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Freedom’s Struggle and Freedom Schools

Charles Cobb, Jr. (ccobbjr [at] bellsouth.net), a SNCC veteran, is a journalist and visiting professor at Brown University. His latest book is On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.

The critical starting point for understanding the freedom schools that were so important a part of the 1964 Mississippi “Freedom Summer” and their relevance today is found almost two hundred years earlier at the birth of this nation, with what I call “the founding contradiction.” Consider this excerpt from what may be the world’s best-known declaration:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote these now legendary words of human rights and human dignity, felt that nothing he achieved was greater.

But Thomas Jefferson was a Virginia slave owner. We are confronted, therefore, with a very large question: How could a man who owned human beings as property—as livestock—and who considered it his right to own or sell them, have penned the words we find in the Declaration of Independence?

This contradiction between ideal and reality is the root of a continuing struggle over what the United States is to be as a nation; whether or not we can grow into “a more perfect union.” Throughout U.S. history, the “truths” Jefferson declared as axiomatic have hardly been evident in the lives of many “Americans,” certainly not in the lives of the two hundred or so slaves Jefferson held on his plantation.

I know the black experience best, but women, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, homosexuals, and, yes, poor whites too, have variously found themselves disqualified for complete citizenship. That they are “endowed with certain inalienable rights” has been resisted in both law and custom. Even now securing these rights for all people in the United States is, as a freedom song we used to sing goes, “a constant struggle.”

Barack Obama’s success in gaining the U.S. presidency does not much mitigate the continuing effects of this founding contradiction. These days, for example, we regularly hear irrational justifications and hysterical calls for the denial of full citizenship rights to U.S. citizens of the Muslim faith—Islamophobia, bigotry in the mainstream, not the fringes—coming from religious and political leaders. In Florida where I live, Republican congressman Allen West, a Tea Party favorite who, like President Obama, is an Afro-American integrated into the mainstream political establishment, had this to say while campaigning for the office he now holds: “We…have a 5th column that is already infiltrating into our colleges, into our universities, into our high schools, into our religious aspect, our cultural aspect, our financial, our political systems in this country. And that enemy represents something called Islam and Islam is a totalitarian theocratic political ideology; it is not a religion.”

We have seen this political card played over and over again throughout U.S. history, trumping civil and human rights or, as the young scholar Hasan Kwame Jeffries perceptively calls them, “freedom rights,” in complete contradiction to the expressed ideals of the nation. Think of the detention camps where U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry were forced during the Second World War, or of the anti-Communist furies of the 1950s; and of course, the racism and segregation once justified and imposed by law and enforced with official and unofficial violence. U.S. law designated black people “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” in the words of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in 1857, ruling in the Court’s now-infamous Dred Scott Decision that slave or free, no black person could ever be a U.S. citizen.

For black people especially, this contradiction has been most persistent and destructive in “education.” Going back to the beginning days of the United States, it was illegal to educate slaves. Slavers and their backers correctly recognized that slaves with education would be even more discontented, therefore more dangerous and more rebellious slaves. Following the 1739 Stono River slave revolt, South Carolina adopted the first compulsory ignorance law in America: “And whereas the having of slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences: Be it enacted, that all and every person or persons whatsolver, who shall hereafter teach, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe in any manner of writing whatsoever hereafter taught to write, every such person or persons shall, for each offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds current money.”

In 1831, reacting to the Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia, that state’s governor, John Floyd, blamed Turner’s uprising on black preachers who taught reading in Sunday school. He therefore banned black churches.

Not surprisingly, across the antebellum South, education went underground. Indeed, some of the earliest organized black resistance in the United States is found in black people’s efforts to teach, and in their efforts to learn how to read and write. What is now Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia began before the Civil War beneath an oak tree, with a free black woman named Mary Peake secretly teaching slaves to read and write. The tree is still there on the Hampton campus, and is appropriately named Emancipation Oak. You can rightly call this effort and other efforts like it in the slave South, the first “freedom schools.”

During the Reconstruction era that began shortly after the Civil War, the now-emancipated former slaves, recognizing the importance and power of learning, led the way to public education. Before Reconstruction, there were no tax-supported public education systems anywhere in the South. It was the black presence in the Reconstruction legislatures of the South that drove the creation of tax-supported public schools. This post-slavery legislative drive is the second phase of freedom schools or the organized expression of the link between freedom and education. Public schools in the minds of black Reconstruction legislators were necessarily “freedom schools,” an attitude that I think should shape the approach to public schooling today.

Notwithstanding its promising progressive first steps, Reconstruction lasted less than a decade. As the federal government withdrew its protections, white supremacists who had seceded from the Union regained power and instituted what they called “the Redemption,” which was violent and hostile to black empowerment. As blacks in elected office were symbols of the empowerment that came with education, black schools came under constant, vicious assault. The federal government’s superintendant for education in Alabama described a post-Reconstruction atmosphere of “determined hostility” in that state, which included burned black schools and murder.

In Mississippi, Democrats, using fraud and terror, gained control of state government in 1875. Reconstruction governor Adelbert Ames, a former Union army officer, was impeached. “Democrats Standing Manfully by Their Guns!” read the headline of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper after Mississippi’s November elections that year; “Mississippi Redeemed at Last!” And the “redeemed” Confederate government there immediately began reducing the taxes that funded public education. By the end of the century, many of the whites in power were seeking the complete elimination of any kind of education for blacks, even a segregated and inferior education. In a June 30, 1899, editorial, the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper opposed tax-supported black schools: “Their education,” this Mississippi Delta newspaper editorialized, “only spoils a good field hand and makes a shyster lawyer or a fourth-rate teacher. It is money thrown away.”

But more insidiously than the simple denial of any public education at all, educational content became the ways and means of teaching black students to believe in their own inferiority. As Carter G. Woodson wrote in 1933, “The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile depresses and crushes at the same time the spark or genius of the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples.” In Woodson’s view, “real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better.”

Echoing Woodson decades later, author James Baldwin wrote in a 1970 open letter to Angela Davis: “The American triumph—in which the American tragedy has always been implicit—was to make black people despise themselves.” And despite heroic efforts by some teachers in black schools throughout the South, public education became an instrument wielded by the state for doing this deliberately and systematically.

In 1962, when I began working as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary in Mississippi, one of the things that surprised me was the number of new school buildings in black communities, especially up in the Delta where I was organizing. I soon realized that with poorly stocked libraries, underpaid teachers kept on tight leashes, and the practice of shutting down schools to send black school kids to the fields to pick or chop cotton, these schools I was looking at—new on the outside—continued the old tradition of inferior education for black people, what can be called “sharecropper education.” New public school buildings for blacks were shells established to create the illusion of separate but equal. Allocation of money gives us the clearest picture of the disparity between black and white schools in Mississippi. McComb, Mississippi is not in the Delta, but it is the town where SNCC first began working in the state. In 1964, per capita spending for white students was $30.89; for black students, it was a mere 76 cents. Everywhere, poor black families bore a large part of the cost of maintaining public schools for black children. In Sunflower County, black students paid a fee of from $1 to $6 for winter heating.

In 1949 state researchers found that of 20,473 black young people between the ages of six and twenty-one in Sunflower County, only 7,709 were attending school. And few of these attended school regularly. The “progressive” white position then, and the reason for the research that gives us this information, lies with a short-lived attempt to try for actual separate and at least roughly equal, in order to deflect the NAACP-led legal challenge to school segregation. Of course, Mississippi was too poor even to begin fashioning two separate but equal school systems (nine of Mississippi’s eighty-two counties did not have public high schools for either whites or blacks in 1952). So dialogue about making such an effort quickly ended, not only because the state had no money for separate but equal, but also because of white rage over the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision on school segregation, and the white resistance to the drive for black political enfranchisement that accelerated after the Second World War.

So education—or miseducation—continued to be a basic political tool of white power, designed and used to stem black resistance and struggle for freedom rights (and any real progressive political consciousness in whites). In Mississippi and the South that I knew as a SNCC field secretary, black illiteracy created by deliberate state policy was used as a rationale for denying political rights to the victims of that policy. By 1964 we—mainly SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), with the encouragement and assistance of local NAACP leaders—had been working at voter registration in Mississippi for over three years. Murder and intimidation aimed at defeating our efforts regularly punctuated our work. The federal government offered no protection, and the country was not paying any attention to the escalating violence in the state. So we decided that in order to focus the country’s attention on our situation we needed to bring the country’s children down to Mississippi to help us, to face the kinds of risks we and the local people we were working with faced. And we did that, organizing about a thousand college students to work with us in what we called a Mississippi Freedom Summer.

Because the connection between education and freedom had become absolutely clear to us in our work, and through the influence of “elders” like Charleston, South Carolina’s Septima Clark, who, with “Citizenship Schools” in the 1950s, began connecting reading-and-writing literacy to political literacy, we decided to organize “freedom schools” as part of freedom summer. As we put it in a proposal: The movement needed “to fill an intellectual and creative vacuum in the lives of young Negro Mississippians, and to get them to articulate their own desires, demands, and questions.” We were talking about more than remedial reading, writing, and arithmetic, although we planned to address those needs too in our freedom schools. And, as a practical matter, using many of the incoming students as freedom school teachers gave us for the first time the human resources to take a significant first step toward tackling the educational plight of young black Mississippians.

Mississippi was dangerous and violent, but what is important to understand is that as terrible as the bombings were, and the beatings and the murders, and all of the other reprisals, illiterate Klan mobs were not driving this; it was the state government and the “respectable” business elite in the private sector, many of them members of the Citizens Councils that publicly decried KKK violence while deliberately creating the climate for it. Mississippi’s power structure recognized, as did state governments all across the South and their slaver forebears, that an educated population, a population raised from unconsciousness to consciousness, is a dangerous population. A whole way of life can become unraveled when people begin thinking for themselves. “Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave,” Frederick Douglass had written one hundred years earlier about his “owner’s” fear of black literacy.

The entire freedom school curriculum is available at the Education and Democracy Web site (http://educationanddemocracy.org), so rather than detail the program in this limited space, I encourage you to check it out. Suffice to say that some forty freedom schools were established, and close to twenty-five hundred students enrolled. Parents and grandparents made their way to these schools as well. For, unlike trying to register to vote at hostile county courthouses, freedom schools existed within the black community and made movement involvement much easier for many adults who were justifiably fearful of potential county courthouse violence or post-courthouse reprisal, to participate directly in the freedom movement. To paraphrase SNCC field secretary Bob Moses’s description of what organizing is: After a while, when you’re bouncing a ball with the kids, the ball rolls beneath the house and you get to meet the parents.

Obviously, in a six-week summer program, we could not fill the enormous void caused by the state’s deficient public education system. But the schools tackled history and civics, encouraged creativity, and made continual successful efforts to get the students to believe in themselves and their ability; to see that the world of possibilities and opportunities was not “for whites only.” In other words, the freedom schools helped prepare them for freedom struggle.

We need this today as much as we needed it in 1964—or 1864— maybe more. And, although I was asked to write about freedom schools, I would be remiss not to ring an alarm bell, demanding freedom struggle.

According to a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. It is the leading cause of death among African Americans in this age group. And among this age group, 84 percent were killed by a firearm. In 2009, in a “representative” sample of young people in grades nine to twelve, 17.5 percent reported carrying a weapon (gun, knife, or club) on one or more days in the thirty-day period preceding the survey. And 5.9 percent of them reported carrying a gun.

There is mental illness here; slave thought that imprisons minds as thoroughly and effectively as chattel servitude imprisons the body. Among boys, 42 percent of high schoolers and 32 percent of middle schoolers believe that it is okay to hit or threaten a person who makes them angry. One in five—20 percent—of the girls agree. These numbers come from the Josephson Institute’s 2006 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth.

In highlighting the failure of our education system, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund has characterized it best, saying the above numbers represent the “cradle to prison pipeline.” And here are more numbers from her organization’s research: Every second during the school year, a public school student is suspended. Every eleven seconds a high school student drops out. Every nineteen seconds a child is arrested. And every three hours a child or teen is killed by a firearm.

The Fund also notes that poor urban schools have the highest numbers of teachers who are inexperienced or do not have degrees in the subjects they teach. Eighty-six percent of black, 83 percent of Latino, and 58 percent of white fourth graders cannot read at grade level. Eighty-nine percent of black, 85 percent of Latino, and 59 percent of white eighth graders cannot do math at grade level. Black students are more likely than any other students to be in special education programs for children with mental retardation or emotional disturbance. Black and Native American children are almost twice as likely as white children to be retained in a grade. The public school suspension rate among black and American Indian students is almost three times that for whites. Black, Latino, and Native American children are more than twice as likely as white children to drop out of school. Only forty-eight thousand black males earn a bachelor’s degree each year, but, reports the Sentencing Project, an estimated one in three black men ages twenty to twenty-nine are under correctional supervision or control.

The expressed commitment to education so often and so loudly proclaimed by local and national public figures is hardly confirmed by the reality one encounters in cities and many rural communities. For the most part, public schools that serve African Americans, other racial “minorities,” and the poor offer a twenty-first-century version of the sharecropper education I encountered in Mississippi forty-eight years ago. These students are no better equipped to function in today’s high-tech society than the sharecroppers we encountered on Mississippi plantations were equipped to function in an industrial society requiring reading and writing. In some ways they are worse off than their twentieth-century counterparts. We see many of today’s sharecroppers behind the lunch counters of fast-food chains and behind prison walls—the new plantations.

Although there seems to be a rough consensus that inner city public schools, in particular, do not educate, there is still no consensus on fixing these schools. And it is difficult to believe that those in official decision-making positions really want to fix them. In fifty-four schools in Florida’s Miami-Dade school district, for example, core subjects are taught in classrooms where computers have completely replaced teachers. The one adult human present is a “facilitator” who deals with “technical problems.” The reason for this is because Florida mandates by law that high school class size can be no larger than twenty-five in core subjects, but won’t expand the number of teachers. There is no limit on class size in these virtual classrooms. This approach therefore saves money, which takes precedence over good education. “The way our state is dealing with class size is nearly criminal,” said one high school teacher.

Hawaii has decided to reduce the number of days in the school year. Even worse, the Detroit school system plans to reduce its deficit by closing half the public schools and expanding class size to sixty students. I’ll wager all of the decision makers who decided this either send their kids to private school or do not have children. Providence, Rhode Island’s school board has sent out certified letters to all of its 1,926 teachers, terminating them at the end of the school year. Teachers who are laid off get certain benefits. Those terminated do not. Of course, most will be rehired if there is to be any public schooling in the fall—but on what terms? The nation seems to be in the midst of an anti-teacher frenzy that does not promise anything positive for public education. And that frenzy, given calls like President Obama’s for out-educating the world in order to “win the future,” seems insane, as do all these other measures driven by budget concerns and a politics that protects the privileged rather than promotes education.

There are many difficult on-the-ground questions to tackle if we are actually to fix public education. For instance—and this is the first order of business—we had better learn how to talk to ordinary, everyday people. In all this debate, we don’t hear very much from parents.

In this regard, another freedom schooling model comes to mind: the Citizenship Schools organized by Septima Clark in 1952. Those schools, reflecting the link between reading and writing literacy and the freedom struggle, began on Johns Island, South Carolina and spread across the South. The program trained thousands of teachers who taught in some two hundred schools. The lesson for us today is that their success as an educational effort depended not on money, but on commitment to communities, and those communities, in turn, finding the purpose of the schools believable. “It is my belief,” Ms. Clark wrote in an article called “Literacy and Liberation,” “that creative leadership exists in any community and only awaits discovery and development.” Show of hands now: Does anybody think this drives public education today? It should.

It is difficult to be optimistic, as the basic class divide between rich and poor deepens in U.S. society, and public schooling, for all the rhetoric of those ruling the country, now becomes increasingly unimportant, except perhaps as a mechanism for control or the supply of servants. Nonetheless, there are some models and efforts that offer glimmers of hope: The freedom school program of the Children’s Defense Fund; the online dialogue and information exchanged in the Education for Liberation group; Bob Moses’s Algebra Project, the Young Peoples Project that has grown out of it; Moses’s current push for quality public education as a constitutional right; and a few other scattered efforts.

The great lesson of the liberating education that defined Mississippi’s freedom schools and Septima Clark’s citizenship schools is that the schools grew out of the political and intellectual ferment of the freedom rights movement, as well as an easily observable need. In Mississippi and the South, long silent voices at the grassroots were raised in a way that could not be ignored. People who were usually spoken for by others began speaking for themselves and demanding rights and knowledge that society said they were not interested in and did not want. And that, in the final analysis, is where the basic support for the schools and what they were trying to do came from.

“Demand” and “citizenship” are the key words of former SNCC field secretary and Algebra Project founder Bob Moses, and they began with struggle against slavery and continued with the struggle for voting rights and access to public accommodations. Moses considers education the fourth phase of this struggle:

I have a vivid memory of people in the Delta complaining, “Why do we have to go to their schools?” When I asked Bayard [Rustin], he said the country was never going to put the resources needed into the “us” schools….but I think we should make the point that the sit-inners, SNCC, illiterate Delta sharecroppers, MFDP were posing a constitutional demand about the meaning of citizenship in the nation for access to public accommodations, political participation and membership in the national party Structures. They put on the constitutional table a demand that the first paragraph of the 14th amendment mean something, that national citizenship is substantive not formal. So the fourth phase of the Civil Rights movement rightly makes explicit a “We the People” demand for the extension of a substantive constitutional dimension to the education of the nation’s children. I think we should raise over and over again the question: When you get a score from a No Child Left Behind motivated test, do you have any idea what your child has achieved other than he or she has gotten a score of such a test? The idea of closing the achievement gap is a smoke screen because nobody knows what their kid has achieved. (from email exchange with Moses and various SNCC veterans)

Today, with public schools in crisis, this seems especially relevant: Make a demand! That’s a community organizing mission for the twenty-first century—encouraging demand. Public schools will get better and actually provide an education for the children who attend them, when, as occurred with the Southern freedom movement, the people at the bottom, those who have been written off as apathetic, too ignorant or hopeless, begin to make demands.

Therefore, with the idea of guaranteeing quality public education to all schoolchildren, we need to embrace the idea of freedom schools—education for liberation if you will. This simply means education that enables young people to function productively and meaningfully in society, or that gives them the tools to change—dare I say revolutionize—society; an education that enables them to possess their own lives instead of living at the mercy of others. And right here, embedded in this idea, examining Mississippi’s freedom movement experience provides clues for how to organize this.

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