Freedom Schools 50 Years Later

Fifty years after the Freedom Schools of 1964, today’s Freedom Schools continue the legacy.

Incoming fifth-grader E’Lexiona McAlpine—better known as Lexi—had “the best day ever” when she visited the Civil Rights Memorial Center with her Freedom School group last week. Why? Because she learned so many new things alongside her friends and teachers, as she’d been all summer at Freedom School.

Lexi and the rest of the kindergarten-to-fifth-grade group were scholars in the Village of Promise Freedom School in Huntsville, Alabama, the first Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School in the state and one of 130 nationwide. On the day she visited the memorial, the students were on a civil rights tour that included Montgomery and Birmingham. More important, they were revisiting social justice concepts they’d been covering for the previous six weeks.

For instance, while reading one of more than 40 books during Freedom School, Lexi learned about the Little Rock Nine and the courage it took for them to go to school in a hostile, dangerous environment. She also learned that “people died for doing things that’s for rights, like for civil rights and freedom.”

That focus on social justice, literacy and critical engagement were at the heart of the first Freedom Schools, those in session during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer in 1964. Today, the CDF Freedom Schools continue that legacy, and Gloria Batts, the Village of Promise Freedom School’s executive director, feels the intergenerational importance of that 50-year span.

“History is still being written, and 50 years is not a long time to look back at the struggle. And even though we talk about the advances that we’ve made, the struggle still continues,” said Batts. “So it means that … because we have Freedom School, we have an opportunity to pour this history into not only this generation of our scholars but also our servant-leader interns. It’s sort of nostalgic in a sense, but at the same time it’s refreshing that we do have an opportunity to give to this generation what’s not being given to them in the public school system.”

As she prepares to enter the fifth grade, Lexi understands there are things she can do right now to help alleviate some of the struggles of her peers. “Some children at school—they’re bullies, they’re hateful, they’re mean,” she explained, “but if I tell them about the civil rights and why they’re being hateful and shouldn’t be hateful, I think they will recognize that they shouldn’t do that anymore, and they’ll just be friends or make friends … so the world will have peace.”

Lexi probably didn’t have a typical summer. But—like her counterparts 50 years ago—she was empowered by the history she’s learned and the values she’s absorbed. As you begin back-to-school conversations about summer vacation, consider discussing how the Freedom School scholars spent their summer in 1964—and how all young people today can learn from their legacy.

Bell is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.