Our Sixties

Our Sixties: An Activist’s History publishes on October 1, 2020. In it, author Paul Lauter uses his wide-ranging experience as an activist and writer to examine the values, exploits, victories, implications, and failings of the “Movement” of the Sixties. Here’s a sneak peek (slightly edited for length) from Chapter 3: Mississippi Summer, which discusses the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools.

One day, later in the summer at the Blair Street AME church in Jackson, I’m asked to teach Native Son to a freedom school class. About a dozen kids, ages maybe eleven to eighteen, mostly girls, sit in a loose circle. None had, so far as I could tell, ever read a novel before, maybe not even a whole book. This one they devour almost overnight. They do so after they had spent the afternoon, as they did every afternoon, canvassing their neighborhood to find people daring enough to try to register to vote, or at least to participate in the simulated election held by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party for delegates to the national Democratic Party Convention coming later that summer in Atlantic City. The discussion, intense and jumbled, soon enough focuses on Bigger Thomas—what was it he wanted? They struggle with that bitter question. “He want to be a man,” a sixteen-year-old guy maintains as all opposition fades into silence. Assent? Wonder? Rage? No one turns to me for an answer. What, in any case, would my answer mean for these black Mississippi kids, even could I provide one, as they file out for their afternoon of canvassing?

I am thinking: Why have I never had one class in the four colleges where I’ve taught as fervent and driven as this one in a hot Jackson church basement? It’s years before most North American teachers discover the work of Paulo Freire or fully understand the role of desire and need in learning. I am also thinking: If Native Son is such a powerful work, yet one I never studied or taught, what else have I missed? That’s what I ask a SNCC staff worker the next day. “Who else should I be reading?” “Why not try Paule Marshall? She’s got a book out, Brown Girl, Brownstones.” Out since 1959, I later discover. It will be almost another decade before we at The Feminist Press bring that book back into print.

Two primary lessons emerged for me in freedom school, my compass marks still as an intellectual and a teacher in the fifty-five years since that summer. One concerns the dynamic of learning: How could we—I—bring into classrooms the passion and involvement of that freedom school moment? The second raises what would later be called “the question of the canon”: What is important to read and to teach? Underlying that question of the canon, another lesson, hidden in plain sight all these years, has come into view from events at Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York, Baltimore, Maryland, and elsewhere: “Black Lives Matter.” Explicit in the mandate of the freedom schools is the lesson that schooling and empowerment are connected. The movement perspective I learned in Mississippi thus redefined for me the fundamental objectives of teaching and learning. How we study and what we learn express what and who our society sees as important, essential to know, and thus to respect; the curriculum defines not just what matters but who “matters.”

[. . . ] During Mississippi Summer we volunteers began to appreciate education as a matter of life and death and not a pleasant luxury or some job preparation. Education was not just the materials studied but what studying them revealed about students and their lives. I wrote:

. . . in the freedom schools the real lives of students and their real experience in the classroom became central to their study. You asked questions about what might happen to, and how power would operate on, a student’s father in Greenwood if he tried to register to vote, or if the student himself attended a freedom school, as in fact he was doing. You asked, how does what we do in freedom school here in Laurel differ from what happens in regular school, and why do these differences occur, and how does the difference make you feel? By thus concentrating on events as they actually occurred and feelings as they actually came out, the freedom schools did one of their main jobs: helped the students to recognize that the lives they actually led, the thoughts and feelings they actually had, had validity and importance, were worth studying and trying to understand. (From a letter to Harvard Educational Review, Summer 1965)

As Dan Perlstein and I wrote in our introduction to the Radical Teacher (volume 40, 1991) issue on the freedom school curriculum, “The freedom school idea was not to explain the social structure of segregation through the lens offered by students’ undigested experiences, including their efforts to change their society. Rather, students were encouraged to see learning as inseparable from the uses made of it, knowledge and the struggle for freedom as synonymous.” Ideally, freedom school teaching would begin from students’ real experience and it would transform the students’ understanding of that experience by clarifying what they saw as their “place in the world” and thus how they perceived and valued themselves.

For this kind of education to take place, both the students and the freedom school teachers had to be—this isn’t an exaggeration—transformed.

Paul Lauter is A. K. & G. M. Smith Professor of Literature Emeritus at Trinity College (Hartford). He was president of the American Studies Association and has won many awards from the academic associations in which he has worked, including, most recently, the Modern Language Association’s Francis March Award for Distinguished Service to the Profession of English Studies and the Working-Class Studies Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

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