(Deutsche Übersetzung siehe unten)
A while ago I spoke about my research into the Mississippi Freedom Schools at a talk organised by a group of activists with a special interest in radical education, a term that has been in vogue in the art world for some time now. At the talk I screened a section of the documentary A regular bouquet, a black and white film produced by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to create awareness around Freedom Schools and the general Freedom Summer movement of 1964.
The section of the film I presented showed a group of children outside a small wooden church, playing various games in the grass around the building or dancing on the patio. All of them were African-American. Occasionally young white people in their early 20s took part, most of them volunteer college students who had come to Mississippi from the North that summer to help run the Freedom Schools and to support the wider movement for voter registration of black citizens. Subsequently the montage brought us indoors, where a white teacher was instructing a group of young African-American pupils sitting in rows. He was pointing at small sheets of paper on the wall, some drawings combined with some letters. The children, all of them smiling and holding their hands in the air, were clearly aware of the camera filming them. But this was a rather traditional literacy teaching situation. The children were used to public school segregation, and it was widely known that those for African-American pupils were notoriously underfunded and lacking in resources. In relative terms, only one sixth of the funding for public schools in Mississippi went to the black pupils. In this context, the Freedom Schools were something special. There, pupils were introduced to working in small group environments, instead of the over-crowded classrooms which they were used to. And there was a dedicated teacher, which was certainly not the norm in African-American schools, where at times there wasn’t any teaching staff at all. The schoolbooks they used were often hand-me-downs from white schools. They could read all the names of the white pupils who had used the book before they were dumped at their school. The schools in Mississippi at the time were divided between black and white even though segregation had been deemed unlawful by the US Supreme Court already in 1954. In 1964, the schools were still segregated, as were their lives in general, with poverty and illiteracy of African-American families being widespread.
What I experienced while presenting this research was a certain disengagement and criticality on behalf of some of the audience around the fact that traditional instruction and teaching in literacy was part of the pedagogy of the Freedom Schools. For some, these modes of pedagogy seemed to disqualify the project. In what follows I will reflect on this supposed contradiction, and try to understand why you cannot separate radical education from its concrete social-political context. That is if by radical education you mean education for social change. How can we learn from the history of struggle without projecting our privilege in terms of knowledge and experience onto the past? We are where we are today due to past education struggles for emancipation. This is especially important today as we are facing setbacks on many fronts within the educational system across the globe. One of them being an increasingly segregated educational experience according to economic structures, an educational divide between the wealthy and the poor.
Regarding the Freedom Schools’ pedagogy, the volunteers were not provided with detailed teaching instructions. The COFO or Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who were organising the program, merely handed out some notes and an outline curriculum – “If you want to begin the summer by burning the curriculum we have given you, go ahead!” it was said at the time. In Notes on teaching in Mississippi – Introduction to the Summer SNCC activist Jane Stembridge wrote:
“This is the situation: You will be teaching young people who have lived in Mississippi all their lives. That means that they have been deprived of decent education, from the first grade through high school. It means that they have been denied free expression and free thought. Most of all – it means that they have been denied the right to question. The purpose of the Freedom Schools is to help them begin to ask questions.”
“The right to ask questions” is not something that can be taught in a traditional way. One cannot be instructed in feeling the confidence it takes to ask questions about your conditions of life. One cannot be instructed in feeling the freedom to confront power asking about privilege. SNCC claimed that segregation already had made the black pupils believe that they were incapable of learning anything at all. Impoverished people, “who spend their working hours in the cotton fields and who are uneducated cannot … question the system of oppression which keeps them … and their children in the fields”.
But the intentions were to fulfill the gaps in basic schooling while at the same time raising critical awareness. This more instructional approach does not necessarily exclude criticality in education. Education will always be a power relation, no matter how free or experimental. In relation to the Freedom Schools the difference between the life prospects of the white volunteers from the North and the Afro-American pupils from the South obviously stands out – and raises questions about colonialism and class.
These considerations about academic instructions in unconventional educational contexts made me look a bit into how Paulo Freire worked with literacy training. At the same time, in the early 1960s, he was working in the North East of Brazil with groups of impoverished and illiterate people. In the initial stages, he taught 300 workers in the city of Angious to read and write in 45 days. In June 1963, the literacy program was extended in principle to the entire nation and between June 1963 and March 1964, training programs were developed in almost all state capitals. In 1964, about 20,000 discussion groups were planned but all this came to an abrupt stop due to a coup by the Brazilian military in March of that year. Freire was viewed as a radical, inducing revolutionary thoughts among the poor. This was not the case as Freire never promoted political ideas directly, instead raising people’s awareness about their living conditions. Freire was eventually exiled to Chile.
Freire’s literacy teaching method is divided into three stages. The first stage is the study of the given context, which is conducted through interviews between the facilitators and their students (learners as Freire calls them) – or put more simply, by means of group discussions. This stage is about bringing forward the daily struggle of life as experienced by the learners. In this process there is an incipient building of awareness of the forces that influence and form the life of illiterate people, by building the foundation of a vocabulary. The second stage is the selection of ‘generative words’ from the discovered vocabulary. In a Freedom School context generative words could be: fear, racism, exclusion, voting, hardship, police, courthouse, segregation, poverty, violence, hunger, housing, privilege, hate, etc. The generative aspect of these words is that they lead to other words. Stage three is the actual process of literacy training. Within Freire’s method, the generative words are depicted in pictorial form, showing the concrete meaning in the realities and situations of the learners’ lives. The generative words are broken down into syllables, for example fa-ve-la, and the family of syllables is shown: Fa, Fe, Fi, Fo, Fu. As they were decodifying the words, Freire believed that the learners would also be able to decodify the reality of the slums (fa-ve-la) where they lived.
When having a closer look at the aforementioned scene in the 1965 Freedom Schools documentary, the one which appears to be a traditional instruction situation, it is hard to determine what is actually going on in the classroom. A number of paper sheets are mounted on the wall. They are hand drawings of what could be a frying pan, a man with the word “high” written next to him, and a woman with a birthday cake. It could be a lesson around word sounds and rhymes: ‘fry’, ‘high’, etc. The vowel sounds “ee”, “ea”, “e-e” are written on another sheet of paper. The handwriting is childish in style, clearly made especially for the class, either by the kids or the teacher. The situation is most likely an improvised English language lesson using material developed together with the kids. This technique was suggested by the organiser Bob Moses, in one of the Freedom School manuals, and replaced the use of material created in a context far from life in Mississippi. The kids are of various ages, around 10 to 12 years old. The next image depicts a couple of adults sitting together with a white instructor reading a large book. The voice-over consists of personal accounts of some of the participants speaking about being adults and “not knowing a lot of reading and writing” – and how they, as parents to some of the kids, also benefitted from the Freedom Schools. This is followed by a particularly touching image of a seated woman and child, perhaps a mother and her young daughter, typing on two individual typewriters, looking as if they are both trying this for the first time. They could be typing the following testimony written by an unidentified Freedom School student:
“What the Summer Project Has Meant –
The Summer Project Ment So Much to Me. I Met New people.They taught us New things about our people, things that we hadn’t realized about. The life of famous colored people. We also learned about writing different letter, that was a big help. What I liked very much was the learning the meaning of lots of words. Words that I had been over but not knowing the real meaning.
The project meant much to me discussing health, food that prevent different diseases. And if you don’t get enough of food containing these vitamins, you may come in contact with these diseases. The Library means a great deal of help. We learn steps on how to use the library, which was very important.
All of the SNCC students were just what we needed. I pray that they come back again.”
In one ‘Summer of Freedom School Curriculum’ document from COFO the central aim of the Freedom Schools is described:
“One of the purposes of the Freedom School idea is to train and educate people to be active agents in bringing about social change. In order to accomplish this purpose, it is necessary to provide an educational experience that is geared to the needs of the students, that challenges the myths of our society, that provides alternatives, and directions for action.”
This is echoing Freire’s first stage of literacy teaching, understanding of the context as a means of educating in relation to the lives lived.
The ethos of asking questions, which shaped the Freedom Schools that emerged in Mississippi during the Summer of 1964, also had its impact on the suggested curriculum itself. Some notes on a possible curriculum were developed in preparational conferences held in New York, NY and in Meridian, MS during the spring of 1964. The approximately 800 student-volunteers from the North were told that they could use the notes or they could forget all about them and develop their own methodology when working with their students in the various small communities where they went. About 40 Freedom Schools were established and were most likely all different, according to the context and background of the volunteers as well as the school. About 4000 students were involved. The main part of the suggested curriculum consisted of six questions directed not only at the students, but at all participants at the various Freedom Schools. These questions make clear that all involved – teachers, parents, and students – were learners. The first set of questions concerned the pupils‘ motivation to participate in the program; the second set of questions regarded the participants’ relationship to their wider social context.
“The BASIC SET OF QUESTIONS:
1. Why are we (teachers and students) in Freedom School? 2. What is the Freedom Movement? 3. What alternatives does the Freedom Movement offer us?
The SECONDARY SET OF QUESTIONS:
1. What do „white people“ (the majority culture) have that we want? 2. What do „white people“ have that we don’t want? 3. What do we have that we want to keep?”
This pedagogy of questioning pointed towards a radical reflection on race, privilege and class which the participants had to engage in personally and collectively – since any critical relationship with reality stems from questioning the foundations of one’s reality. The emerging self-awareness gained from the first set of questions led in the second set of questions to a more confrontational stance within a society based on white supremacy.
One of the central objectives of the Freedom Schools and the Freedom Summer as a whole was voter registration. Only a fraction of black people were registered to vote in Mississippi at the time. People had to go to the local courthouse to register. There was a long tradition of intimidation and harassment by the police and other staff if a black person wanted to register. They had to go through a very complicated process to obtain their right to vote, a process that in practice meant that Afro-American citizens generally were denied registration. People were obliged to perform a literacy test, inform about their employment, etc.
As one black voter mentioned in the film, after informing about her employment while trying to register she had lost her job even before she returned home. Often the literacy tests were impossible to pass – and as one of the organizers of the Freedom Schools, Mary Varela, wrote, she had “no aspirations as to the relationship between teaching people to read and raising voter percentage. Rather the literacy classes would encourage blacks to join the civil rights movement”. Thus, the literacy training of the Freedom Schools had other objectives than just obtaining basic competencies, as acquiring these particular skills was a decisive part of broader awareness raising activities.
In the documentary there is a scene in which the children are working on their local school magazine, called the Peasant Green Magazine. One of the volunteers explains that they decided there should be five differing kinds of material in the school newspaper: News, stories and riddles, poetry, an editorial section, and history. The newspaper was written and edited by the pupils and contained their own stories collected and printed as a part of the activities of the Freedom Schools. What follows is an example of an article from the Freedom Star, published by the Meridian Freedom School:
“How I See Myself at ‘21’ or Over –
My aim in life is to be a lawyer. There are not enough Negro Lawyers in Mississippi defending their fellow brothers and sisters. Some people living in Mississippi leave after or before they finish school. I do not see myself in some fancy mansion nor do I see myself living in the scums of places. I just want to live in a decent home living in the neighborhood with people. When I say people I mean both black and white. I do not believe in Segregation. I want to help people. To stop this police brutality. I see myself as a decent, respectable citizen. I want to be a nice person. And I would like for people to treat me the same way. If I do be a lawyer or whatever my profession will be, I will not marry until I finish school, grade and law school, and have a job. I mean a good job. Not babysitting and housekeeping”.
Most Freedom Schools produced newspapers of some kind, among them Benton Country Freedom Train, Drew Freedom Fighter, Hattiesburg Freedom Press, Freedom Flame (Shaw, MS), and Students Voice of True Light (Hattiesburg, MS) just to name a few. In 1965 SNCC published Freedom School Poetry, an anthology of the poetry written and published by the pupils of the Freedom Schools expressing the hopes and hardship that interwove in their lives. Florence Seymore, from Gulfport, wrote a poem that made clear an understanding of what segregation meant in practice:
“Why Do They Hate Us?
What Has the Negro Done?
It’s enough to make you wonder,
it’s enough to make you cry,
That every race hates the Negro,
good Lord, I wonder why?
You can travel, and travel,
you can travel this country through,
You’ll find every race hates the Negro,
no matter what they do.
You can scrub and mop their kitchens,
and work from morning ‚til night‘
But every race hates the Negro,
and just won’t treat them right.
You can wash and shine their cars
and have their meals ready when they come,
Now tell me why do they hate us,
what has the Negro done?
They say that monkeys are our ancestors,
the beginning of our race,
But we have never killed a President,
kidnapping children is out of our place.”
The hatred and violence against the black communities, which was a part of daily life in Mississippi at the time, had an impact on the Freedom Summer campaign and the student volunteers that followed it to the South. The documentary A Regular Bouquet also addressed this aspect of the Freedom Summer, particularly by featuring the murders of three student volunteers in June 1964. The victims were James Chaney, a black activist from Meridian, Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two white activists from New York City. They were abducted while visiting a site they were considering for one of the Freedom Schools. The bodies were found months later in an earthen dam where they were buried. No one was initially charged for the crimes, but it was clear the volunteers were killed by white supremacy in one form or another. The crime revealed just how much hatred the objectives of the Freedom Summer provoked in the white South and beyond. The relentless violence endured by the black community provoked a life characterized by fear. The fact that two of the three killed volunteers were white northerners caused the media for once to care about the racist killings in the South. In some respects this paved the way for the Civil RIghts Act of 1964.
In my research I also want to look into the connection of the Freedom Schools to the wider student movement of the of the 1960s and especially the development of the Free University movement. Many of the Freedom School volunteers came back to the North charged with inspiration that made them reflect on their own schools and universities. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley was initiated in September 1964 with Mario Savio, a former Freedom Summer volunteer, considered one of its main protagonists. Savio suggested on several occasions that there should be a Berkeley Free University, an idea that eventually took shape when the activists in California saw that a Free University of New York had opened its doors near Union Square in 1965. One of the people offering courses at FUNY was Staughton Lynd who was involved in coordinating the Freedom School during the Freedom Summer. In an article written in August 1964 he states “Remember that education is above all a meeting between people. […] We realized that our own education had been dry and irrelevant all too often, and we determined to teach as we ourselves wished we had been taught“, echoing one of the volunteers’ testimonies in the voice-over of A Regular Bouquet. There he says: “In terms of communication, I am not so sure what we are offering teaching the Negros down here is as valuable as what we are learning from the Negro communities down here”.
A critique of the Freedom Summer and the Freedom Schools could involve drawing attention to the colonial and extractivist nature of the enterprise. The SNCC had for some years been very hesitant of inviting white activists to join the civil rights struggle of the south since they believed that Afro-Americans had to free themselves. When planning the Freedom Summer the SNCC organisers were well aware that by involving the largely white northerners they would be able to get political attention for their campaign and struggle, an attention they weren’t getting when they fought on their own for their own liberation. Although all involved in the Freedom Schools were learners, it could be said that some learners benefited more than others. The Freedom Summer was a crucial learning experience for many of the predominately white student volunteers that came from the North. They arrived back at their campuses charged with energy and political indignation that, I am sure, helped ignite the Student Movement in all its branches from 1964 onwards. Even though the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and their foundational Port Huron Statement was published in 1962, it was only in the fall of 1964 that the Free Speech Movement really exploded, followed by the Free University movement in 1965. While the educational situation in the North changed, it is a sad reality that racial and class segregation has been continuing to be a major problem in the public schools of the South.
The Freedom Schools practiced a combination of old and new forms of pedagogy, exercizing literacy with a teacher at the blackboard as well as project work such as the making of school newspapers. One could say that they were making their own school-books. Amid struggles, education tends to combine what you know with what you want to know, bringing together traditional forms of learning with more unbound and experimental forms. This was also the case with the Free University movement that carried many of the old university system’s structures with them in the early days, for example the rather traditional course structure with a somewhat conventional set-up between teachers and students. Quite similar to Karl Marx’s considerations on the transformation from Feudalism to Capitalism where he pointed out that during the transition to the new capitalist condition of production, remnants of Feudalism would still be present. There is, undoubtedly, a radical perspective of change and pushback against oppression and violence with the Freedom Schools in Mississippi in 1964. The revolutionary perspective of the Free Universities is clear in terms of their integration of politics and culture in action, pushing for new life conditions beyond the free universities and across society. These are lessons that contemporary discourses on radical education could learn from. Rather than getting stuck in their own theoretical formalism, it is time to ask who is educating whom, in which context, and for what purpose.