In 1964, courageous young people from across the country came to Mississippi intent on fighting against deeply entrenched racist systems that told the state’s Black citizens they weren’t worthy of basic rights or bodily safety. Set against the recent, brutal deaths of three freedom fighters, the Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers targeted two pillars of empowerment—education and voting rights—and set to the dangerous task of extending those to Black Mississippians.
The CDF Freedom Schools® program that we have operated for 25 years as of this summer was built in that model of the first freedom schools run that summer, and it is deeply rooted in the principles of intergenerational servant leadership that defined the Civil Rights Movement. These twin pillars of voting rights and education are just as vital this year, in the run-up to a crucially important election and when the rights of Black people—including voting rights—are threatened at every turn.
Freedom Summer activists, June 1964. Source: Ted Polumbaum Collection/Newseum
Staff picture from an early CDF Freedom School in Bennettsville, SC.
Summer 2020 CDF Freedom Schools scholar.
Shaquite (blue dress) at CDF Freedom Schools staff training, 2018.
Hear from Shaquite Pegues, Director of Ella Baker Leadership Development, CDF Freedom Schools:
I’ve been entrenched in the Freedom Schools way for over 20 years, having first been a scholar at the CDF Freedom Schools site in Bennettsville, SC. Many of my family members served as teachers and servant leader interns within the program, so the Freedom Schools way quickly became a norm. While attending the program, I fell in love with the energy, the books, the activities, the interns, the encouragement, and so much more. Through Freedom Schools, I gained a love of reading, I strengthened my leadership and public speaking skills, and I solidified the desire to pursue a career in education.
Freedom Schools has played an integral part in every aspect of my life. I will be forever indebted to CDF and the CDF Freedom Schools program for growth and endless opportunities.
I am now the Director of Ella Baker Leadership Development for the CDF Freedom Schools program. I joined the national CDF Freedom Schools staff in 2008, after serving as a junior servant leader, Servant Leader Intern, Ella Baker Trainer, Site Coordinator, and Project Director.
I am a native of Bennettsville, SC, and I oversee the local CDF Freedom Schools summer and afterschool programs there while also practicing the lessons of servant leadership in many other ways. I earned a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and a master’s degree from Nova Southeastern University. I have received a number of awards and recognitions over the years, but none greater than the honor of working with the Children’s Defense Fund to level the playing field for children.
Black children and families are disproportionately suffering the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis that it has caused. Systemic racism and white supremacy have created disparities that hold Black children back, and they are being widened and magnified daily by the pandemic.
Amidst all of that, the CDF Freedom Schools program is as important today as the freedom schools were in the summer of 1964. The CDF Freedom Schools program is led by servant leader interns who are trained to help children find a love of learning and pride in their identities, giving them the tools they need to make a difference. The program helps Black children understand that change is in their hands and shows them examples of historic change-makers, young and old.
Late civil rights giant Representative John Lewis made this point himself when he told college-aged servant leader interns at their training in 2014:
Be bold, be brave, be courageous, speak up, speak out. You must get out there and push and pull and help change things. And bring about a nonviolent revolution, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas.
This summer, as has been the case for 25 summers, that revolution of ideas is taking root in CDF Freedom Schools across the country—even if the programs look a little different this year due to the pandemic. Just last month, K-12 CDF Freedom Schools scholars led a campaign to tell adults in their communities why their votes matter and demand that their voices be heard at the polls. To them, the connection is intrinsic: education + voting = power.
Those children were bold, courageous, and not afraid to speak out, because they learned to harness that power at CDF Freedom Schools. This summer, of all summers, we need to celebrate that. And as we all head to the polls in November, I hope you’ll remember that all children deserve to be heard, to be cared for, and to know that they matter. Now, more than ever, children are observing how we respond and how we stand up for them. They are looking for our validation of their voices and efforts, and they need adults to keep them in mind when they vote in November!
As another civil rights icon, Reverend C. T. Vivian, said to CDF Freedom Schools servant leader interns the following year, “this is the moment we’ve waited for… It’s up to us to create the world we really want.”
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