The Legacy of Freedom Summer

Edie Black teaches Freedom School at Mileston (Photo: ©1976, Matt Herron/Take Stock Photos)

This summer marks the 25th year of the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program.  The program faces tremendous challenges by a pandemic that disproportionately impacts communities of color across the nation. The anniversary also unfolds in the midst of nationwide rebellion and unrest prompted by police brutality.

Like the history that gave rise to the Freedom Schools in 1964, this education program will rise to the occasion and will overcome the unique adversities presented in 2020.  The Freedom Schools remain committed to reaching the communities made more vulnerable by COVID-19. They will also impart a culturally sustaining and equity-based curriculum that can be used in all schools to heal our communities.

Twenty-five years ago, Marian Wright Edelman – a civil rights pioneer who in 1965 was the first Black woman to pass the Mississippi bar exam – reignited the Freedom School program. The Freedom School program served over 2,000 students during the historic Freedom Summer program in Mississippi in 1964 – the largest voter registration project in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Freedom Schools were part of Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund –  the organization she founded in 1973 as an outgrowth of her work in Washington, D.C. as an advocate for low-income families and children. As a tireless children’s advocate, Edelman was committed to improving federal policies and programs spawned by the Civil Rights Movement.

CDF Freedom Schools have carried on the legacy of the freedom struggle. Providing two meals each day carried forth the ideas established in the Head Start program. Carrying forth a liberating curriculum based on political awareness and community engagement extended the principles of the Black Panther Liberation Schools. Working with parents on a weekly basis, the current Freedom School program also incorporates elements of the famed Citizenship School program that mobilized and educated tens of thousands of Black voters prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The modern Freedom Schools are education for liberation par excellence and one of the few, direct links to our civil rights past.

The curriculum and pedagogy inculcated in the schools represents the most progressive culturally sustaining pedagogy available today. School begins each day with Harambee – an affirming Afrocentric call to “let’s pull together” – replete with songs and chants and the Freedom School anthem, Labi Siffre’s “Something Inside So Strong.”  Books assigned in CDF Freedom Schools’ integrated reading curriculum are from award-winning Black authors committed to filling the gap created by generations of White publishers who refused to print the voice of authors of color.

The Freedom Schools also draw on elements of the Black tradition that challenge White progressives. The Children’s Defense Fund relies on private partnerships and donations from corporations and philanthropists – not unlike most charter schools – to meet the need. It is not uncommon to see CDF Freedom Schools in the sanctuary of a church – much like its historic predecessors. It was something championed by school choice advocates and staunch public education defenders alike – Freedom Schools resonate across the aisle. In fact, Edelman popularized the phrase “no child left behind,” which served as the masthead of George W. Bush’s popular though highly ineffective signature education reform policy,

Since the founding of the program, the Freedom Schools have served more than 150,000 children. School organizers have trained more than 170,000 teachers in the unique freedom school teaching style and curriculum – all of whom are trained at the Ella Baker Child Policy Institute at the historic Alex Haley farm in Tennessee. The program has expanded to nearly 200 sites across the nation.

The results have been impressive. The 2018 program reported significant gains, nearly 85 percent of students sustained or improved their literacy skills and acquisition over the course of the summer, which stymied the “summer reading loss” that plagues kids at the start of every school year. Moreover, parents share positive gains, marking that over 90 percent were interested in engaging with social action with their children.

Freedom Schools hit the mark and – like its historic predecessors in the movement – it is a model to follow.

Teachers are immersed in a culturally sustaining pedagogy that reaches all students, not only White and middle to upper class students. At a programmatic level, we see the value of small class sizes and an emphasis on reading. The program shows that engagement with the parents is critical to success.

The model also shows that community partnerships are essential to any program. The Freedom School program in Charlotte, North Carolina has developed a municipal-wide network of 18 schools with partnerships that include the public school district. In Bennettsville, South Carolina – Marian Edelman’s hometown – the local school district incorporates aspects of the Freedom School curriculum and pedagogy into their regular academic programming.

Additionally, children who begin as scholars in the program often grow up to become teachers in the program. They often, in turn, become lifelong advocates for the Freedom Schools if not actually employed by the Children’s Defense Fund or in our public schools.

Solutions posed by the Freedom Schools have been tried, tested, and approved. They are ready to roll out into traditional public schools.

As COVID-19 continues to threaten our nation and as the resistance movement grips the nation, the immediate future of the Freedom School program is uncertain. Some school organizers have cancelled programming, others have postponed, and still others push forward and reimagine CDF Freedom Schools upoon a virtual platform. But one thing is clear, the Freedom Schools will continue to provide a civil rights education program as we launch into the new school year.

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Kristal Clemons & Jon Hale

Kristal Moore Clemons is the National Director of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools. Prior to this role, she has been involved with CDF Freedom Schools over the last two decades. Follow her on Twitter @KrisClemonsPhD. Jon Hale is an associate professor of educational history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of 'The Freedom Schools: A History of Student Activists on the Frontlines of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement' (Columbia University Press, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @ed_organizer.