- Education for Liberation
Crystal R. Sanders’ and Jon N. Hale’s excellent new books on grassroots educational projects in Mississippi during the 1960s paint a vivid picture of the centrality of education to civil rights activity in the state. Taking education for liberation and participatory democracy as central themes, both books delve deeply into the relationship between the education of African American youth and the unfolding struggle for racial justice. While both books stand alone beautifully, when read in tandem they offer a particularly rich interpretation of the connections between classroom programs and grassroots empowerment. While Hale focuses on the Freedom Schools and Sanders on Head Start, both ground their respective stories within the rich history of black Mississippians’ lengthy quest for freedom in all forms; both define “education” expansively—looking beyond the students immediately served to examine the impact of these programs on the larger community; and both explore the long-term legacy of these investments in human capital. Both authors have conducted impressive oral history work, grounding their accounts in an extensive and diverse interview base, and both tell their stories with passion and vigor.
Pushing back against the short shrift that was historically provided to the Freedom Schools in accounts of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, Hale argues that this minimization of the schools’ role has obscured the extent to which “young people still in middle and high school were on the front lines of the civil rights movement” and served as catalysts for local action in communities across the state (p. 2). In fact, the book makes a compelling argument that “the schools were by far the most successful initiative of the Freedom Summer campaign,” as measured by their success in cultivating new forms of protest among attendees (p. 15). While the story of the Mississippi Freedom [End Page 348] Democratic Party’s rejection of the compromise offered at Atlantic City and the impact of the summer’s tensions on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are well known, by emphasizing the continuing activity engendered by the Freedom Schools, Hale shifts the narrative from the costs of the summer project to its gains. The Freedom Schools carries the story beyond August 1964, highlighting ongoing activity after Atlantic City and the schools’ impact on the development of federally funded educational initiatives such as Head Start.
While highlighting antecedents such as Highlander Folk School workshops, the Citizenship Schools operated by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), McComb’s Nonviolent High, and the Freedom Schools organized by Northern blacks boycotting urban school systems in protest of systemic segregation and discrimination, Hale argues that Mississippi’s Freedom Schools—originally proposed by SNCC organizer Charlie Cobb—constituted “the most significant network of schools that illustrated the extent to which the civil rights movement incorporated education into its overarching goals and organization” (p. 35). Yet he is careful not to denigrate pre-1964 activities by portraying the schools as students’ first introduction to democracy in action. Indeed, he devotes an important chapter to following seven students whose exposure to civil rights activities in their hometowns throughout the early years of the 1960s eventually led them to the Freedom Schools as a channel for expanding their involvement in the movement.
Once enrolled, the students encountered “one of the most progressive curricula in American history”: an educational experience built around citizenship, creative expression, and African American history and literature (p. 93). Developed in consultation with such luminaries of the movement as Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Bob Moses, and Bayard Rustin, the schools were intended to supplement, not replace, the instruction students were receiving in the state’s public schools. Academic subjects received coverage, but instructional models were more horizontal than vertical, with teachers encouraging students to take the lead in deciding what to study, how to approach...