The Forgotten Story of the Freedom Schools

Fifty years ago, students in the American South boycotted their classrooms and demanded higher educational standards. Whatever happened to those ideals?

Young people named it the Freedom Summer Project. It was the largest campaign to register voters—in 1964, an election year—and it was the most significant demonstration of African Americans’ political strength in the Civil Rights Movement. Congressman John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), wrote that the objective of Freedom Summer was to “force a showdown between the local and federal government.” One significant yet overlooked part of this history is the way activists moved beyond the ballot box to politicize the right to an education.

A segment of the Freedom Riders, activists who painstakingly sat in at segregated bus terminals in 1961, organized the project. When they moved to Mississippi to register voters, young people called them “Freedom Fighters.” Their presence inspired a level of terrorism that had not been seen in the South since Reconstruction. From June to August 1964 alone, police arrested more than 1,000 protesters and local segregationists murdered three freedom workers, assaulted over 80 activists, opened fire on demonstrators over 35 times, and set fire to 35 churches. Activists remained undeterred. During the course of the summer they successfully pressured Congress to end a seven-week filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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.

Fifty years later, many of the Freedom Schools’ goals still elude African American students. Segregation has once again come to define the nature of education throughout the South, and in many Northern cities such as Chicago and New York. Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project found that 80 per cent of Latino students and 74 per cent of black students attend majority “nonwhite” schools (50-100 per cent minority) across the nation. As he and other researchers have noted, (re)segregation is fundamentally connected to resources and opportunity. Schools that are failing are afflicted by high dropout rates, a detrimental lack of resources, and a vocational emphasis that guides students to menial labor at best.

The Freedom Summer Project brought many notable achievements. It is often noted, for example, that Mississippi now has more elected black officials than any other state in the country. But Mississippi often ranks last, or nearly last, in the nation in terms of per pupil expenditure, standardized test scores, high school completion, and college access. As Americans grapple with controversial new voter registration laws, the struggle for a quality education, too, demands renewed attention. Revisiting the long-overlooked history of Freedom Schools may help inspire solutions.