that violence was necessary to win civil rights. An impressed visitor described effective arguments and rebuttals presented by the 12- to 16-year-olds, and regretfully reported that the affirmative side won.

Teachers used improvisational acting to help their classes understand social roles. Student role-plays included: a Congressional committee debating better wages for Blacks; three generations of a family interacting at home; convincing a reluctant community member to register to vote; desegregating a restaurant; demonstrating at a courthouse; and Senator and Mrs. Eastland discussing “uppity niggers” over cocktails with Senator Stennis and his wife. A few schools staged dramatic projects. The Mileston students composed The American Negro, a series of vignettes portraying Black southern life during slavery, the Civil War, segregation, and the contemporary civil rights struggle. In Holly Springs, New York public school teacher Deborah Flynn helped students use improvisation to script a play entitled Seeds of Freedom, which chronicled the life and assassination of Mississippi NAACP head Medgar Evers. At the end of the summer, the students performed the play at the Freedom School Convention.

Teachers sparked lively discussions by fashioning their curriculum out of the historical drama unfolding all around the schools. A teacher interrupted his outdoor class so students could interview three women angrily returning from the courthouse, where they had just learned their registration applications had been rejected. One of the Jackson teachers read to his class an editorial criticizing civil rights workers for encouraging people to break the law and asked students to write a response to the editor. Their efforts introduced the issue of civil disobedience and an opportunity to discuss the differences between statutory law, constitutional law, and “natural” law. On another occasion this teacher told his students about his visit to the Neshoba County Annual Fair, near where the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman had just been discovered. He quoted a John Birch Society speaker at the fair, “I am for the Constitution, for freedom, for the open bible.” He asked students to compare this credo to their own beliefs. In the following discussion students tried to carefully define how their interpretation of constitutional law probably differed from that of the Birch Society representative.

At several schools, students became directly involved in political organizing, most often by helping Freedom Summer volunteers try to convince Black citizens to register to vote. Novice student organizers sometimes reported their experiences in school newspapers. In Holly Springs the young canvassers found that trying to convince intimidated citizens to register was often a discouraging task that demanded effective persuasion and helped them understand their neighbors. In an article for The Freedom News, Gary Faulkner argued that voting could help Blacks obtain better roads, sewerage, jobs, housing, and schools. After unsuccessfully trying to convince a woman to register, Edna Mary Echols wrote, “It really made me mad. But then I thought awhile and tried to understand her. Probably she was accustomed to letting other people think or talk for her, and if she did register to vote she could lose what she had.”

True to one of the prime hopes of their organizers, Freedom Schools began to mobilize students as a distinct political force. This trend was facilitated by the decision to hold a Freedom School Convention in Meridian. Students prepared by electing delegates and putting together planks for a political platform that would be discussed at the convention. The three-day August convention was hosted by the Meridian Freedom School students, who took responsibility for the logistical arrangements. Convened under a large banner declaring “Freedom Is A Struggle,” the 75 delegates representing 41 schools divided into workshops on voter registration, medical care, housing, education, jobs, federal aid, and foreign affairs. Workshop proposals were discussed and voted on in plenary sessions. The meeting was addressed by Jim Forman, A. Philip Randolph, and Bob Moses. 

The delegates hammered out final planks that indicated a serious focus on state and national issues, sometimes engaging in heated debate. A foreign affairs workshop draft declared support for the Monroe Doctrine and urged the United States to pressure the Latin American countries not to accept aid from communist countries. The plenary session jettisoned this section after a student declared, “As a permanent member of the Negro race I’m sick and tired of anything that smacks of paternalism.” A proposal in favor of land reform was voted down as “too socialistic.” In the education workshops, students complained about the lack of vocational and language classes and kindergartens. The education platform demanded better school facilities, a school year of nine consecutive months, integration, academic freedom for teachers and students, and permission for teachers to join civil rights groups without being fired.

The convention also considered how to protest inferior conditions in Black schools and revived a Mississippi Student Union (MSU) which COFO had helped start the previous spring. Freedom School discussions throughout the summer had often focused on students’ discontent with their regular schools. Besides criticizing the lack of resources and limited curricula of their public schools, students complained of political repression. They were not allowed to form student governments or discuss controversial issues in class. Their teachers were too scared to register to vote, and principals were impelled to carry out the orders of white superintendents. 

In Ruleville, young people attending the Freedom School organized a Student Action Group. They handed each teacher at their regular school a letter asking for an account for money earned when students picked cotton during school, demanding the right to form clubs and a student government, and asking teachers to take the lead in fighting for improved and integrated education. At the school’s compulsory chapel meeting, two students used the time for student announcements to launch into speeches. Bobby Cameron declared that there was “a new day coming,” and that teachers should help lead the way. The other students responded with applause as the teachers watched silently. Reaction from the administration was swift. That same day each student received a letter from the superintendent indicating that any student who participated in a demonstration at school would be suspended. 

When M. C. Perry protested, he was immediately sent home. He kept trying to return to school, even after being marched out of the building at gunpoint by a policeman and reprimanded by the mayor. On his final attempt he was arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail. By the time of the Meridian convention, the students and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer had conducted separate meetings with the teachers to resolve the issues. When the Ruleville students told their story to the other convention participants, plans began to be discussed for a statewide school boycott. 

We have no comprehensive record of the long-term impact of the Mississippi Freedom Schools. But many young participants testified that the summer experience put them on a path to personal transformation, and later anecdotal reports suggest that alumni/ae often considered the experience an important influence on their adult lives. Although they did not survive as long-term institutions in Mississippi, the schools did inspire similar educational initiatives within the Civil Rights Movement and helped proponents of liberatory educational reform articulate their own visions. Sociologist Doug McAdam reports that many leaders of the antiwar and women’s liberation movements began their political transformations as Freedom Summer volunteers. According to Freedom School teacher Liz Aaronsohn:

It may be true that everyone who participated for a significant period of time in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 was profoundly changed by that experience. I have met many white “veterans” of that time whose lives seem to me to have been redirected by what they learned in the South. I know that is so for me. My two years in Mississippi taught me first what being fired a few times, and then reading Paulo Freire, later confirmed: All education is political. Traditional education serves the status quo. You risk your job when you encourage students to find their own voices, to engage in dialogue with you and with each other around the issues that affect their lives; but you risk their lives if you do not.

The Freedom Schools do not provide a magic recipe for educating young people today. As a limited, counter-institutional experiment, they offered more favorable terrain for innovation than large, bureaucratically bound school systems. They also derived optimistic energy from a movement, which, despite bitter disappointments, still believed that political mobilization could transform a morally flawed society. Freedom Summer activists and students gained hope, dedication, and camaraderie from being part of a crusade for justice, qualities that have been hard to generate during the conservative swing of the past three decades. But if we respect the contextual differences that separate the 1960s from the 1990s, we can gain realistic insights into educational renewal from the Freedom School experience.

First, the Freedom Schools affirmed John Dewey’s idea that effective teaching uses the student’s own experiences to launch into intellectual engagement with the world. This engagement is best served not by the passive accumulation of inert bodies of knowledge, but by practical activities through which the students pursue purposes they find intrinsically meaningful. Freedom School teachers tried to listen more than lecture and to find active modes of learning which embodied genuine social tasks—producing alternative papers, writing and rehearsing a drama for a conference, preparing a political platform, convincing disenfranchised citizens to vote. Carefully implemented, this type of instrumentalist approach can be more rigorous than traditional “banking” modes of teaching because it is fueled by student curiosity and desire to acquire skills that have an impact on reality outside the classroom door. This pedagogical orientation can enliven school for all students but is especially helpful to those who lack the cultural capital necessary to endure and master the passive, teacher-centered modes of instruction that still dominate many secondary schools.

Second, the Freedom Schools impelled young volunteers to view learning as an activity that should transform the teacher as well as the student. Part of being appreciative of the skills, resources, and knowledge of the students and communities they encountered meant taking a critical look at the limitations of their own preconceptions and privileged backgrounds. Some volunteers started the summer with a sense of missionary superiority and arrogance they were not able to shed, but those more capable of self-reflection were able to learn in ways that changed their values and made them more capable teachers. 

Ellen Lake’s letter to her parents illustrated the new insights many volunteers gained: “Perhaps for the first time, the people who have always appeared to me as servants are becoming people. They are dropping out of their roles and are individuals. One lady said to me today, ‘I guess there’s nothing for poor folks but work; we can’t rest till we die.’ I’d never before come upon such an attitude, expressed to me; and I think it’s extremely important that now I have. It makes me so much more aware of people and their sufferings than I have ever before had to be.” Teachers, struggling to challenge their own preconceptions and values, became more capable of building on the cultural strengths and community heritages of their students. 

Finally, the Freedom Schools suggest the powerful benefits of education that encourages quests for social justice. In discussing the sources of their own oppression and working together to enter the world of political struggle, Freedom School students gained tools for overcoming their own feelings of inferiority and hopelessness. In contrast, the moral environment of contemporary schools is often dominated by competition for the private acquisition of prestige and affluence. Such schools generate despair in those the system and the teachers have designated as losers. They weaken the empathy of high achievers and inhibit the cultivation of a practical solidarity that would enrich all students. Even though the depoliticized and cynical ambiance of the 1990s creates an unsympathetic environment for teaching youngsters civic responsibility, the Freedom School experience suggests that when schools are linked to struggles for social justice, they help students connect with their communities in ways that heighten their intellectual powers and ethical sensibilities. The potential of such education was suggested in 1964 by Freedom School student Verna Mannie: 

Education is a medicine which takes hold. It is the whole set of changes produced in a person by learning. The difference between an educated person and uneducated one is he knows how each little piece of knowledge is connected with every other piece. The world needs freedom, and the only way we can get it is through education. The ideas of the spirit of humanism are carried not in pamphlets or proclamations but in minds and hearts…