School Beat: Book Review—Lessons From Freedom Summer

by Lisa Schiff on October 30, 2008

The modern Civil Rights movement, that period of action during the 1950s and 1960s to expose and eradicate the infringement of basic civil and human rights of African Americans, has proven to be one of the most significant events in the history of the United States. This work, unprecedented in scope, substance and style, involved sustained efforts to organize, protest, lobby, take legal action and educate. Many organizations and many people gave themselves to this work, transforming our nation by pushing us into the process of dealing with the legacies of slavery, a process in which we are still engaged and which will remain part of our future for some years to come.

One of the many important moments in the Civil Rights movement was a period called “Freedom Summer,” that took place in 1964. After years of working in the South towards the desegregation of public facilities and registering African Americans to vote, civil rights organizers planned a volunteer-infused summer of direct action, voter registration and community education in Mississippi. Freedom Summer would be a head-on challenge to the many barriers in place in the South used to prevent African-American residents from registering to vote. Tactics such as poll taxes, complicated applications, and impromptu oral tests on state constitutions were the official mechanisms for denying the vote, and then there were the unofficial means of physical intimidation, including beatings, arrests, house burnings and murder.

Freedom Summer was a crescendo in the resistance against such crimes, a crescendo that reached its high point in the effort by the movement’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to get seated at the 1964 Democratic Party convention in place of the Mississippi Democratic Party that refused to desegregate. The Freedom Summer strategy called for volunteers from the North to come to the South and support and work with the African-American residents of Mississippi who were fighting for their basic liberties. Many of the volunteers were white college students who came to work side-by-side with the people of the area to start schools and community centers that would serve as a framework from which to aid and support Mississippi citizens in their struggle for true enfranchisement.

Freedom Summer (and the Civil Rights movement as a whole) was a departure from top-down politics because not only did it succeed in the initial breaking down of so many despicable, discriminatory practices, but it ushered in a new way for people to work together to make the change needed in their lives. Central components were a commitment to non-violence and a focus on working along-side the most disenfranchised in a community, and questioning the fundamental ordering of society as a way to support their efforts to acquire and act on a basic component of citizenship—the secure right to participate in the democratic process by voting.

Mainstream knowledge of this transformative moment in the history of the United States is fairly thin. Our focus remains fixed on the powerful leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and on Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. Missing is a more thorough understanding of the degree of discrimination faced by so many people and the tremendous organizing wave that rose up to overcome that discrimination.

This history is powerful and too precious to be lost. Of particular concern is ensuring that this knowledge is passed on to today’s school-age folks, for whom our educational legislation dictates that history must be processed into commoditized textbooks and shoe-horned into standardized test formats.

Perhaps as an antidote to this situation, a new history of Freedom Summer, entitled Lessons From Freedom Summer, has just been released by Common Courage Press. Written by Kathy Emery, Linda Reid Gold, and Sylvia Braselmann, Lessons From Freedom Summer aims to provide a fresh view into this period by revealing the tremendous work that was accomplished by regular, everyday people. Beginning with the early Abolitionists, the book walks us through the steps that led to the summer of 1964, when volunteers from all over the country went to Mississippi to support and work with African-American residents to exercise their basic rights as citizens and human beings.

Over a thousand people, mostly white college students, participated in Freedom Summer, supporting local residents as they tried to register to vote, establishing teen centers, running schools that taught everything from reading, to math, to history, to sewing, to how to pass the voter registration tests designed to keep African-Americans disenfranchised.

The book’s underlying philosophy is that history is not made by isolated, charismatic individuals, but is made by all of us. As such, it attempts to underscore how the organizing leading up to and part of Freedom Summer was grounded in the community it served. At the same time, the book recognizes the contributions of many instrumental leaders from within and without the Mississippi, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and Bob Moses.

Freedom Summer’s major strength lies in the authors’ compelling accounts of the decisions, actions and circumstances that African Americans faced in their fight for civil rights and that their supporters faced alongside them. These stories, even if they are already familiar to the reader, are alternately chilling and inspiring. The entrenched discrimination and violence faced by the residents of Mississippi and by those who were supporting them is astounding. Countering this however, is the courage and steadfastness with which Freedom Summer participants persisted in this fight against racism. These are the tales of how the most disenfranchised communities worked with supporters to transform their communities, by refusing to accept things the way they always had been. Freedom Summer and its Freedom Schools (along with the community centers, day care services) provided a way for a critique of an unequal system to be embodied in collective action, action that exposed the to a wider public the wrongs that were being committed.

In addition to the stirring, detailed and informative accounts in Freedom Summer, the book also contains serious weaknesses, which take away from its overall effectiveness.

First, the book’s position as a counter to traditional text-book histories is only partially achieved. While Freedom Summer avoids the false reduction of history to the stories of high-profile individuals, it reproduces the filtering affect by introducing each subsection of the book with questions to keep in mind in order to maintain a “critical stance” while reading the text that follows. This strategy is extremely problematic as it interferes with the very type of independent thought the authors hope to encourage. The questions themselves are of varying quality, but the primary difficulty with them is that by presenting them before one has had a chance to read the text to which they refer, the authors are placing their own filter on the reader. Questions at the end of the section or chapter would have provided interesting jumping off points without interfering with one’s own analysis.

A second concern is with the book’s use of primary material. Freedom Summer incorporates a healthy selection of original texts, one with almost every sub-section of the book. These materials range from newspaper columns by abolitionists to the application form for volunteering in Freedom Summer. These very interesting pieces are difficult to identify as they are not clearly separated stylistically from the authors’ own words. In some areas, especially at the beginning, a few readings were required to determine where the original text began and ended.

A more significant problem is that while all of these items have an original source referenced, none of the documents appear in facsimile form and some have been edited to an unknown extent. Unfortunately this makes it impossible to be certain as to how accurately these documents have been presented, a serious flaw for any history that is taking the commendable step of putting the original materials in front of the reader.

Freedom Summer’s overall goal, to present a vital portion of United States history in a compelling, rich way is an incredibly important one and the book makes a substantial step towards meeting that goal. The drawbacks of the book are unfortunate and make it difficult to whole-heartedly recommend it. However anyone interested in getting a contextualized, on the ground perspective of Freedom Summer will find material of interest. Teachers and students coming to this time period in the 11th grade history curriculum will no doubt find the detailed accounts by the participants of this movement a refreshing and inspiring text. Readers who are willing to take apart and rework the structure of the book will likely to find a stimulating framework for discussing this history and its implications for today.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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