As a brand new law school graduate in 1963 I was fortunate enough to receive one of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF)’s first two fellowships to help young attorneys seeking to practice in the South. After a year of intensive preparation at LDF’s New York City headquarters under the tutelage of an extraordinarily gifted and committed band of attorneys, I opened a law office in Jackson, Mississippi. God was headed south to Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and I went along for the scariest, most exhilarating, most rewarding, and most challenging years any human being could hope for. I moved to Mississippi at an extraordinary moment—just in time to witness firsthand and assist the unfolding of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project.
The Mississippi Freedom Summer Project engaged college students from around the country to work together with local Black community members to open up Mississippi’s closed society and demand basic human and civil rights for all Mississippians. Hundreds of White middle-class students brought visibility to the too long invisible and incredibly courageous struggles of Mississippi’s Black citizens for simple justice and the right to vote. While attending one of the training sessions at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio designed to prepare the White students for Mississippi’s harsh realities the horrible news of the disappearance of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner after the three had left the Ohio training to return to Mississippi to investigate the burning of Mount Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County reached us. Mount Zion Methodist Church was a planned Freedom School site in that county. A huge pall and fear swept over all of us after hearing about their disappearance. Bob Moses urged everyone to think hard about the grave dangers involved in the summer project and whether they still wanted to participate. A very few went home. Most determined to continue in the movement that over the next few months laid the groundwork for transforming Mississippi and ultimately our nation.
The Freedom Schools were designed to keep Black children and youths out of harm’s way and give them a richer education experience than Mississippi public schools offered them. Some of the student Freedom Summer volunteers were trained to teach in these “schools,” held in church basements, on back porches, in parks, and even under trees. I remember visiting a Freedom School under a tall old oak tree in Greenwood, Mississippi and hearing Pete Seeger sing. They provided reading instruction, a humanities curriculum including creative writing, a general mathematics and science curriculum, and even French. They also taught subjects the public schools did not, including Black history and constitutional rights, and covered the freedom movement in detail—encouraging students to be independent thinkers and problem solvers and become agents of social change in their own communities. More than 3,000 children, teens, and some adults attended the Freedom Schools that summer.
Over twenty years ago the Children’s Defense Fund began proudly drawing on the 1964 Freedom Schools tradition, and this summer’s CDF Freedom Schools® theme is “Freedom Summer to Freedom Schools: Changing the Odds for Children,” honoring the 50th anniversary of the historic Mississippi Freedom Summer.
The CDF Freedom Schools program seeks to build strong, literate, and empowered children prepared to make a difference in themselves, their families, communities, nation, and world today. By providing summer and after-school reading enrichment for children who might otherwise not have access to books, Freedom Schools play a much needed role in helping curb summer learning loss and close achievement gaps. The CDF Freedom Schools program also gives children safe spaces and they are taught by college student mentors from the communities where they live and who look like them. It’s hard to be what you can’t see. The program provides an exciting integrated reading curriculum including carefully chosen developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant books. One child characterized them as “being about our lives and giving us hope.” Children receive two meals and a snack every day in the summer program. Parents are engaged through weekly workshops and child “scholars” are taught nonviolent conflict resolution and critical thinking skills and required to engage in community service and social action projects. They learn that they are not citizens in waiting but can make a difference right now.
For a week every June college age servant leader interns and Freedom Schools site coordinators attend the Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute at CDF’s Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee (near Knoxville) to prepare to teach and lead at Freedom Schools sites. Approximately 1,450 college age servant leaders and site coordinators will participate this year. The Freedom Schools program is a servant leadership incubator for two generations—the children served and the college servant leaders who teach and serve them. I am proud that many of our college age servant leaders have gone on to become committed teachers and school administrators. We are eager to help prepare a pipeline of desperately needed Black and Latino male teachers for our nation’s public schools.
The CDF Freedom Schools program helps children fall in love with reading, increases their self-esteem, and generates more positive attitudes toward learning—and is a key part of CDF’s work to ensure a level playing field for all children. In partnership with local congregations, schools, colleges and universities, community organizations, and secure juvenile justice facilities (nine this summer), more than 113,000 children have already had the Freedom Schools experience. This summer community CDF Freedom Schools partners will serve 12,500 children in 87 cities and 28 states and the District of Columbia. All CDF Freedom Schools “scholars” will be encouraged to dream big, set high expectations for themselves, and determine what they can do to help make their communities, nation, and world better just as children and poor adults in Mississippi did in 1964 with courageous young Black and White leaders. Young children need to know about the quiet leadership of Bob Moses and Dave Dennis and the courageous sacrifice of the murdered Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Next year I am determined to make sure that there is a CDF Freedom Schools site established for the children of Neshoba County at the site of the rebuilt Mount Zion Methodist Church honoring the three young men who gave their lives. All children and adults must know and share what they did and the legacy they are bound to uphold. Learn more about the CDF Freedom Schools program and how you can help keep the hope and promise of Freedom Summer alive for a new generation of children.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.