The idea of the freedom schools originated as part of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Project when Charles Cobb, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worker in Mississippi, suggested a two-month school session for tenth- and eleventh-grade students. The freedom schools initially sought to fill gaps in what African American youth were learning in Mississippi schools, to give African American youth a broad summer intellectual and academic experience that they could share with their fellow students, and to form the basis for statewide student action such as school boycotts. The freedom schools subsequently changed to conform to conventional academic standards, offering leadership development, remedial academics, information on contemporary issues, and a nonacademic curriculum.
In the summer of 1964, Mississippi had forty-one freedom schools in twenty communities across the state, with a total of seventy-five teachers and 2,138 students—twice as many as Cobb and other leaders had expected. Most schools had five or six teachers and between seventy-five and one hundred students, who ranged in age from preschoolers to seventy-year-olds, requiring modifications to the original teaching program, which had been designed for high school students.
Most freedom schools offered core curriculum courses in black history and civics in the morning and “special interest” courses in the afternoons. Classes for adults were held during the evenings and usually included informal civics discussions and reading instruction. The students were fond of the special interest courses in creative writing and foreign languages as well as the new knowledge that they obtained about African American history in the core curriculum courses. The freedom school teachers reported that they learned a great deal from working with the adults in the evening classes.
The freedom schools cooperated with the Mississippi Caravan of Music (a project of the Council of Federated Organizations), while the Free Southern Theater provided cultural entertainment for freedom school students. The Mississippi Caravan of Music was organized by Robert and Susan Cohen, who presented folksingers such as Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, and Cordell Reagan in concerts and informal workshops around the state.
Perhaps the freedom schools’ greatest contributions were their publications and the Mississippi Student Union. The freedom schools published an excellent volume of poetry written by students. In addition, local freedom schools published newspapers with engaging titles such as the Freedom Flame, the Freedom Journal, and the Freedom Press. The publications contained essays, poems, and other material written by the students.
Freedom schools held a statewide convention in a Baptist seminary in Meridian in August 1964. All of the state’s freedom schools sent delegates, and they accepted as their main ideological statement the Palmer’s Crossing Declaration of Independence, a reworking of the original Declaration of Independence. In addition, the students called for school boycotts and drafted position statements on public accommodations, housing, education, health, foreign affairs, federal aid, job discrimination, the plantation system, civil liberties, law enforcement, city maintenance, voting, and direct action. The students passed a resolution in support of the Mississippi Student Union and founded the Young Democratic Clubs of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- John F. McClymer, Mississippi Freedom Summer (2004)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Daniel Perlstein, History of Education Quarterly (Autumn 1990)
- Mary Aickin Rothschild, A Case of Black and White: Northern Volunteers and the Southern Freedom Summers, 1964–65 (1982)
- William Sturkey and Jon N. Hale, ed., To Write in the Light of Freedom: The Newspapers of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools (2015)