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Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools

  • Daniel Perlstein (a1)


We want people to be able to live the truth.

—SNCC report on Mississippi schools, 1963

The movement has been called the closest thing in the United States to Paul Goodman's “anti-college” where students learn because they want to learn, learn in order to do and to discover who they are.

—Fifth Annual Spring Conference of SNCC, 1964

For a brief moment in 1964, a network of alternative schools flourished as a central component of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. The Freedom Schools of the Mississippi Summer Project were sponsored by COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations, an alliance of civil rights groups led by SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Through COFO, SNCC activists brought hundreds of northern volunteers, most of them white, to Mississippi for a few months to register voters and to teach in forty-one Freedom Schools. The schools offered 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.



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1 The relationship of COFO to SNCC was ambiguous. Many of the SNCC activists planning the summer project were confused about whether its sponsor was SNCC or COFO. SNCC Executive Committee Minutes, 27–31 Dec. 1963, 28–29, file 4, series II, subgroup A, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Papers (hereafter SP), King, Martin Luther Jr., Center for the Study of Non-violence, Atlanta, Ga. According to SNCC Executive Secretary Jim Forman, “the force most active within COFO was SNCC…. [Mississippi Project Director] Bob Moses presented the idea [for the summer project at a] meeting of SNCC's executive committee.” Forman, James The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Washington, D.C., 1985), 372. Still, according to Moses, “The Mississippi Project had its own locus of decision-making—SNCC people, CORE people and local people…. It's SNCC-driven, but it isn't really SNCC…. [There was] much more of a movement orientation as opposed to an organization orientation.” Bob Moses, interview with author, 23 Feb. 1988.

2 The Student Voice, June 1960, 2, appendix D, SP. For a full account of SNCC's evolution, see Carson, Clayborne In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, Mass., 1981).

3 Baker, quoted in Carson, In Struggle, 20.

4 Carson, In Struggle, 3839, 41–42. For a discussion of the roots of SNCC's ambivalence about electoral work, see Pat Watters and Cleghorn, Reese Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Arrival of Negroes in Southern Politics (New York, 1967), 46.

5 O'Neal, John interview with author, 12 Feb. 1988.

6 Carson, In Struggle, 5758. Sherrod's distinction between good Negroes and good men recalls strikingly similar language from W. E. B. DuBois's endorsement of black liberal arts colleges: “[Negroes in the South were a] people who needed to learn the meaning of life…. The object of education was not to make men carpenters but to make carpenters men.” DuBois, W. E. B. The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques, 1906–1960 (Amherst, Mass., 1973), 6364.

7 Carson, In Struggle, 62. See also Stoper, Emily The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The Growth of Radicalism in a Civil Rights Organization (Brooklyn, 1989), 7190.

8 “The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council: A Prospectus for Action,” 6 Apr. 1962, 1, file 387, series IV, subgroup A, SP. According to activist Jane Stembridge, Moses's style of organizing made him “a teacher to most people in SNCC.” Stoper, Growth of Radicalism, 252.

9 Zinn, Howard SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston, 1964), 6876; Forman, Black Revolutionaries, 23 2–33.

10 The Student Voice, 1960–64, appendix D, SP; Executive Committee Minutes, 19 Apr. 1964, 5, file 4, series II, subgroup A, SP; Zinn, SNCC, 121–22.

11 Staff Meeting Minutes, 27–31 Dec. 1963, 28, file 4, series II, subgroup A, SP; SNCC Executive Committee Minutes, 27–31 Dec. 1963, 28–29, ibid.; Branch, Taylor Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (New York, 1988), 920–21.

12 See Staff Meeting Minutes, 27–31 Dec. 1963, 28; Minutes of COFO Meeting to Discuss the Summer Project, Hattiesburg, Miss., 24 Jan. 1964, 13, file 1, series III, subgroup A, SP; Executive Committee Minutes, 29 Mar. 1964, ibid.; Executive Committee Minutes, 19 Apr. 1964, 3–4, ibid.

13 Minutes Hattiesburg Meeting, 1–3; Staff Meeting Minutes, 9–11 June 1964, 1, 10, 31, ibid.

14 Staff Meeting Minutes, 9–11 June 1964, 30.

15 [Anon.], untitled, incomplete report, [1963], 7, file 122, series VIII, subgroup A, SP.

16 Ibid., 2–3.

17 Ibid., 2.

18 Ibid., 5–6.

19 Carson, In Struggle, 78.

20 Cobb, CharlesA Summer Freedom School in Mississippi,“ 14 Jan. 1964, 1, file 122, series VIII, subgroup A, SP.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., 2.

23 Charles Silberman notes that in programmed learning, tasks are broken down into “precise, measurable, ‘behavioral’ terms…. Most of the applications of programmed instruction have been in training courses for industry and the armed forces.” Silberman, Charles E. Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education (New York, 1970), 196–97.

24 Varela, Mary to Randolph, Harland 27 Oct. 1963, 1, file 19, series X, subgroup A, SP.

25 Varela, to Gallo, Greg and Sharkey, Joel U.S. National Student Association, 16 Sep. 1963, 1, ibid.; SNCC Executive Committee Minutes, 19 Apr. 1964, 11–12.

26 Moses interview.

27 Release, Press Highlander Center, Knoxville, Tenn., 13 June [1962], file 387, series IV, subgroup A, SP; Forman, James to Horton, Myles 10 May 1962, file 166, ibid.

28 In words that echo SNCC's own mission, activist James Bevel described Horton as “a man who reminded me of Socrates. Myles was a guy who'd ask questions about your assumptions. He would challenge you on your inferior feelings. He sort of decrudded Negroes from being Negroes and making them think of themselves as men and women.” Quoted in Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York, 1984), 147. For a fuller description of Highlander and its role in the civil rights movement, see esp. 139–57.

29 “Letter for the Southern Mountain School” quoted in Frank Adams with Myles Horton, Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander (Winston-Salem, N.C., 1975), 13.

30 Adams, Unearthing Seeds, 9.

31 Horton, Myles quoted in Morris, Origins, 151. See also Brown, Cynthia Stokes ed., Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement (Navarro, Calif., 1986).

32 Morris, Origins, 149–57; Branch, Parting the Waters, 575–79, 718, 818–19, 825; Adams, Unearthing Seeds, 118–20.

33 “Friends Ask Help for Chicago Boycott,” Student Voice, 16 Dec. 1963, 4; “Harlem Parents Committee Freedom School Lesson Guide,” [1963], file 340, appendix A, SP; Freedom Schools Materials for Freedom Stay-Out, 26 Feb. 1964, Boston, file 340, appendix A, SP.

34 “NEWS,” United Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, New York City, 15 Apr. 1964, 1, file 328, appendix A, SP.

35 “People Invited to Curriculum Conference,” file 164, series XV, subgroup A, SP.

36 A guide to remedial education discouraged focusing on spelling at the expense of ideas. On the other hand, the science and math curricula made no mention of Mississippi and had no political content which would distinguish them from conventional curricula. “Notes on the Remedial Part of the Curriculum,” file 90, appendix A, SP; “Memo from Ruth Emerson,” file 122, series VIII, subgroup A, SP; Physics and Chemistry Curriculum, file 340, appendix A, SP.

37 “Part I: Academic Curriculum,” file 122, series VIII, subgroup A, SP; Adickes, SandraReport from the Curriculum Committee,” file 340, appendix A, SP. Adickes described many reading and writing activities, stressing that they needed to be connected with students’ lives and with political actions. She recommended team teaching and suggested that Freedom Schools consider tracking students. The last proposal was deleted when the report was reproduced for Freedom School teachers. “Academic Freedom,“ file 340, appendix A, SP.

38 “Report of a Sub-group of the Leadership Development and Current Issues Committee at the Mississippi Summer Project Curriculum Conference,” 21–22 Mar. 1964, 1, file 164, series XV, subgroup A, SP.

39 Ibid., 2–3.

40 Horton, to Moses, Mrs. Robert 1 Apr. 1964, file 337, appendix A, SP; Chaffee, Lois to Jenkins, Tim 26 Apr. 1964, file 327, ibid.; “Case Studies,” file 327, ibid.

41 Young, BeaAmistad Case,“ file 340, ibid.; Chaffee, to Jones, Barbara 26 Apr. 1964, file 327, ibid.; “Guide to Negro History,” 1–2, file 340, ibid.

42 “Guide to Negro History,” 4–15.

43 Day, Noel interview with author, 23 Feb. 1988.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 Day posed racial conflicts more strongly than the final version of the curriculum, stressing not only black oppression but also white privilege and the possible benefits of separate black institutions. Jane Stembridge, a white staff member from Virginia who, in 1960, had been SNCC's first executive secretary, objected to Day's portrayal of white southerners and rewrote parts of the curriculum. Still, these changes were in keeping with the spirit of the schools as proposed by Cobb and adopted by SNCC. “The Poor in America,” draft of Freedom Schools’ curriculum, 1–2, file 165, series XV, subgroup A, SP; Casey Hayden to Staughton Lynd, n.d., file 327, appendix A, SP.

49 “Part II: Citizenship Curriculum,” 1, file 340, appendix A, SP.

50 Ibid., 1–5.

51 Ibid., 5.

52 “Outline for Case Studies,” 2, file 340, appendix A, SP.

53 “Part II: Citizenship Curriculum,” Unit VII, p. 1.

54 Note that SNCC intended for all sections of the curriculum to encourage questioning. Chaffee, to Jones, Barbara and Stembridge, JaneThis Is the Situation,“ file 340, appendix A, SP.

55 “A Note to the Teacher,” ibid.; Lynd, Staughton interview with author, 26 Mar. 1988.

56 Rothschild, Mary Aickin A Case of Black and White: Northern Volunteers and the Southern Freedom Summers, 1964–1965 (Westport, Conn. 1982), 33, 37. Rothschild estimates that 85 percent of the volunteers were white and argues that staff and volunteers alike tended to think of the volunteers as white, with blacks who were down for the summer in the different conceptual category of “perspective staff.” The Freedom Schools were designed with white volunteers in mind, and many blacks who came to Mississippi for the summer did in fact occupy more prominent roles than the average volunteer. Detroit teacher Carolyn Reese who administered the network of Freedom Schools in Hattiesburg and Washington, D.C., teacher Ralph Featherstone who directed the McComb school each continued to work with SNCC after the summer. Featherstone argued that the Negro History Curriculum was the most valuable legacy of the Freedom Schools, and black teachers may have been less interested in informality than white volunteers. Still, Reese stressed that “the children are learning that somebody is supposed to listen to them.” Student Voice, 5 Aug. 1964, 1–2.

57 Memo to Mississippi Summer Project interviewers, 14 Apr. 1964, file 117, series VII, subgroup A, SP.

58 Stembridge, This Is the Situation“; Cobb, CharlieThis Is the Situation,“ file 340, appendix A, SP. See also mimeographed excerpt from DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk, and Pease, Otis “The Development of Negro Power in American Politics since 1900“ [summer 1964], file 340, appendix A, SP.

59 Belfrage, Sally Freedom Summer (New York, 1965), 1718.

60 Ibid, 27; Lynd interview.

61 Belfrage, Freedom Summer, 7.

62 Sutherland, Elizabeth Letters from Mississippi (New York, 1965); Rothschild, A Case of Black and White, 96–99.

63 Zinn, New Abolitionists, 248; Lynd interview.

64 Holt, Len The Summer That Didn't End (New York, 1965), 317.

65 Wesley Foundation Newsletter, Jose, San Calif. [?], 28 July 1964, 2, container 1, The Stokely Carmichael Collection (M170), Department of Special Collections, The Stanford University Libraries. In order to encourage a statewide network among students, the schools even developed a Freedom Schools sports league. White woman volunteer, 4, folder 23, Project South Collection (SC55), Department of Special Collections, The Stanford University Libraries.

66 Howe, FlorenceMississippi's Freedom Schools,“ [1964], in Myths of Coeducation: Selected Essays, 1964–1983 (Bloomington, Ind., 1984), 3.

67 For a description of Freedom School student attitudes about “good” and “bad” hair, see anonymous woman volunteer, 5, folder 20, Project South.

68 “New Bethel School,” Canton, 10 July 1964, file 325, appendix A, SP. Although lectures are sometimes mentioned in Freedom School logs, they tend to be absent from volunteers’ recollections. At least for the volunteers, the ideology of questioning and dialogue left a deeper impression than whatever exceptions to it actually occurred.

69 White woman volunteer, 3, folder 23.

70 Lynd, interview. See also Tracy Sugarman, Stranger at the Gates: A Summer in Mississippi (New York, 1966), 73.

71 The humanities were included in Charlie Cobb's original proposal, and several SNCC staff launched a theater troupe during the summer.

72 Lynd, interview.

73 Hinman-Smith, Dan‘For Hope, Justice and Freedom': The Mississippi Freedom Schools (1964–1965)“ (unpublished paper, University of North Carolina, 1988), 37.

74 Lauter, Paul interview with author, 28 Dec. 1987; Lynd, Staughton “Mississippi Freedom Schools: Retrospect and Prospect,” 26 July 1964, 3, file 112, series XV, subgroup A, SP. The play opened with the audience's own experiences and then recounted the tradition of black struggle in the United States, thus echoing the Freedom Schools’ pedagogy. According to Free Southern Theater founder O'Neal, John “We are trying to build the notion that these people [that were in the audience] were actually history makers. That idea was the idea of the movement.” O'Neal interview.

75 White woman volunteer, 3, folder 23. The volunteer's views are remarkably similar to SNCC's desire to “train people to be active agents in bringing about social change…. It is not our purpose to impose a particular set of conclusions. Our purpose is to encourage the asking of questions, and the hope that society can be improved. “Part II: Citizenship Curriculum,” 1.

76 See Pam, AlvinReport on the Summer Project,“ Springs, Holly 8 July 1964, 1, file 175, series IV, subgroup A, SP; and Flynn, Deborah “Highlights of One Teacher's Experience,” [fall 1964], 1, file 175, series IV, subgroup A, SP. Flynn and Pam were New York City public school teachers. About a quarter of the Freedom School volunteers were professional teachers. As a group, they were perhaps more traditional in their teaching than the college students. (Lynd interview.) Still, the similarities between the professional teachers’ pedagogy and the college students’ were far greater than the differences.

77 O'Neal interview.

78 Chaffee, to Day, Noel 26 Apr. 1964, file 327, appendix A, SP; Day, Noel Teaching Hints, Discussion Leading Techniques, file 340, ibid.

79 Williams, Hosea 15–16, folder 179, Project South.

80 McAdam, Doug Freedom Summer (New York, 1988), 107–8. In fact, Freedom Summer organizers steered men into electoral work and women into teaching even against the volunteers’ wishes.

81 Roberts, Wally to Lynd, Shaw Miss., 11 July 1964, file 356, appendix A, SP. Note that the Freedom Schools were an important source of feminist consciousness-raising groups. Rothschild, Black and White, 187; McAdam, Freedom Summer, 185. For a more extended discussion of the salience of gender to the organization of the project and to volunteers’ experiences, see McAdam, 108–11.

82 Flynn, Highlights,“ 2.

83 “Platform of Freedom School Convention,” file 334, appendix A, SP; Lynd, to author, 3 Dec. 1989.

84 Supporters of this view included Rev. Killingsworth, J. C. a Freedom Democratic party leader from Stonewall, Mississippi (Killingsworth, 13, folder 165, Project South), and Fannie Lou Hamer (“Forward” to Sugarman, Stranger, vii).

85 Everett, Ulysses 1–4, folder 156, Project South.

86 Dennis, Dave 7–8, 11–12, 16–17, folder 139, Project South. By 1966 Charlie Cobb would argue that “America must be treated as an enemy—an enemy of humanity, in fact, and cut loose from.” Cobb, quoted in King, Mary Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (New York, 1987), 504.

87 O'Neal interview. The Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), the Mississippi Head Start project, epitomized the new programs. Started by a white New York psychiatrist, CDGM received a $1.5 million grant within five weeks of its founding. CDGM's Polly Greenberg argued that by 1965 SNCC no longer served the needs of poor blacks and had to be “neutralized” in order for white professionals and middle-class blacks “to build a federal program from accomplishments of the movement.” Greenberg, Polly The Devil Has Slippery Shoes: A Biased Biography of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (New York, 1969), 23, 211.

88 Sutherland, ElizabethMississippi: Summer of Discontent,“ The Nation, 11 Oct. 1965, 212.

89 Where white volunteers continued to work in Freedom Schools, changing views of race relations incapacitated them as teachers. Seeking not to dominate her students, one typical teacher attempted to facilitate “undirected learning [with people who] want to talk [to you] ‘cause they haven't had much of a chance to talk before and their talk leads… and you don't have to lead them anywhere.” Anonymous white woman, 6, folder 20, Project South. Another 1965 volunteer had a less optimistic explanation for the volunteers’ ineffectiveness: middle-class whites were separated from their students’ world by “an emotional chasm no amount of good feeling could overcome.” Hoffman, Abbie Soon To Be a [Major] Motion Picture (New York, 1980), 67.

90 Memo from Judy Richardson to SNCC Executive Committee RE: Residential Freedom School, Presented 6 Sep. 1964, file 4, series II, subgroup A, SP; Richardson, Judy “Residential Freedom School Report,” Aug. 1965 10, file 122, series VIII, subgroup A, SP; Ware, Bill “Freedom Schools: The Reason Why,” 1966, and Minutes, “Freedom School Meeting on April 25, 1966,” (Atlanta), file 8, series X, subgroup A, SP. For Ivanhoe Donaldson and Cleveland Sellers's Negroes in American History: A Freedom Primer, see Staff Newsletter, 1 Sep. 1965, file 6, series VII, subgroup A, SP.

91 Harris, JesseFifth District Joint Meeting with Third District, 1417 Apr. 1965, Waveland, Miss., file 61, series XVII, subgroup A, SP. On the decline of interest in the humanities among SNCC activists, see Hinman-Smith, Dan‘For Hope, Justice, and Freedom,'5859.

92 Reports on Washington, D.C., Liberation Schools, file 74, series I, subgroup C, SP.

His essay was awarded the Henry Barnard Prize for 1989. He wishes to thank Al Camarillo, David Tyack, Clay Carson, and Laura Schulkind for their helpful comments.


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