by Beverly C. Tomek, University of Houston-Victoria
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. Head Start continues to make a difference in educational, social, and emotional outcomes for students across the country, increasing the probability of high school graduation, college attendance, and heightened self-control and self-esteem. Perhaps one fact, particularly in regard to building self-esteem in minority populations, is that Head Start has managed to remain under federal rather than state control. Thus, even as state boards of education manage to push for curriculum that encourages complacency and the celebration of American greatness, Head Start, like Freedom Schools, has found a way to remain outside the local establishment in many ways. In the end, then, though Head Start was not allowed to fulfill the activists’ dream of pushing forward a revolutionary civil rights agenda, it has at least managed, to a small extent, to remain “outside the social order” of reactionary areas of the country.
Until recently, the Voting Rights Act had perhaps an even larger impact. Before the act, an estimated 23% of voting age blacks were registered across the nation. Approximately 5 million such individuals lived in the eleven states considered the South, but only 1.4 million were registered to vote. Only 5.1% of voting age blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote, while 94.9% of eligible whites were registered. By 1969, across the nation 61% of voting age blacks were registered to vote. That change occurred because the act allowed the Justice Department to send examiners to any state or county that had used literacy tests to deter black Americans from registering to vote and where black voter turnout or registration had fallen below 50% of the voting age population in the 1964 election. The act also required these “special coverage”’ jurisdictions to gain federal permission, or “pre-clearance,” before changing election or voting procedures. These rules applied to all Deep South states except Florida and also included Virginia and 40 counties in North Carolina.
LBJ did not have plans to radically transform society but rather to simply make room in the existing order for everyone. His vision kept in mind the political realities born of American racial hatred.
The effectiveness was most apparent in Mississippi, where the percentage of black voters went from 7% in 1964 to 67% in 1969. Further, the act reaffirmed the right to vote regardless of “race or color” in all states, and the percentage of registered black voters in the South surpassed the rest of the country by 1980. Also due to the act, black Americans held more public offices across the South than throughout the rest of the nation by the mid-1980s. By 2001, the gap between the black population and the number of black office holders was nearly four times smaller in the South than in the rest of the nation. Of course, this progress was contingent upon the U.S. Department of Justice’s ability, and willingness, to sue states and counties that violated the act. Without this oversight and careful supervision, the act is meaningless.
According to economic historian Gavin Wright, the tangible benefits of the act extended beyond black Americans’ opportunity to hold office. He argues that white politicians began trying to gain the favor of black voters even before the uptake in black officeholding, paying better attention to their needs for basic services such as street repair and neighborhood maintenance, adding that the presence of black Americans in the government has generally meant significant gains in employment, income, and opportunity for other black Americans. For example, James Button cites the quadrupling of black municipal employment between 1960 and 2000. Once blacks gained elected power, they were able to create more opportunity in private employment. Civil rights activist and historian James Cobb cites the example of Atlanta, where black mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young oversaw the granting of almost 1,600 contracts to more than 600 minority-owned businesses between 1974 and 1990.
Unfortunately, these reforms met resistance from the beginning and have been chipped away at and watered down. Nixon and other Republican presidents after him have cut Head Start funding to various extents, and its future is less than certain given the current administration’s disregard for public education. The current secretary of education has publicly supported vouchers and charter schools, two measures that only widen the achievement gap by robbing public schools of much needed funds and the highest skilled teachers. They also lead to renewed segregation in education, leaving poor and minority students with unequal educational opportunities. At the same time, state boards of education are pushing dominionist religious agendas into the public schools and dictating a curriculum that provides an incomplete—and often outright false—knowledge of history and science. Far too often, the historical narrative pushed by these boards takes out the role of minorities in U.S. history, undoing one of the most important legacies of the Freedom Schools for public education—the teaching of a more accurate and inclusive American history that reveals the complexities of the past and the contributions of minority populations.
The backlash against the Voting Rights Act has continued to grow in recent years. We now face outright attempts at voter suppression across the nation in the form of voter ID laws, shortened early voting periods, and less stringent protections for voters against intimidation at the polls. By the 2012 election, nineteen states had adopted measures that restrict minority voters, and lawmakers have far too often capitulated to these reactionary efforts. According to Cobb, “The Supreme Court has recently grown more tolerant of efforts to chip away at the signature political achievement of the Civil Rights Movement, often reverting to the same logic (looking for proof of discriminatory intent rather than discriminatory effect) that undid the 15th Amendment’s original voting-rights guarantees more than a century ago.” In June 2013, it ruled the pre-clearance stricture of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional and no longer necessary in the case of Shelby County [Ala.] v. Holder. In Cobb’s words, “The Voting Rights Act had worked so well, the logic went, that it was no longer needed.” Empowered by this ruling, state lawmakers went to work and, within hours, began restricting the vote. North Carolina set to work cutting its early voting period in half, eliminating same-day registration, and imposing stringent voter ID rules. By 2013, only 68.4% of voting age black Americans were registered to vote, and that number fell further to 59.6% in 2016, the first time in 20 years that black voter turnout has fallen in a presidential election. Cobb compares the Supreme Court’s recent actions to its abandonment of the fight for racial equality following the end of Reconstruction.
Perhaps now, as in 1964, the youth will lead the nation back to the path of justice.
Some recent court rulings in response to activist pressure give cause for hope. Citing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as a model for voter education and grassroots action, Frederick Knight describes recent successful efforts by the public advocacy group Common Cause to challenge voter restrictions. Pointing to the hidden costs of voter IDs— such as the time costs in learning how to meet the requirements and in obtaining the identification—and the actual costs—such as the expense of acquiring documentation like birth, marriage, naturalization, or other certificates and in traveling to the various offices involved in the obtaining the documents—activists have challenged the laws in a number of states. While activists lost the battle in Wisconsin, they won in North Carolina when one federal court ruled that 28 of the state’s 170 legislative districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered; another ruled against the state’s voter ID laws, cuts to early voting, and ban on same-day voter registration. Voting rights activists face an ongoing battle in many states, but Knight points out that they benefit from the Freedom Party’s “culture of empowerment of the marginalized,” which “offers a lesson in the meaning and practice of democracy.”
The question, however, remains whether or not today’s activists will organize to the extent of creating another targeted effort like Freedom Summer. Social justice groups such as the Children’s Defense Fund continue to host their own “Freedom Schools,” but too often these schools are simply literacy initiatives. While literacy is an important cause, it does not equate to the kind of radical social transformation envisioned by the founders of the original Freedom Schools. The Zinn Education Project, built by and named after Howard Zinn, continues in the tradition of bringing peoples’ history into the classroom, but it is only powerful when teachers actually adopt the curriculum—a move that can be tricky, particularly in states that do not have tenure for public school teachers. Union membership for teachers could help them exercise stronger control over their curriculum and their classrooms, but most southern states have managed to weaken unions and leave them almost useless. Those unions that do maintain any power at all find themselves under constant attack by conservatives.
In the current social and political climate of the U.S., activism is dangerous business. Whether focusing on improving schools, protecting voting rights, encouraging union activity, or protecting immigrant rights, activists face being doxed by reactionaries online and losing their jobs. Perhaps now, as in 1964, the youth will lead the nation back to the path of justice. One can only hope that the momentum among the youth who have organized in response to recent school shootings will set an example for others. But they cannot do it alone.
Once again, it will be up to those in power to carry the reforms forward and implement them in meaningful ways. The unity between activists and politicians currently marching to facilities where refugee children are being held by the present administration’s draconian anti-immigration efforts is a good start. Hopefully these movements can be built upon and expanded to include a renewed push for voting and education rights. This time, however, the changes must not be watered down out of fear of reactionary backlash. The story of Head Start and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts have shown that the backlash will come anyway. Instead of trying to mitigate it before it hits, those in power must have the courage to meet it head on.
Beverly C. Tomek, associate professor of history and associate provost at the University of Houston-Victoria, is a historian of “the long civil rights movement.” Her publications include Colonization and its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania, New York University Press; Pennsylvania Hall: A “Legal Lynching” in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell, Oxford University Press; “A Stalking Horse for the Civil Rights Movement”: Head Start and the Legacy of the Freedom Schools, The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of Arts & Letters in the South 52(1) Fall 2014; and “The Mythology of Post-Racial America: On the Shadowy Color Line in the Twenty-First Century,” in Race in America: How a Pseudo-Scientific Concept Shaped Human Interaction, edited by Patricia Reid-Merritt, Praeger. She currently is working on a biography of James Farmer.
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 Kathy Emery, Sylvia Braselmann, and Linda Gold, Freedom School Curriculum: Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964, accessed online. http://www.educationanddemocracy.org/FSCpdf/CurrTextOnlyAll.pdf, p. 5-6.
 Howard Zinn, “Schools in Context: The Mississippi Idea,” The Nation 199(16) 23 November 1964, 371-75.
 For more about Freedom Schools and their connection to Head Start and the Great Society’s educational agenda, see my article “’A Stalking Horse for the Civil Rights Movement’: Head Start and the Legacy of the Freedom Schools,” Southern Quarterly 52(1) Fall 2014, 115-33. For Johnson’s reliance on qualitative rather than quantitative reform, see Joshua Zeitz, Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House (New York: Viking, 2018), 2-3.
 Jackson Daily News 21 May 1965. See also “’A Stalking Horse’”.
 Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Lauren Bauer, “The Long-Term Impact of the Head Start Program,” Brookings, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-long-term-impact-of-the-head-start-program/.
 Barbara Arnwine and Marcia Johnson-Blanco, “Voting Rights at a Crossroads,” Economic Policy Institute 25 October 2013; James C. Cobb, “The Voting Rights Act at 50: How it Changed the World,” Time 6 August 2015, np (accessed online). http://time.com/3985479/voting-rights-act-1965-results/.
 Cobb, “The Voting Rights Act at 50.”
 Linda Darling-Hammond, “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education,” Brookings 1 March 1998; Janie Boschma and Ronald Brownstein, “The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools,” The Atlantic 29 February 2016; Chris Weller, “New Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Champions Vouchers and charter Schools – Here’s What That Means,” Business Insider 7 February 2017; Emilie Plesset, “U.S. Education Secretary Betsy De Vos Reopens the Charter School Debate,” Washington Week 13 March 2018; Scott Sargrod, “Rolling Back Rights for Students,” US News 7 March 2018.
 Gail Collins, “How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us,” The New York Review of Books 21 June 2012.
 Tova Wang, “2012 Election Lessons Learned: How Voters Stood Up Against Suppression, ID, and Intimidation,” Demos 15 November 2012, np (accessed online). http://www.demos.org/publication/2012-election-lessons-learned-how-voters-stood-against-suppression-id-and-intimidation
 Arnwine and Johnson-Blanco, “Voting Rights at a Crossroads”; Jens Manuel Krogstad and Mark Hugo Lopez, “Black Voter Turnout Fell in 2016, Even As A Record Number of Americans Cast Ballots,” Fact Tank (Pew Research Center 12 May 2017); Cobb, “The Voting Rights Act at 50.”
 Frederick Knight, “Why Black Democrats’ Historic Fight For the Ballot In Mississippi Matters,” PRI 23 August 2016.