The Freedom Schools, An Informal History

— Staughton Lynd

LATELY THERE HAS been renewed interest in the Mississippi Freedom Schools. People are thinking about reviving "freedom schooling." They invoke what happened in the summer of 1964 as hoped-for authority.

I was the director or coordinator of those Mississippi Freedom Schools. Since there were 41 Freedom Schools(1) and more than 2,000 students, of course I can't know all that went on.

On the other hand, at the Oxford, Ohio orientation I was asked by a volunteer named Tom Wahman if he could spend the summer in Jackson, since his wife would be part of the theater group rehearsing there. I said, Yes, if he could answer Freedom School calls at the Jackson COFO [Council of Federated Organizations, an umbrella of civil rights organizations] headquarters, leaving me free to visit schools all over the state. So I did get to see Freedom Schools in operation in McComb, Carthage, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Holly Springs, Shaw, Ruleville and doubtless elsewhere that I have forgotten.

In addition, as I will explain, I was naturally involved in every phase of the little-remembered Mississippi Freedom School Convention, held in Meridian in early August.

So as to make sure that what I do know will be communicated clearly, I will share what I remember in the form of frequently asked questions and my answers.

Whose idea was the Freedom Schools?

When Bob Moses began to organize in McComb, Mississippi in the summer of 1961, he and others in SNCC set up classes to prepare people to register to vote. After a number of African-American students were expelled from the local high school, SNCC created "Nonviolent High" to instruct them in subjects they were missing.

The venture ended when (in Daniel Perlstein's words) "much of the McComb staff was jailed for contributing to the delinquency of minors."(2) A number of students moved to other communities to continue their schooling.

In anticipation of Freedom Summer, in December 1963 SNCC staffer Charles Cobb proposed creation of a residential summer school (or schools) for tenth and eleventh graders. These grades were targeted so that SNCC could be "assured of having a working force that remains in the high schools putting to use what has been learned."

As Cobb imagined it, students would work on projects such as school boycotts, a newspaper and a statewide student conference, and participate in local organizing.(3)

Why was Staughton Lynd, a white person, asked to coordinate schools for Black teenagers?

I have no idea whether I was a first choice, or was offered the job after others turned it down. The offer came in the form of a long distance telephone call from John O'Neal, a SNCC organizer in Mississippi who had stayed at the Lynds' home in Atlanta when he first came South to work with SNCC. I do not know why I was chosen.

Even in those days before Black Power I sought to recruit a Black co-director. My eye fell on a graduate student at Atlanta University named Harold Bardonille, who had taken part in sit-ins in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

Harold said he would take a bus to Mississippi and check out what I was suggesting. When he came back, he said we were all out of our minds because people were going to be killed that summer. So I continued by myself.

How was the curriculum created? How important was the curriculum conference held in New York City in March 1964?

The curriculum was assembled in the Lynds' apartment on the Spelman College campus in Atlanta, and carried to the Oxford, Ohio orientation in the trunk of our Rambler. Its constituent parts came from many sources.

The March 1964 curriculum conference projected a number of "case studies," and about half of these were completed. They included segments on "The Power Structure," by SNCC research director Jack Minnis, and on the history of the Freedom Movement.(4) There were also Liberation magazine reprints on the "Triple Revolution" and nonviolence.

Liz Fusco, who was coordinator of the Ruleville Freedom School and who succeeded me as statewide Freedom Schools coordinator, says that the heart of the curriculum were questions such as: 1. Why are we in Freedom Schools? 2. What is the Freedom Movement? 3. What does the majority culture have that we want and that we don't want? What do we have that we want to keep?(5)

How were volunteers assigned to particular schools and how were the coordinators of individual schools chosen?

It happened at the Oxford, Ohio orientation. To the best of my recollection (39 years later) I made these decisions, after seeking all the input I could as to where volunteers wished to go.

Where did the teachers live? How did particular schools decide their daily activities?

Teachers lived with African American families to whom they were directed by SNCC staff and who had volunteered for that dangerous task. Without a doubt, this experience produced some of the most important learning of the summer for both hosts and visitors.(6)

The schools themselves were usually in African-American churches. It cannot be too much emphasized that the teachers of each school found their own way.(7)

What was the Freedom School Convention?

This was the statewide student gathering envisioned by Charles Cobb, and planned at a meeting of Freedom School coordinators in Jackson. It took place on August 7-9 at the Baptist Seminary in Meridian, at the end of the week in which the bodies of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were found in nearby Philadelphia, Mississippi.

That was also the week when the statewide Freedom Democratic Party convention took place in Jackson.

Each school sent three representatives and a coordinator so that about 120 persons were in attendance. A list of grievances from the McComb Freedom School was presented without signatures, because "until we are assured our parents will not suffer reprisals...we will remain anonymous."

There were eight committees on different areas of legislation. A demand to boycott Cuba and all countries that trade with Cuba was adopted but finally voted down in the general session. Land reform was voted down because it was considered too socialistic. After the resolution-passing was completed, one delegate proposed that they be sent to the United Nations and to the Library of Congress for its permanent records.(8)

Why didn't the schools continue at the end of Freedom Summer?

This question was seriously discussed at the Freedom School Convention. The conclusion -- correct in my opinion -- was that it would be too big a project given the resources at hand, and that were we to try to set up an alternative school system, we might irresponsibly hurt youngsters who were already seriously disadvantaged.

But that is not the whole story. Years later, as a law student, I came upon the case of Burnside v. Byars, 363 F.2d 744 (5th Cir. 1966). There I learned that in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney had been killed, Black students returned to public schools wearing buttons that said "SNCC" and "One Man, One Vote."

They were sent home but the federal court found that their activity was protected by the First Amendment. This was the precedent later relied on by the Supreme Court of the United States to uphold the First Amendment right of a young woman named Tucker to wear a black arm band in her Iowa school to protest the Vietnam war.

Notes

  1. This is the number suggested by the best scholarly article, Daniel Perlstein, "Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools," History of Education Quarterly, v. 30, no. 3 (Fall 1990), 297. The number of schools depended partly on whether one counted the several Freedom Schools in Hattiesburg as one or many. Perlman's article also contains three photographs of the schools in operation from my papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society.
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  2. Ibid., 300.
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  3. Charles Cobb, "Prospectus for a Summer Freedom School Program," Radical Teacher, no. 40 (Fall 1991), 36. This issue of Radical Teacher is devoted to the Mississippi

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  4. Freedom Schools and includes a number of photographs.

  5. "Mississippi Freedom School Curriculum--1964," Radical Teacher, op. cit. The actual curriculum included materials not included in this selection.
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  6. Liz Fusco, "Freedom Schools in Mississippi (1964)," Radical Teacher, op. cit., 37.
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  7. See in general, and also for Freedom School teachers in particular, Letters from Mississippi: Personal reports from civil rights volunteers of the 1964 Freedom Summer, ed. Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez (Brookline, Mass.: Zephyr Press, 2002).
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  8. Sample daily curricula will be found in Radical Teacher, op. cit., 316-318; Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 83-84, 296; and Pam [Parker] to Mom and Dad, Letters from Mississippi, 108-111. Letters, 120-122, reports a sequence of events in Shaw: the school as such was difficult to get off the ground but once students had begun to picket in a local Freedom Day, school activities could successfully be added.
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  9. Al to Mom, Dad and kids, August 16, Letters from Mississippi, 125-126; Liz Fusco and Staughton Lynd in Radical Teacher, op. cit., 39, 43.
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ATC 108, January-February 2004