Mississippi Freedom Schools
Project Planning, Implementation
The Mississippi freedom schools were an important project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) designed to promote freedom, self-determination, and participatory activism aimed at African-American youth in the improvement of local communities and state organizations.
In November 1963 the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and the SNCC conceived a major civil rights incursion into Mississippi during the summer of 1964. This incursion, spearheaded largely by SNCC and officially known as the Mississippi Summer Project, would promote African-American equality and basic democratic rights through a number of social action projects. One of those projects was the creation of a summer school program aimed at high school–age African-American students, providing them with a richer school experience than they were able to have in their own schools and, it was hoped, committing these students to become a force for social change in Mississippi. This educational endeavor became known as the Mississippi freedom schools.
Charles Cobb, field secretary for SNCC, proposed the idea of freedom schools as a war against academic poverty. He claimed the Mississippi school system and the African-American schools were meant to "squash intellectual curiosity." Cobb wanted young African-American students to have an education related directly to the everyday experiences and problems of these students. Freedom schools would "offer young black Mississippians an education that public schools would not supply, one that both provided intellectual stimulation and linked learning to participation in the movement to transform the South's segregated society" (Chilcoat and Ligon 1994, p. 132).
To effect the idea of freedom schools, a curriculum conference was held in New York in March 1964. Approximately fifty people with varied backgrounds in education and civil rights work attended the conference. The major focus of the conference and the core of the freedom school curriculum was the formulating of a civic curriculum. The civic curriculum was to be composed of: (1) fourteen problem-solving case studies dealing with the political, economic, and social forces relating to the direct experiences of the students; (2) a Citizenship Curriculum facilitating student discussion as a means of achieving a new society; (3) a Guide to Negro History providing a comprehensive survey of African-American history; and (4) an emphasis on teachers extrapolating directly from students those personal experiences in which they lived each day in a hostile, repressive, dominantly white society. Also because of the lack of other academic opportunities offered to African-American students in their public schools, the conference included in the freedom schools a reading and writing remediation curriculum, a humanities curriculum emphasizing English, foreign languages, art, and creative writing, and a general science and mathematics curriculum. Coupled with the curriculum, the conference recommended a variety of progressive democratic teaching techniques emphasizing self-discovery and self-expression that were to stimulate the act of questioning.
In June 1964 two one-week orientation meetings were held on the campus of Western College for Women at Oxford, Ohio, for most of the freedom school summer volunteers. The second-week orientation involved the freedom school teachers. The orientation workshops were training courses in pedagogical techniques and in the use of the core civic curriculum developed at the curriculum conference. Upon completing the orientation, the volunteers traveled to their freedom school locations in Mississippi to begin their six-week stay. The original expectation was the creation of twenty schools with a desired student population of 1,000. However, freedom schools became a far greater success than the project had planned, with forty-one schools in twenty communities and 2,165 students.
As the Summer Project ended, it was hoped that freedom schools would continue. Although some of the schools did continue to operate, few could sustain either learning or activism. The schools were never projected as permanent institutions but rather, according to most of the original planners, as a tactic for immediate change. However, for many students and teachers, the freedom schools in those short six weeks had a substantial impact on their lives.
The Freedom Schools showed that there can be a situation where learning is not forced upon youth. This was a type of education which gave individuals a personal interest in social relationships, a personal interest that made learning something to be sought after …. The Freedom Schools met the challenge of changing the social order through the educative process. They showed that this is not an additional burden that must be met through education, but a necessity if we are to have truth, justice, and equality in society. (Chilcoat and Ligon 1995, p. 6)
CHILCOAT, GEORGE W., and LIGON, JERRY A. 1994. "Developing Democratic Citizens: The Mississippi Freedom Schools as a Model for Social Studies Instruction." Theory and Research in Social Education 22:128–175.
CHILCOAT, GEORGE. W., and LIGON, JERRY A. 1995. "We Will Teach What Democracy Really Means by Living Democratically Within Our Own Schools: Lessons from the Personal Experiences of Teachers Who Taught in the Mississippi Freedom Schools." Education and Culture 11:1–19.
CHILCOAT, GEORGE. W., and LIGON, JERRY A. 1999. "Helping to Make Democracy a Living Reality: The Curriculum Conference of the Mississippi Freedom Schools." Journal of Curriculum Super-vision 15:43–68.
GEORGE W. CHILCOAT
JERRY A. LIGON
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