Mississippi Learning, 1964

During the winter of 1960, Ezell Blair Junior, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil were average college students; equal parts daring and immature -- which can be dangerous. But the North Carolina A&T University students, who came to be known as the Greensboro Four, used their audaciousness to fight segregation. Despite the 1954 Board vs. Brown of Education court decision which made school segregation unconstitutional, the United States was still divided by race and many businesses refused to serve blacks.

On Feb. 1, 1960, the Greensboro Four attempted to order food at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, but they were refused service. They went back the next day, to no avail. But the future legendary civil rights activists’ persistence paid off. By Feb. 5, 1960, the Greensboro Four had about 300 followers.

Several years later, in 1964, these protestors, known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, traveled into the violent territory of the Deep South with their boldness, and perhaps divine intervention, as their only protection.

Just a year prior, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for his boldness in fighting for equality in Jackson, Miss.

“SNCC began its first project in Mississippi in Pike County,” explained former SNCC member Charles Cobb, founder of the Mississippi Freedom Schools. “States like Mississippi deliberately and systematically used their power to deny education to blacks.”

Educator Myles Horton influenced Cobb and other civil rights activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa Parks and Diane Nash, to name a few. Horton had founded Highlander Folk School in 1932 to give under-represented students an education that related to them; Cobb eventually adopted Horton’s ideals.

“I was surprised when I went to the Delta (North Mississippi). Libraries didn’t have books. It was a shell. These were brand new black schools and labs didn’t have microscopes and they shut down schools when it was time to pick cotton. Schools were keeping blacks ignorant. We had leftover books and not enough books to go around,” Cobb said.

There were not enough books to go around because school funds were not evenly distributed. “For whites, they were spending $39 per student and less than a $1 for blacks.”

Equality and Black Power were advocated by organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Black Panther Party, to name a few. But some African Americans were seemingly content with inequality.

“There was a lot of fear. You could get killed. Lose your job. Many people agreed with you, but they were not willing to put their jobs and family at risk.”

Cobb risked his life to save a life through Mississippi Freedom Schools as part the 1964 Freedom Summer. Forty-one schools opened in various cities and towns throughout Mississippi, “unstudying” traditional education.

Classes were held in churches, backyards, or wherever there was space. Classroom discussion challenged myths about African Americans and the fears of poor whites and blacks, while students compared their reality to others. The school’s agenda was to enable African Americans to be active in their communities despite adversity.

Professor and author of “Local People: Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi” John Dittmer wrote about Gus Courts, who was working as a grocer in Belzoni, Miss. when he and George W. Lee founded the local branch of the NAACP in 1953. Courts later served as president of the Belzoni branch and was active in the fight to register local African-American voters. In 1956, he was shot in the arm after he refused to remove his name from a voter registration list. He was also forced to resign from his position as president after his bank threatened to “forfeit his credit rating.” In Cleveland, Miss., Dr. Clinton Battle lost most of his clientele after Citizen Council members, a white supremacist group, gave a warning for them to change doctors.

“You have to learn to work with that. You have to get people to understand that no matter how bad things get you not going to get ran out. You play ball, sit on the porch and talk to people. You show people that you will not run and a few people will join you,” Cobb said.

Middle class blacks weren’t the only ones afraid to join the Mississippi movement. “You could make the argument that the middle class were unwilling to join, but it was everybody.”

Despite these obstacles, Freedom Schools were effective. Freedom School teachers imported an education system that undid centuries of state sanctioned subordination, by teaching African-American children to question authority – subsequently radicalizing the Mississippi school system.

While Cobb is credited as the founder of Mississippi Freedom Schools, he credits Mississippians. “Yes, it was my idea, but we didn’t have the man-power to deal with this.”

About 500 students were expected to enroll in Mississippi Freedom Schools. Instead, about 2,000 students enrolled. “Mississippians made it. Charles McLauren, Curtis Hays, June Thompson and Hollis Hopkins are important people in Mississippi.”

Many SNCC members didn’t arrive in Mississippi until 1964. Activist Bob Moses was the first SNCC member in Mississippi, according to Cobb. “Bob was sent to McComb (Mississippi) by the NAACP. I came in ’62 with McLauren. You didn’t have a big influx of people in Mississippi until 1964. To understand the Mississippi movement you have to understand this.”

Mississippians knew best what their state was in need of. “If you are a grass roots organizing people you had to work within a consensus. There was a consensus for Freedom Schools. We noticed that right away in Mississippi. Around ‘62 or ‘63, maybe we could use these students to tackle education. It was the organizers’ idea not the educators,” Cobb said.

It was also the organizers’ idea to begin the voter registration drive. “A guy, Amzie Moore. He lived in Bolivar, (Mississippi). He is probably the reason we were successful in Mississippi,” Cobb said. “He owned his own gas station on Highway 61. He refused to segregate his restaurant, and bathrooms. I mean, we were students and he said, ‘We need to think about voter registration.’ We did voter registration because there was a consensus.”

Freedom Schools and voter registration drives were in black communities. Before SNCC, blacks had to go to the white community. “Do you really want to go to that part of the country with a lot of white people? You were immediately put in danger.

What Freedoms Schools did was help give a different approach to the learning in the public school system. We were not involved in sit-ins and Freedom Rides. We were involved in organizing. The inside Mississippi movement was driven by Mississippians. Many Mississippians don’t understand the Mississippi movement.”

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}
by Darryl Robertson

Photo Credits: 1) ©United Methodist Board of Global Ministries / Ken Thompson; 2) "Writing in Freedom School" by Herbert Randall / McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi

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