The Freedom Schools: Concept And Organization

by Staughton Lynd
[In the summer of 1964 the Southern movement reached its moment of greatest intensity: over 800 students from Northern universities went south to work in the voter-registration campaign, local community organizing, and in the creation of free structures and parallel institutions. Among them the freedom schools represented one of the most important and stimulating activities. Staughton Lynd had the responsibility of coordinating the freedom-school project. The following article was published in Freedomways in April 1965.]

People sometimes ask me how to start a Freedom School. This question seems almost funny. Few of us who planned the curriculum and administrative structure of the Mississippi Freedom Schools had any experience in Northern Freedom Schools. And in any case, our approach to curriculum was to have no curriculum and our approach to administrative structure was not to have any (I will explain this in a moment). So my answer to the question: "How do you start a Freedom School?" is, "I don't know." And if people ask, "What were the Freedom Schools like?" again I have to answer, "I don't know." I was an itinerant bureaucrat. I saw a play in Holly Springs, an adult class in Indianola, a preschool mass meeting in McComb, which were exciting. But who can presume to enclose in a few words what happened last summer when 2,500 youngsters from Mississippi and 250 youngsters from the North encountered each other, but not as students and teachers, in a learning experience that was not a school?

There was one educational experience for which I did most of the initial planning and which I took part in personally: the Freedom School Convention at Meridian on the week-end of August 7-9. Perhaps because this was the one "class" which I "taught," the Convention has loomed larger and larger in my mind as I have reflected on the summer. If I were to start a Freedom School now (and we are about to start one in New Haven), I would suggest: Begin with a Freedom School Convention and let that provide your curriculum.

The Freedom School Convention went a step beyond the thinking which took place before the summer in its implications for the administration and curriculum of a school "stayed on freedom." Originally we planned to have two residential schools for high school students who in the judgment of COFO staff had most leadership potential, with a network of twenty day schools feeding into them. Sometime in April it became apparent that sites for residential schools would not be forthcoming, and if they did, there would be no money to rent them. And we realized, after a few painful days, that this was a good thing. It meant that teachers would live within Negro communities rather than on sequestered campuses. It meant that we would have to ask ministers for the use of church basements as schools. In short, it meant we would run a school system without buildings, equipment or money (which we did: less than $2,000 passed through my office in Jackson in the course of the summer, about half of it for film rental).

It meant, too, that each school would be on its own, succeeding or failing by improvisation without much help from a central point. In my own mind the image which kept recurring was that of the guerrilla army which "swims in the sea" of the people among whom it lives. Clearly, whether we swam or drowned depended on the naked reaction of Negro children and their parents. No apparatus of compulsion or material things could shield us from their verdict. At the Oxford orientation, I kept repeating that when the Freedom School teachers got off the bus and found no place to sleep, despite previous assurances, and no place to teach, because the minister had gotten scared; when they were referred to an old lady of the local church for help in finding lodging, and to a youngster hanging around the COFO office for help in finding students„as they did these things, they would be building their school, their teaching would have begun. After about a week we knew that somehow, some way it was working. We had expected 1,000 students at the most; I can remember the night when I wrote on a blackboard in the Jackson COFO office: "1,500 students in Freedom School. Yippee!"

The Freedom School Convention went a step beyond this. For once the Freedom School coordinators (our word for "principals") approved the idea of a young peoples' mock convention, coinciding with the statewide convention of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the young people took over. They became the administrators. About a dozen students from all over the state met in Jackson to plan the convention (out of this group, incidentally, came a new impetus for the Mississippi Student Union). The Meridian Freedom School agreed to play host to the Convention, partly because Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman had been killed attempting to start a Freedom School near Meridian, partly because Meridian possessed the palace of the Freedom School circuit, a three-story Baptist seminary which could easily house 100 delegates. Meridian young people, therefore, took on the complicated task of finding lodging and arranging transportation. The planning committee worked out a program. Essentially it was workshops each morning, plenary session each afternoon, and a Freedom School play Saturday night. Joyce Brown of McComb and Roscoe Jones of Meridian were chosen as the Convention's principal officers. And not only did the youngsters plan the Convention. At the Convention, there was a noticeable change in tone between the first and second days. By Sunday, these teenagers were rejecting the advice of adults whether in workshops or plenary sessions, for they had discovered they could do it themselves. Beyond the Convention one could discern still one more stage in the development of academic self-government. A resolution of the Convention pledged the support of all the schools to a Freedom School in the Delta, planning to boycott the public school there. Here was a program not only executed by the youngsters, but initiated by them. The curriculum of next summer's Freedom Schools, it has been suggested, may be built around preparation for a statewide boycott.

Indeed the Freedom School Convention's implications for curriculum were more revolutionary than its implications for administration. The curriculum presented to the teachers at Oxford had been drafted by Noel Day. Essentially it was a series of questions, beginning with the students' most immediate experience of housing, employment and education, and working out to such questions as: What is it like for Negroes who go North? What are the myths of our society about the Negro's past? What in Mississippi keeps us from getting the things we want? Beyond this, teachers were given some fragmentary written material on Negro history, and the advice to emphasize oral rather than written instruction. We were afraid that as a predominantly white group of teachers we would be rejected. The fear was unnecessary; but it helped us to break away from the conventional paraphernalia of education, to remember that education is above all a meeting between people. We said at Oxford: If you want to begin the summer by burning the curriculum we have given you, go ahead! 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.

But ideas can run only a certain distance beyond experience; as in administration, so in curriculum, we had a lot to learn. We learned that students can and should make their own curriculum. How? Simple. Already in March at a curriculum planning conference in New York City it was my belief that the curriculum should be built around the political platform of COFO's Congressional candidates. Mississippi suggested something more. Curriculum should be built around the political platform the students themselves create. For this was what the Freedom School Convention was. Our emphasis at this convention was not (like that of the FDP) on people, but on program. We sought to provide a model for how people can democratically put together a political platform. The students of each Freedom School asked: If we could elect a mayor (or a state legislator, or a senator) what laws would we ask him to pass? Having drawn up a program in this way, each school sent delegates to Meridian, where in eight workshops„on public accommodations, on housing, on education, etc.„they put together the twenty-odd platforms of the different schools, and reported the results to the plenary session.

I think now it would have been better if the schools had begun with such a convention, and if the statewide program brought back to each school by its delegates had then become the curriculum for the summer.

Saturday morning the Convention began. Over the front of the room was a large handpainted sign: "Freedom Is A Struggle." At one side was another neatly-lettered sign with the times and places of workshops and plenary sessions. At lunch we gathered around Roscoe Jones and sang and sang. That evening the Holly Springs Freedom School presented "Seeds of Freedom," a play based on the life of Medgar Evers. At the end, the girl playing Mrs. Evers said she would carry on her husband's struggle, and each member of the cast ("students" and "teachers") told why they had come to Freedom School. Then the Free Southern Theater, a group of professional quality, organized by SNCC's John O'Neal and Gilbert Moses (no relation to Bob), presented Martin Duberman's In White America. It too had an interpolated ending. Susan Wahman, wife of Tom Wahman who helped me with Freedom School administration, spoke the words which Rita Schwerner had said to President Johnson: "I want my husband." Half a program had been adopted Saturday afternoon, the rest Sunday afternoon, after a second round of morning workshops. A. Philip Randolph addressed the youngsters on the need for economic as well as political programs, something their program showed that they already knew. Jim For-man, SNCC's Executive Secretary, talked about the students of Africa who went on to higher education but came back to their people to put this education to work. Bob Moses, characteristically, asked the Convention questions. Did they want to carry on Freedom Schools in this winter? Why? Did they want Freedom School after public school, or instead of public school? Why? What about the problem of graduating from an unaccredited school? Most of the delegates favored returning to public school and attempting to improve them (here was the seed of the idea of boycott).

At the end of Sunday afternoon all were exhausted, as always at conventions. We struggled on to the end of the program. With a joyful shout, the program was declared adopted. Then one young man asked for the floor. "Wait," he said, "I move that copies of this program be sent to every member of the Mississippi legislature, to President Johnson,' and to the Secretary General of the United Nations [tumultuous applause], and„wait, wait„a copy to the Library of Congress for its permanent records [pandemonium]."

He was asking that the program of the Mississippi Freedom School Convention be taken seriously. I think it should be. The Civil Rights Movement has been strangely neglectful of program. Who remembers the specific demands of the March on Washington, for instance? What planks were advocated by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party? It is true enough that the central demand was in the one case for a civil rights bill, and in the other for seating at the Democratic Convention; and this was as it should have been. But in the not very distant future candidates running for Congressional office will be real, not mock, candidates, and will have to declare themselves intelligently on a variety of issues. These candidates may come out of Freedom Schools. If we do not take their program seriously, it means not taking their ideas seriously. If we do not take their ideas seriously, we should ask ourselves what the Schools are for.

Meridian, Miss. Aug. 8-9, 1964





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