by Beverly C. Tomek, University of Houston-Victoria
Recent efforts to weaken both public education and the Voting Rights Act show that it is time to try again.
When young activists began planning the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964, they set out with a bold plan to completely transform education and foster widespread voting throughout the South. At first blush, Freedom Schools look like an effort to foster literacy among black Mississippians so that they could pass the infamous literacy tests that blocked them from voting. Viewed through a moderate integrationist stance, the goal would be simply to regain rights already promised by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The plan, however, was much more radical, and reactionaries knew it.
Rather than teaching the basics of literacy to pass the test, activists intended to teach material that would lead the students to think critically about the problems they faced and the solutions available. They wanted them to build on the collectivist traditions fostered by generations of resisting systematic oppression and channel that collectivism into a unified presence at the ballot box. They wanted southern blacks not just to vote, but to vote in a way that would create real and lasting change by completely transforming southern society. That was the whole point of the Freedom Schools and white southern reactionaries were determined from the beginning to stifle the effort. Mindful of what was at stake politically, white moderates in both the North and the South hoped protests would be kept to respectable levels so as not to alienate the less sympathetic members of the Democratic Party. It was only activists’ efforts that summer, and the violent backlash against them, that forced the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to address both education and voting as part of the “Great Society.”
Unfortunately, however, Johnson and his team embraced a limited vision that made their reforms less radical than activists intended. As a result, the dream of Freedom Summer remains unfulfilled. Though public schools have been desegregated by law, de facto segregation, controlled curriculum, disparate funding, and other political efforts to avoid sincere change remain obstacles to fulfilling activists’ dreams for American education. Similarly, efforts to expand the franchise, though successful for a period after the Voting Rights Act passed, are currently being rolled back. Indeed, recent efforts to weaken both public education and the Voting Rights Act show that it is time to try again.
Though public schools have been desegregated by law, de facto segregation, controlled curriculum, disparate funding, and other political efforts to avoid sincere change remain obstacles to fulfilling activists’ dreams for American education.
Freedom Summer was designed and coordinated by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Under COFO, leaders of the four major civil rights organizations came together with the long-term goal of transforming the power structure of Mississippi. To do that, activists would have to break the stronghold of the Mississippi Democratic Party by challenging its legitimacy at the Democratic National Convention that August in Atlantic City. The cornerstones of this movement were the Freedom Schools, community centers, and voter registration drives. The schools were intended to foster the confidence needed for local blacks to risk their lives in the fight to vote, while the community centers were to give the communities an empowering place to meet. The voter registration drive was seen as essential in taking over the local political apparatus by creating a parallel state-level Democratic Party structure, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which would take the place of the traditional delegation at the national convention. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) provided lawyers to fight for those who were jailed for civil disobedience while registering voters, while the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) helped organize the community center. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) set a precedent for the Freedom Schools with the Citizen Education Program it hosted in the state the year before, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) provided field workers to teach in the schools and register voters throughout rural Mississippi.
According to a group of scholars who have collected, catalogued, and published the Freedom School curriculum, the schools “set out to alter forever the state of Mississippi, the stronghold of the Southern way of life.” Under direction of Spelman College Professor Staughton Lynd, the schools were meant to “teach confidence, voter literacy and political organization” in addition to academic skills. They would “support black Mississippians in naming the reality of their lives and then in changing that reality” by raising questions that “struck at the most fundamental assumptions white Americans held about themselves and the institutions they had created,” all the while giving black Americans the confidence to challenge those assumptions.
The fall after Freedom Summer, activist educator Howard Zinn praised the schools for being critical of the existing social order and for working to transform society. He called upon the federal government to follow up with similar education programs “to carry forward the work of the Freedom Schools.” The “aim of the schools,” he wrote, should be to create a “national striving” to “find solutions for poverty, for injustice, for race and national hatred.”
As Lyndon Johnson began plans to implement the Great Society, he and his team also realized the importance of education. James Farmer, the founder of CORE and one of the Big Six civil rights activists, approached Johnson about an education program like Freedom Summer about six months before COFO came together in Mississippi. Farmer’s proposal included schools for adults that would help them benefit from the achievements of the civil rights movement. Though Johnson expressed initial support for the program, Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) director Sargent Shriver realized it would meet resistance from the very same reactionaries who resisted civil rights all along, many of whom made up the base of the Democratic Party in the South. To avoid splitting the party, he suggested an alternative program that would focus on poor children of both races. Through this program, which became Head Start, he found a way to incorporate education into the legacy of the movement without challenging the social and political order too much. Though some members of the OEO initially worked to consolidate civil rights gains in Head Start, its implementation in Mississippi was more in accord with LBJ’s qualitative efforts to afford equal access rather than quantitative measures that would redistribute power or wealth in any significant measure. Unlike Zinn, LBJ did not have plans to radically transform society but rather to simply make room in the existing order for everyone.
Though transformative to some extent, LBJ’s vision kept in mind the political realities born of American racial hatred. His efforts for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were prompted in part by the murder of activists James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—an act that, in the broad scheme of southern history, was just one more in a long string of state-sanctioned and supported violent actions against anyone who dared to resist the region’s racial caste system. Indeed, as mild as his Head Start program was in comparison to Freedom Schools, it met quick resistance from southerners who resented any effort to challenge segregation and saw it as government collusion with radicals. One editorialist for the Jackson Daily News called it “one of the most subtle mediums for instilling the acceptance of racial integration and ultimate mongrelization ever perpetuated in this country.”
Despite their limitations, the reforms of the Great Society did have an impact. . .