We’re remembering the Freedom Summer of 1964 this year, fifty years later. During those momentous times in US history, a broad group of organizations worked together to break the tyranny of the Jim Crow laws in Mississippi. Their primary goal was the registration of voters. Blacks had been disenfranchised since the end of Reconstruction. Countless barriers, all of them considered legal by the ruling authorities, were in place. Organizers sensed that achieving widespread participation in elections would have a stirring effect in Mississippi, where segregation-era policies were still in effect. The local police, White Citizens Council, and the KKK responded violently, but the willingness of thousands upon thousands of residents, and thousands of volunteers alongside them, to risk violence in order to bring about good eventually won the day. Three young organizers gave their lives in the effort. The national attention given to Freedom Summer helped shed light on the dark practices that constituted segregation in the South, further galvanizing the resolve of people around the nation to take the next step in securing “justice for all.”
While some volunteers were registering voters, others were gathering children for “Freedom School.” In churches, in houses, on porches, down by the riverside, wherever they could find a space, volunteers were teaching black children the things they could not learn in school, or in any public space: their history, the luminaries of their culture, that they were beloved children of God.
Freedom School teachers and students were hungry to learn and to develop themselves, as well as to develop an alternative system of education that could point the newest generation in the right direction. While the fight for Civil Rights was going on, an educational parallel to the public school system was needed to train the children of the era to see themselves as gifted, beautiful children of God, and to give them the skills they would need to maintain and expand the rights so many, even the children themselves, were fighting for.
Everyone participating in the Freedom Summer knew that the fight for freedom was going to be a long one. The passage of Civil Rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act signed into law during July of that summer, were not going to erase generations of oppression overnight. Ensuring voting rights for all would not change the hearts of those that instituted and maintained oppressive systems.
Fifty years after the Freedom Summer of ‘64, we still have work to do. Here in Enderly Park, our children still grow up facing all kinds of injustice. The “School-to-Prison Pipeline” is real. It will not be easily plugged. The systems of white supremacy have not been fundamentally changed. They now look more innocent, while producing the same vicious results they did decades ago. The legislature in North Carolina has enacted a series of regressive laws that, among other things, take direct aim at disenfranchising poor and minority voters.
Years of effort have failed to change the educational outcomes our school systems achieve. After instituting an integration policy that became a national model, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools have regressed. We have adopted the century old mantra of “separate but equal” again, resulting in a deeply segregated system. This has been done under the guise of moving back to neighborhood schools, but the move back to neighborhood schools in our city assures resegregation because we live in segregated neighborhoods. The lesson that separate is never equal has once again fallen on deaf ears in Charlotte. The barriers to freedom and equality are being rebuilt in our day, if they ever really fell.
The children of Enderly Park need to be able to read and write for themselves. If they don’t learn, then someone else will write their history for them. We need a new Freedom School movement, focused around the strengths of our communities and the needs of our children. With the help of our friends at Freedom School Partners and the Children’s Defense Fund, that is exactly what we are growing. Each morning during the summer, 40 Enderly Park children gather to sing, chant, and read their way into freedom. For several hours each day they work on their reading. They learn to love books. They learn the stories of heroes who took up the freedom struggle before them. Watching their learning happen feels like a miracle. As we are nearing the end of the summer program, I am seeing transformation taking place – kids are genuinely engaged with books, with stories, with their own abilities and gifts. But not only that. I, too, am being transformed. I am learning to see my neighbors, myself, and the world with different eyes. I am learning over and over again to believe deeply in those children, and in the God who is working to set them free.
A day at Freedom School starts with a pep rally and a song. We cheer and chant about reading books. We listen to a community leader read a favorite book. We dance and clap and shout. We sing our hearts out every morning: “The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become…. Because there’s something inside so strong, I know that I can make it.” In Raleigh, in board rooms, in courtrooms, almost everywhere we look, the barriers are being built higher and higher. But in Enderly Park, we are raising up giants.