Freedom Fighters also forced Southern states to admit a handful of black students to all-white schools. Mississippi reluctantly desegregated its schools in 1964, becoming the last state in the country to do so. Yet activists were critical of the assumption that integration guaranteed quality. Activist, and later Algebra Project founder, Bob Moses asked in the fall of 1964, “Why can’t we set up our own schools? What students really need to learn is how to be organized to work on the society to change it.” To civil rights leaders like Moses and Dave Dennis, an instrumental organizer from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), quality education did not necessarily mean seating a black student next to a white student. It meant making sure every school adopted a rigorous curriculum, hired excellent teachers, and provided an opportunity for economic mobility.
Fifty years later, it is clear that this struggle for a quality education was just as important as the right to vote. In the midst of the violence that summer, young people still in middle and high school joined the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement. They participated in marches and demonstrations. They served time in jail. But the story of the Freedom Schools and the struggle for educational quality was relegated to the back pages of the New York Times.
If the civil rights revolution was to succeed, organizers reasoned, African Americans still in their teens had to be properly educated. As more than 2,000 college students from across the country volunteered to register voters, a select minority opted to teach in 41 “Freedom Schools”—alternative middle and high schools that taught the art of resistance and the strategies of protest. The United Federation of Teachers in New York sent the largest contingent of teachers, and over 2,500 students were ready to greet them.
The Freedom Schools raised questions about the very nature of American democracy—in particular, how to provide a quality education to all citizens, a still-unrealized promise that had been embedded in the monumental Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954). In 1964, a small yet vocal number of African American students opted to boycott the public schools altogether. They questioned the logic of entering white classrooms that had reacted violently to desegregation orders. For students who boycotted their public schools, Freedom Schools served as a replacement for conventional classrooms.
Other Freedom School students remained in their segregated schools once the summer was over but demanded improvements. They insisted that white educators include African American history and literature in the curriculum. They pushed back against the goals of vocational education that typically defined black education and made it clear that they wanted preparation for college. Through it all, political consciousness remained paramount. When Freedom School students were suspended for wearing “One Man, One Vote” buttons in the Delta, students walked out and shut down the school. The court case that followed was used as precedent in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), which protected students’ right to free speech.