Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche and Ricky Best.
You are martyrs in the movement against racism and bigotry and Islamophobia in America. For this generation, you are our Mississippi Freedom Riders. May we all have your courage in the face of adversity. You did what each of us should do. My heart is broken that standing up for what’s right cost you your life. It’s just not right. I’m afraid, though, this loss is a painful sign of the time we are in.
Freedom Riders Julia Aaron and David Dennis sit aboard an interstate bus as they and 25 other civil rights activists are escorted by Mississippi National Guardsmen on a violence-marred trip between Montgomery, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi. June 2, 1961
Young people named it the Freedom Summer Project. It was the largest campaign to register voters—in 1964, an election year—and it was the most significant demonstration of African Americans’ political strength in the Civil Rights Movement. Congressman John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), wrote that the objective of Freedom Summer was to “force a showdown between the local and federal government.” One significant yet overlooked part of this history is the way activists moved beyond the ballot box to politicize the right to an education.
A segment of the Freedom Riders, activists who painstakingly sat in at segregated bus terminals in 1961, organized the project. When they moved to Mississippi to register voters, young people called them “Freedom Fighters.” Their presence inspired a level of terrorism that had not been seen in the South since Reconstruction. From June to August 1964 alone, police arrested more than 1,000 protesters and local segregationists murdered three freedom workers, assaulted over 80 activists, opened fire on demonstrators over 35 times, and set fire to 35 churches. Activists remained undeterred. During the course of the summer they successfully pressured Congress to end a seven-week filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Fifty years later, it is clear that this struggle for a quality education was just as important as the right to vote. In the midst of the violence that summer, young people still in middle and high school joined the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement. They participated in marches and demonstrations. They served time in jail. But the story of the Freedom Schools and the struggle for educational quality was relegated to the back pages of the New York Times.
If the civil rights revolution was to succeed, organizers reasoned, African Americans still in their teens had to be properly educated. As more than 2,000 college students from across the country volunteered to register voters, a select minority opted to teach in 41 “Freedom Schools”—alternative middle and high schools that taught the art of resistance and the strategies of protest. The United Federation of Teachers in New York sent the largest contingent of teachers, and over 2,500 students were ready to greet them.
The Freedom Schools raised questions about the very nature of American democracy—in particular, how to provide a quality education to all citizens, a still-unrealized promise that had been embedded in the monumental Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954). In 1964, a small yet vocal number of African American students opted to boycott the public schools altogether. They questioned the logic of entering white classrooms that had reacted violently to desegregation orders. For students who boycotted their public schools, Freedom Schools served as a replacement for conventional classrooms.
Other Freedom School students remained in their segregated schools once the summer was over but demanded improvements. They insisted that white educators include African American history and literature in the curriculum. They pushed back against the goals of vocational education that typically defined black education and made it clear that they wanted preparation for college. Through it all, political consciousness remained paramount. When Freedom School students were suspended for wearing “One Man, One Vote” buttons in the Delta, students walked out and shut down the school. The court case that followed was used as precedent inTinker v. Des Moines (1969), which protected students’ right to free speech.