Hard Lessons

Forty years after Freedom Summer, civil rights veterans say the struggle has shifted -- but is far from over.



For a moment, you could almost zero in on the man holding the flaming torch as the hero at the center of the story. But then John O'Neal passes the flame to another, who passes it to another person gathered in the circle, and it becomes clear that this is about more than one or even a dozen individuals.

"The concept of Freedom Schools is bigger than any one of us, any of our organizations," says Curtis Muhammad, taking the torch in his turn. "Freedom School is about building unity."

Inside of the Kuji Center on Race Street, molded plastic chairs and mustard-colored walls block out a nondescript space. If you didn't know better, you might think this knot of 50-odd people is taking part in an office retreat or an intergenerational church mixer. The participants are black and white. They range from from preteens to seventysomethings.

They're here on this July Sunday because they share a struggle. Years ago, Muhammad, a Mississippi native, risked his life to join the civil rights movement in his home state. Corinne Freeman Barnwell left her job in Washington, D.C., to teach as a volunteer in a Freedom School in 1964. Dodie Simmons staffed the New Orleans office of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), where she worked on voter registration drives. Jerome Smith had been beaten and abused in Southern jails so many times by 1964 that he was educating Mississippi activists about what to expect if -- or when -- they were arrested.

As people grasp the metal backyard torch, they speak a few words about the part they had played in the struggle. Then they pass the torch to activists in later, parallel efforts -- labor or housing or anti-racism movements. Several staff members from The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, the anti-racist organizing group that is sponsoring this gathering, speak. "In 1964 in McComb, you'd hear that Freedom School was subversive," says David Billings, a core trainer for the People's Institute who also grew up Mississippi. "And it was!"

Finally the torch passes to a group of teens wearing green People's Youth Freedom School T-shirts They were the staff members and students of this summer's Freedom School, the eighth session of the youth training program to be held in New Orleans under the People's Institute banner. The young people had already made their speeches outside, under a blazing July sun. "We stand on your shoulders," said 19-year-old Ariel Jeanjacques, a student at Tulane University. A member of the first (1997) Freedom School class here in the St. Thomas neighborhood, Jeanjacques now works as a trainer.

Inside, the torch passing comes to a close with a unity prayer and a moment of silence. "I'm glad this isn't just nostalgia," says one member of the circle. "The only tribute to activism is more activism."

THIS YEAR MARKS THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY of The Summer Project, a massive mobilization of civil rights volunteers who worked to open the vote to blacks in Mississippi in 1964. That summer, white volunteers invaded the state to teach the literacy skills required of blacks who wished to register. Guided by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist Bob Moses and with a curriculum shaped by Spelman College professor Staughton Lynd, the Freedom Schools taught basic literacy and courses ranging from civics to the history of slavery, along with culture and recreation, and leadership development. Although it wasn't officially outlined in Lynd's instructions to teachers, self-expression became central to the Freedom School experience.

"People learn more from what they do than from what we do to them," says O'Neal, founder of Free Southern Theater and director of the Freedom Schools in 1964. The very act of sitting in a circle and taking the opportunity to speak -- and to listen -- had a galvanizing effect on participants, he says.

The Summer Project began as a way to draw national attention to the South. By 1963, SNCC was in its third year of organizing in Mississippi but was making little progress because of widespread intimidation. Some who tried to register to vote were beaten or killed, and many organizers were jailed, threatened or killed, or they disappeared. But the victims were black, and neither federal law enforcement agencies nor the national press responded. "The logic ran as follows: if the murders, beatings and jailings SNCC workers had endured in Mississippi had not been enough to stir public attention, perhaps America -- and, in turn, the federal government -- would take notice if those being beaten and shot were the sons and daughters of privileged white America," wrote Douglas McAdam in his 1988 book Freedom Summer. More than 1,000 volunteers answered the call and converged on Mississippi. Lynd, who coordinated the Mississippi Freedom Schools, estimates there were 41 Freedom Schools with about 2,000 students in all.

Ten days into the campaign, on June 21, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney -- all civil rights activists, two of them white -- were arrested and handed over to Ku Klux Klan members by local police in Philadelphia, Miss. The fact that they were killed that night would not be confirmed for weeks. By then, though, the state was crawling with FBI agents and journalists. Violence continued through the summer, but it would no longer go unnoticed. By June 25, Walter Cronkite was telling viewers that the whole country was watching Mississippi.

All that happened long ago, and history books generally refer to "the civil rights movement" as a closed chapter. But the events of this anniversary summer challenge that notion, both locally and across the country. Here in New Orleans, especially, civil rights veterans are acting behind the scenes to shepherd a new generation of Freedom Schools. A nascent Freedom School at the Urbanheart center at Frederick Douglass High School is associated with The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, which now has a network of six Freedom Schools across the country. The oldest of the People's Institute Freedom Schools is based at the Kuji Center on Race Street, the site of the recent reunion of old and new civil rights leaders. Urbanheart is also part of the Douglass Community Coalition, a network centered on Douglass school that includes a number of groups devoted to using art for social change.

Memberships in these organizations are interwoven and reach back to the original Freedom Schools of the 1960s. Douglass Community Coalition members include Curtis Muhammad and John O'Neal, as well as the Algebra Project, a nationally known math literacy program that seeks to give adults access to good jobs in an increasingly technological economy. The Algebra Project is directed by the same Bob Moses who helped design the Summer Project campaign of 1964.

These veterans know each other well through their continued work over the decades. They share the belief that, although blacks now have the vote and access to education, 2004's inequalities call for a level of organizing on par with the campaign of 1964.

O'Neal isn't discouraged. "Forty years is not a long time in terms of history," he says.

FOR JEROME SMITH, it's a matter of continuing the same work he's been doing since he came home from Mississippi. Last Wednesday, more than a hundred kids sit cross-legged on the basketball court inside the Treme Community Center, but it's remarkably quiet. The children are focused, waiting. They listen so they won't miss it. And it comes on fast.

"What is dope?" calls the counselor -- himself a teenager -- who leads today's assembly. Without hesitation, a full-voiced choir takes up the chant with certainty.

"Dope is poison and death," they call back in unison. The children repeat the question and answer, then ask the next question themselves, in chorus. They pound the words like an open palm hitting a drum.

"Who is the man that uses dope?

"A dead man.

"Who is the man that uses dope?

"A dead man.

"Who was Dr. King?

"Dr. King was a freedom fighter.

"Who was Malcolm X?

"Malcolm X was a black man trying to make things better for black people."

The chant bounces off of the nearly empty bleachers. On the top near a corner sits Smith, the founder of the 35-year-old Tamborine and Fan and director of its day camp, watching.

Every child who has gone through summer camp or after-school programs at Tamborine and Fan knows the entire chant, called "The Hunter's Creed." It's part of a litany that includes the Tamborine and Fan song, followed by the lyrics of "Strange Fruit" and the words to the Neville Brothers' "Sister Rosa." The delivery is staccato, not singsong. The same lineup opens the camp day each morning and brings it to a close each afternoon at 2 p.m. As a result, even the 5-year-olds can produce the words without hesitation, precisely pronouncing the description of lynched bodies made famous by Billie Holiday.

The drill style continues in the history and reading classes that share the schedule with dance, music, art and sports. "What were the names of the four girls killed in the Birmingham bombings?" instructor Kwame Webster demands of a class of 13-year olds. "Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley," they recite -- more hesitantly, admittedly, than the words of the Hunter's Creed.

"Why were they killed?" he demands. A pause.

"They were just going to church," says one girl. "They were killed because they were black."

Webster nods, then holds up a poster of American presidents and poses the classic dilemma: What is wrong with this picture? "None of what?" he prompts the class. "Black people," they reply.

Forget the descriptor "summer camp." Tamborine and Fan is avowedly and consciously a school for radicals, cut from the same cloth as the Freedom Schools that rocked Mississippi 40 years ago this summer. The intent then -- and now -- is to foment leadership and political engagement. At Tamborine and Fan, that principle extends even to 5-year-olds. The camp itself is designed and run by counselors and assistants who range in age from 14 to their early twenties, making it a living demonstration that youth can run a movement.

SheQuita Miller, now 18, remembers the day her father first brought her here. She was five. "I thought it was some kind of army," she recalls. Now an art assistant, Miller says the need for Freedom Schools hasn't diminished at all since the days when "Big Duck" -- the kids' name for Smith -- helped get a car to the trio of civil rights workers who were so famously killed in June of 1964. "Everything is still the same way it used to be, it's just covered up," says Miller.

Smith started his extension of the Freedom Schools in 1970, then added a second-line club and a Mardi Gras Indian gang to make sure the local culture wouldn't be lost to the kids. Even the art here has a message: the kids paint colorful signs, with slogans like "Reading is Hip, so Hop to a Book," to be hung from the overpass crossing Orleans Avenue or displayed at community events.

"This is not a camp that's all about play," says 14-year-old Keshone Edwards. "A lot of people died to give us the right to play, read, go to public restaurants and restrooms, vote. We're not just learning language and math, we're learning something."

"We teach children to stand up like in Mississippi," says Smith. "That history has a value." He also says the threat of a protest by hundreds of Tamborine and Fan kids can make a city councilperson or an organization think twice about doing something. Early this month, a group of students met with the governing board of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation to argue that musicians who were washed out by rain at this year's festival should still be paid. Last year, they went en masse to City Council chambers to demand better protection after a beloved football coach was shot in front of the kids. Their latest project is to call for a public forum on the "Carter bill" that gave increased power to public school Superintendent Anthony Amato. "Folks that run things know we're serious," says Smith.

"Jerome wants us to use our lives wisely and have a purpose," says Keshawn Edwards, Keshone's twin sister, walking back from a dance class at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts. Out behind the Treme Community Center, Smith is deep in conversation, conferring with his young lieutenants under the trees.

IN REAL TERMS SUCH AS INCOME, infant mortality and access to health care, black Americans are worse off than in 1964, says John O'Neal. But 40 years after the summer of 1964, says 17-year-old Laura Manning, it's almost harder to fight against racial injustice. "Now there are so many disguises set up, its harder to see the racism," she says. "It's not blatant bigotry stated in laws any more. It's not as cut and dried."

It's day five of the People's Youth Freedom School, and the morning session has just struggled with the question, "Why are people poor?" Sitting in a circle, 40-plus kids between the ages of 10 to 20 try to sift through stereotypes about poverty. Frustrated, staff member Kendra Rodgers tells the group about her school, Ben Franklin, where students had complete sets of textbooks and three working computers in every classroom. She points out, a little angrily, that most public school students aren't even given enough textbooks to take home to study. "It's because Ben Franklin is a white school, guys," says Rodgers, who is white.

"Can people be poor and not have control over being poor?" asks Kool Black Horton, who's here to mentor to the young staff members running the show. Horton started the first People's Youth Freedom School in the St. Thomas housing project in 1997. Some people, like Ariel Jeanjacques' brother Aubry, say they would never have gotten involved if not for Kool. Now Aubry works alongside his sister as a staff member and group leader.

"Some people don't have children and they're still poor," muses a boy in a basketball jersey, responding to Horton's question.

"I think it's all racism," says another.

"Racism can cause people to be poor. That's a good answer," says Horton. "It's not a level playing field. Not having an equal start can cause people to be poor."

The morning started with a team-building exercise in which kids in small groups interlaced their hands and then untangled themselves without letting go of their partners. Laughter and shrieks rang out as young people twisted and hopped over each other's arms. Missionary Mary Jane Parker, the oldest member of the group, smiled broadly as she worked her way out of the tangle. At 76, Parker is nimble enough to get down on the floor and play jacks with the kids -- something she'll do on this day while waiting for lunch to arrive. But she also likes to go on field trips so she can explain things the students are too young to understand.

By 1 p.m., the group has spent hours talking about media images of who's poor and on welfare, what's not being taught in school, and ways in which victims of poverty are blamed for their situation. One constant theme is the need to correct a vision of history that excludes or is biased against blacks. "We got an education system that was created by white people for white people," says Horton. "I want to make clear that you can inherit a broken system."

Such lessons might be seen as leading students to hopelessness and despair. Yet drawing a system of racism into focus actually makes these kids feel more powerful because they can concentrate on changing the system. Ariel Jeanjacques says the training makes her feel like she's not a victim of her environment. "What you don't learn in life and in school, you learn here," says Ariel Jeanjacques, tossing the jeweled cursive "A" earrings that dangle from her lobes. "You don't learn about your history -- and you definitely don't learn about your culture -- if you don't come here."

THE YOUNG PEOPLE'S FREEDOM SCHOOL has a goal of registering 500 voters before the October deadline for the national election. Sixteen-year-old Krystie Magee plans to help with that drive, but she also says she understands why people don't vote. "People don't think they can make a difference," says Magee, a student at McDonogh 35.

Crowds are no longer beating freedom riders in broad daylight or burning churches because a Freedom School had planned to use its rooms. A more gradual, invisible oppressor may be harder to fight. But the veterans of the movement, like O'Neal, say they aren't daunted.

"What's needed is bottom-up, grassroots, Ella Baker-style organizing," says O'Neal, referring to the organizer who taught SNCC volunteers to work with existing community networks and to listen to those they were trying to help. For her part, Ariel Jeanjacques says, she would be in a completely different place without her Freedom School training. "I'd be out here with the rest of my friends, I'd have a baby by now, I wouldn't be at Tulane," she says. "Freedom School makes me feel like I'm free."

  • A.J. Sisco, courtesy of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond
Forty years ago, more than 1,000 volunteers converged - on Mississippi during Freedom Summer to teach literacy - skills and draw national attention to Southern poverty - and racism. - PEOPLE'S INSTITUTE FOR SURVIVAL AND BEYOND
  • People's Institute for Survival and Beyond
  • Forty years ago, more than 1,000 volunteers converged on Mississippi during Freedom Summer to teach literacy skills and draw national attention to Southern poverty and racism.

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