Freedom Schools: The Curriculum

— Marty Oppenheimer

MISSISSIPPI’S SCHOOLS WERE the last in the South to remain totally segregated after Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional. The Black public schools were notoriously underfunded and many were in decrepit condition. Students were learning little.

In 1961 in McComb, Mississippi, students walked out of their segregated high school to protest the suspension of a student for participating in a sit-in. SNCC quickly opened an alternative “Non-Violent High” where staffers taught Black history, literature, and art. All of the SNCC teachers were convicted of contributing to the delinquency of minors and sentenced to six months. This school became one of the models for the Freedom Schools of Freedom Summer.

The proposal for the schools came from SNCC staffer Charlie Cobb in late 1963 as plans for Freedom Summer were being drafted. The volunteers who would take on teaching responsibilities received a week of training in Oxford, Ohio.

SNCC prepared a document, “Notes on Teaching in Mississippi,” which outlined the conditions under which they would be teaching, described the deprived nature of the potential students’ learning, and laid out the curriculum including a “core curriculum” of courses in leadership development: Black history, history of the civil rights movement, and current events.

 Other courses included remedial math, science, and debate. Cultural activities led to the production of student newspapers in many schools. But equally important was SNCC’s attention to pedagogy: “The purpose of the Freedom Schools is to help (the students) to begin to question,” and that meant that the teachers would also ask questions.

The majority of the volunteers were women. A number of them had teaching experiences that used traditional methods involving unquestioning obedience to teachers’ authority. This would be challenged. Students would be able to express themselves and learn to question authority and thereby also question the social structures that were responsible for their oppression.(1)

Role-playing had been an essential component of the Oxford training in non-violence, and this was carried over to the schools. All sorts of scenarios were played out, from confrontations with the police to sitting-in tests of segregated facilities to chairing a meeting.

At the high point of the summer there were approximately 50 Freedom Schools with a total enrollment of some 3,000 students throughout the state. In McComb the Freedom School opened despite the bombing of three churches within a week. In Hattiesburg, Vernon Dahmer’s home, five schools opened.

In some locales ministers refused to open their churches to the schools for fear of bombings. The schools met in whatever building was available no matter how shabby, and sometimes just outdoors. Where necessary, teachers, students and local parents built structures to shelter the schools. On weekends many teachers, sometimes together with older students, canvassed to get local Blacks to register to vote.

The effectiveness of the schools in political training was in evidence when students held a convention in early August. It was organized by the Mississippi Student Union, a state-wide Black high school student organization. Here students debated and passed resolutions on a vast range of issues, from equal access to public accommodations to demands for decent housing for tenant farmers to foreign policy (“The United States should stop supporting dictatorships in other countries…”).

The schools also had important effects on older Black citizens, who saw from the students’ courage that the oppressive status quo could change.

As for the teachers who were returning home, their Mississippi experience challenged many of them to try new methods and create curricula more directly relevant to the actual lives of their students and their families. Many would also participate in alternative educational experiments and in social justice movements. Some of the college professor volunteers would soon participate in the anti-war teach-ins.

Note

  1. Len Holt, The Summer That Didn’t End: The Story of the Mississippi Civil Rights Project of 1964. (Da Capo Press, 1992), ch. VI; Bruce Watson, Freedom Summer (Penguin Books, 2010), 136-141, 227-228.
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May/June 2014, ATC 170

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