You could be forgiven for thinking, as I did, that the concept of freedom schools relates to the philosophy of such establishments as Summerhill et al (see Democratic education). However, a deeper level of research uncovers what can only be described as a brave attempt by African Americans to defend what they considered to be their basic civil right, namely, the provision of voting rights for the oppressed African American population in the deep South of the USA.
Such African Americans were of the opinion that educating their people (an opportunity denied them) would provide the mental impetus to forge forward with their agenda of equality.
As an educationalist myself, the information that I uncovered was indeed a humbling experience, serving to highlight the things that we take for granted in the United Kingdom. It is hard to imagine that such oppression of the African Americans was so prevalent in recent times.
The concept of Freedom Schools was the inspiration of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) early in the 1960’s. Such organisations were determined to fulfil their primary objective of ending the political disenfranchisement of Blacks in the deep South, concentrating their efforts in Mississippi. Only 6.7 percent of Blacks in that state were registered to vote, the lowest percentage in the country.
Such statistics resulted in the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), quickly acquiring membership of 80,000 people, who put forward 68 delegates to attend the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City to challenge the attendance of the all white Mississippi representation.
To underpin their efforts, Freedom Schools were established in June 1964. Thirty such schools were established in towns throughout Mississippi. The concept of such schools was to empower both children and adults to exercise their civil and voting rights. As you may well imagine, such schools (and the homes of the attendees) were often the target of white mobs. The summer of 1964 alone witnessed the firebombing of 30 black homes and 37 white churches.
Charles Cobb, a Howard University student, was the person responsible for proposing the Freedom School project late in 1963. He was explicit in his opinion of its purpose. Namely,
‘ to create an educational experience for students which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities , and to find themselves – ultimately new directions for action.’
By providing the African American students with the basic literacy and citizenship skills, it was envisaged that such students would become a formidable voice of the civil rights movement. The pen is mightier than the sword?
As such, the curriculum was a straightforward one. It was hoped to bring about a mental revolution through the delivery of reading and writing skills, together with thought provoking discussions of black history. All students studied the basic civil rights course, with the option of studying for the more academic subjects (algebra, chemistry) also on offer. The full outline of the Mississippi Freedom School Curriculum, 1964, can be found at: http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/courses/ci407ss/freedomschools.html
Students at Freedom schools were very often taught in a church, or church basement, as well as outdoors. Very often they were targeted by white mobs, as were the homes of any African American involved in the campaign. I will certainly think twice before complaining when one of my computers fails to work!
In spite of such white oppression, Freedom schools served to leave behind a positive legacy. The attention brought to the nation by the subject of black disenfranchisement led eventually to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, an Act which outlawed the prevention of blacks from voting.
Freedom schools provided the African Americans with a new consciousness and confidence in political action, as well as becoming a model for future social programs. Who knows what impact such an organisation had on alternative educational institutions?
Events surrounding the founding of Freedom Schools
Mississippi Freedom School Curriculum, 1964
Formal outline of curriculum
The McComb Freedom School Play
General outline with curriculum information.