WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
by Staughton Lynd
Keynote Speech, Rouge Forum Conference
May 16, 2009
Eastern Michigan University
Greetings, fellow teachers.
What I plan to do in the next little while is to tell you about my experience in the Mississippi Freedom Schools in Summer 1964 and to offer my thoughts about how that experience might relate to the question, What is to be done?
I also brought along a couple of books I have written, that I will set out when I have finished talking and that you can take a look at and buy if you wish. I am not a traveling salesman. But I have to ask $15 for these books because that was the cost to me.
In my remarks, I shall try to convince you of three things:
I. Everything we know about learning instructs that people do not learn by reading Left wing newspapers, nor by attending lectures like this one at which some learned person offers correct theory. People learn by experience. And that is especially true if the learning we have in mind is glimpsing the hope that Another World Is Possible. People must touch and taste an alternative way of doing things, they must however briefly live inside that hope, in order to come to believe that an alternative might really come true.
II. Capitalist society in the United States offers very few opportunities to experience another world, another way of doing things. During the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe it was possible to create the institutions of a new society in the interstices of feudal society: thus there came into existence free cities, guilds, Protestant congregations, banks and corporations, new styles of painting and making music. By the time an emerging bourgeoisie created parliaments, and sought to take over state power, a network of new institutions had come into being within the shell of the old. This does not seem to be possible within capitalism as the sad history of trade unions teaches us.
III. How then, are we to help young people to imagine what a new society might be like? As educators we know that we can't do it just by talking, it has to happen through experience. As organizers we know that it is very difficult to provide such experiences in these United States. The answer, therefore, is . . . but wait, this talk has to have some surprises. I'll get to that.
So, first: Everything we know about learning instructs that people learn by experience.
I assume that this is a topic about which we are in agreement, and so I can be brief. Let me tell a couple of my favorite stories about Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School.
The Highlander Folk School in Tennessee was created in the 1930s. During its early years Highlander supported the creation of trade unions and then, in the 1960s, assisted the civil rights movement. The civil rights version of "We Shall Overcome" was put together by Guy Carawan and others at Highlander, whereafter they taught it to civil rights workers who came to Highlander for retreats. Myles Horton, the principal founder of Highlander, was the Paulo Freire of the United States, and there is a wonderful book entitled We Make The Road By Walking in which Freire and Horton as two old men share their experiences.
One summer in the early 1930s, when Horton was more of a Christian than in his later years, he taught bible school for the YMCA in a remote Appalachian hamlet named Ozone. Midway through the summer the young teacher concluded that this impoverished community in the midst of a Depression needed something more than the Bible. He let it be known that on a certain evening there would be a meeting to address the question of what was to be done.
People walked across the mountains barefoot to get to that meeting. As the meeting was about to begin, Horton realized that he had nothing consequential to suggest. In panic and desperation he said, "Let's go around the circle and see what ideas people brought with them." They did so. A program materialized. The Highlander style of education emerged from this experience.
A second story concerns how Horton dealt with race. When the CIO began organizing in 1935, segregation, disfranchisement, and racism pervaded the South, including its fragile labor movement. As individual union organizers, black and white, arrived at Highlander for a retreat, they would be assigned to cabins in order of their arrival. Sleeping, eating, and discussing were integrated throughout the week of the retreat, but nothing was said about race. Participants experienced the overcoming of racism. At week's end, as folks made ready to disperse, Horton would say something like: "Now, we all know how silly these racial customs are. How are we going to get that across to workers we organize?"
Second, and again to repeat: Capitalist society in the United States offers very few opportunities to experience another way of doing things.
When I was a teenager in New York City I rode the subway for half an hour to get to school. I gave myself a radical education. One of the books I read, by an ex-Trotskyist named James Burnhamand entitled The Managerial Revolution, laid out the way in which the rising middle class in medieval Europe created, first, new institutions, and only second, a revolution, and concluded that nothing like this was possible in a capitalist society. Burnham particularly insisted that trade unions were not prefigurative institutions, that they would never challenge the capitalist economy comprehensively. Their role, Burnham argued, was at best to smoothe a few of the rough edges and make capitalism tolerable for those it exploited.
When I got off the subway I hurried to my parents' bookshelves to find the answer to Burnham. I looked, for example, at Emile Burns' Handbook of Marxism. I couldn't find an answer then or for decades afterwards.
I tried to respond to Burnham's thesis in a different way at the end of the 1960s.
Those of you old enough to have lived through that time will recall that in those years there again came to the fore the Marxist idea that the working class would lead the way in creating a new society. So I briefly considered looking for a job in a steel mill. A young friend employed at U.S. Steel Gary Works told me that if I did so, after twenty years workers would still say to each other about me, "Let's see what the Professor thinks."
I decided that I might do better seeking to assist those same workers by offering a needed skill. I became a lawyer. I was a Legal Services lawyer for almost twenty years, confronting as best I could the layoffs, plant closings, and bankruptcies of that time. Unfortunately my experience confirmed rather than rebutting Burnham's conclusion that unions were not a force for fundamental social change. I often represented local unions as well as individual workers in trouble. It was the larger structures, the national unions, that repeatedly let down the rank-and-file workers they represented. Bureaucrats at some national headquarters far distant from the shop or school floor drafted contracts that gave the employer the unilateral right to make the big decisions, like closing a facility or cancelling health benefits for retirees. At the same time, national unions acquiesced in a no-strike clause that took away from local unions and their members the only effective way to resist.
Critical as I am of national unions, I do not wish to romanticize the ordinary rank-and-file worker. Much depends on whether people are encouraged to stand beside their brothers and sisters, risking personal sacrifice on behalf of a shared vision, or instead to base decisions on a calculus of individual self-interest. At the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the twentieth century, the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World popularized the phrase, "An injury to one is an injury to all." Ralph Chaplin, a member of the IWW, while imprisoned during World War I took the old tune to the Battle Hymn of the Republic and wrote the words of "Solidarity Forever." Bur how many fellow workers do any of us know who still believe that "In our hands there is a power greater than their hoarded gold" so that "We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old"?
I don't mean to issue iron pronouncements of doom for union effort at all times and in all places. I tried for twenty years. In the end I found more solidarity among the prisoners locked in Youngstown's many new prisons than I had experienced in the steel mills that the prisons replaced.
That leaves, brothers and sisters, schools. If we calculate 7 hours to the school day, 18 days to the school month, 10 months to the school year, and 12.5 years in school, that comes to 15,750 hours in which a young person who graduates from high school has been in the presence of another human being called a teacher.
I know a man sentenced to death who is writing his autobiography. He figures that despite a miserable, heart-breaking childhood, he kept it together as a youngster who got good grades and had hope for the future until his early teens. His first encounter with the criminal injustice system came when he went joy-riding in a stolen car with several older friends. The judge took note of the fact that Keith had no criminal record and asked his stepfather and mother if they wished to take him home or have him asigned to the juvenile detention facility. Keith's stepfather told the judge, "You take him."
Later, after shooting a best friend in a dispute over drugs and brief participation in a major prison riot, Keith Lamar was sentenced to death. He decided that something out of the ordinary was required and took the name Bomani Shakur, Swahili for "Thankful Mighty Warrior." He asks himself the question I am asking, When a young person experiences next to no support, encouragement, or recognition from everyday life in his community, how can we expect that young person to become anything other than a candidate for life behind bars?
And I am answering, Maybe, just maybe, in a place called "school."
You may be skeptical and, if so, I think I know how you feel. I lost my opportunity to make a living as a teacher when I tried to go all-out to stop the Vietnam war. I took account of all the rules and requirements. I went to Hanoi during Christmas vacation, and practically overturned the world Communist bureaucracy to be back in the States in time for my first scheduled class in the new year. It didn't make any difference. The president of Yale said I had "given aid and comfort to the enemy," a phrase from the law of treason.
But I don't want to exchange war stories, or display our respective scars. I don't want to have an abstract debate about education as a social force. I want to tell you about the Mississippi Freedom Schools, which I had the honor of helping to create, and which I coordinated in the summer of 1964.
Freedom Schools were improvised summer high schools. They did not offer academic credit. For the most part the schools were located in church basements, and in more than one instance the church was bombed or burned to the ground. The students were African American teenagers. The teachers were mostly from the North, mostly white, and mostly women, who lived with African American families brave enough to take them in. By attending Freedom School the youngsters deprived their families of days of much-needed labor in the fields.
As I assume you can understand, statistical exactness wasn't possible in these circumstances. All studies agree that more than 2,000 youngsters attended more than forty Freedom Schools.
The summer project began with a two-week orientation at the College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. Voter registration volunteers attended during the first week. They left as we who would try to create Freedom Schools arrived. I drove from Atlanta with three students from Spelman College who were summer volunteers like myself. The trunk of my Rambler was packed with copies of the Freedom School curriculum, laboriously reproduced on an ancient hectograph machine in the Lynds' apartment on the Spelman campus.
The day after we arrived at Oxford there came the news that Meridian project director Michael Schwerner, summer volunteer Andrew Goodman, and Mississippi resident James Chaney, had disappeared. They had driven from Ohio, had snatched a few hours sleep, and then had set out for nearby Philadelphia, Mississippi. There the deacons of a local African American church, after lengthy discussion, had voted to let the church be used for a Freedom School. Soon after the church was burned down. Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney went to Philadelphia to find a new location for a Freedom School. Their station wagon got a flat tire. I assume you know the rest of the story. The bodies were discovered the first week of August.
Back at Oxford, every one was making long distance telephone calls: to Mississippi, to the Department of Justice in Washington DC, to parents. I was invited to a small meeting of staff for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. Bob Zellner and others volunteered to travel to Philadelphia and go through the woods at night to see if there was underground knowledge in the black community about what had happened to the missing men. I was in and out of larger meetings, talking with volunteers for the Freedom Schools about whether to go home or go to Mississippi. I don't remember any one going home.
During that week I made an arrangement with a volunteer named Tom Wahman. Tom's wife Sue was a member of the cast of Martin Duberman's play "In White America." They were going to be rehearsing in Jackson, the state capitol. Tom wondered if he too could be assigned to Jackson. I said, "Sure: you go to headquarters every day and answer telephone calls about the Freedom Schools, and I will spend the summer traveling through Mississippi, visiting the schools."
I remember going to McComb, Mississippi. It was just after the Freedom House where summer volunteers had been sleeping, and where the Freedom School had been meeting, was bombed. We gathered on the lawn next to the Freedom House. We sang "I'm on my way to the freedom land," and Bob Moses suggested the verse, "If you can't go let your children go."
One of the summer volunteers, Wally Roberts, was having a hard time getting the Freedom School started in Shaw, in the Mississippi Delta. We talked. The solution turned out to be for the youngsters to do voter registration every morning. Then in the afternoon, at Freedom School, it took on more meaning to learn that in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War there had been black representatives in the Mississippi state legislature.
Alongside my fragmentary impressions the best way I can convey what happened in those schools that summer is to read some of the letters to home written by teachers, and some of the prose and poetry by Freedom School students, and a recollection of one of my students at Spelman who went to Mississippi.
Some teachers were welcomed as heroes. Geoff wrote home:
Batesville welcomed us triumphantly --
at least Black Batesville did.
Children and adults waved from their porches and shouted hello
as we walked along the labyrinth of dirt paths and small wooden
houses . . . .
In a few days scores of children knew us and called us by name.
Similarly in Ruleville, in the Delta, the summer volunteers
. . . were given the best of everything,
and housing was found for all of us.
Two people have already lost their jobs for housing us,
and yet in each case half a dozen families
begged us to stay with them.
My student Gwen Robinson was welcomed just as warmly, but
much less obtrusively, in Laurel, Mississippi. She recalled:
One of the few things that I was trying to hold onto in terms of thinking maybe I will survive this [was] the fact that there were all these white young people going. . . . So when I was told I was being assigned to Laurel with two other people only and both of them were black men and the three of us were going to Laurel because it was too dangerous for white people, I was like, "Well, wait a minute. . . ."
We went and we did have some names of people. One of them was . . . Mrs. Euberta Sphinks.
When I got to Mrs. Sphinks' door, I knocked on her door. I introduced myself . . . . She looked at me and said, "Girl, I've been waiting [for] you all my life. Come on in."
Freedom School students in Hattiesburg wrote a Declaration
of Independence that said in part:
In this course of human events,
it has become necessary for the Negro people
to break away from the customs
which have made it very difficult
for the Negro to get his God-given rights.
We, as citizens of Mississippi,
do hereby state that all people
should have the right to petition,
to assemble, and to use public places.
We also have the right to life,
liberty, and to seek happiness. . . .
We do hereby declare independence
from the unjust laws of Mississippi
which conflict with the United States constitution.
Naomi Long Nadget, Greenwood Freedom School wrote a poem:
I've seen daylight breaking high above the bough,
I've found my destination and I've made my vow;
So whether you abhor me or deride me or ignore me,
Mighty mountains loom before me and I won't stop now.
You recall that in McComb the Freedom House had been bombed
and the Freedom School had to meet on the grass outside. No local black institution dared offer facilities for a school. Joyce Brown, 16, addressed the problem in a poem in which she said in part:
I asked for your churches, and you turned me down,
But I'll do my work if I have to do it on the ground.
You will not speak for fear of being heard,
So crawl in your shell and say, "Do not disturb."
You think because you've turned me away
You've protected yourself for another day.
Acccording to Professor Dittmer, author of a splendid book
on the Mississippi Movement, "Moved -- and shamed -- by Joyce
Brown's poem, local people soon made church facilities available
for the Freedom School."
At the end of the first week in August, the same week that the three bodies were discovered and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party held its state convention, there took place a so-called Freedom School Convention. Sandra Adickes, a professional teacher from New York, says that I suggested it. I have only a visual memory of the meeting of Freedom School coordinators where we decided to do it. The idea was for each Freedom School to send a couple of delegates, accompanied by a teacher, to a ramshackle Baptist seminary on the outskirts of Meridian, and for the assembled delegates to debate and adopt resolutions about the future of Mississippi as they envisioned it. The "1964 Platform of the Mississippi Freedom School Convention," adopted that weekend, includes resolutions on Public Accommodations, Housing, Education, Health, Foreign Affairs, Federal Aid, Job Discrimination, the Plantation System, Civil Liberties, Law Enforcement, City Improvements, Voting, and Direct Action.
The most consequential discussion concerned whether, at summer's end, the Mississippi Movement should attempt to extrapolate the summer Freedom Schools into a comprehensive alternative school system, or whether, instead, these young people should return to their segregated schools with used textbooks handed down from the white schools, inadequately prepared teachers, not enough money, and a curriculum that prohibited African American history.
They decided that indiuvidual communities might experiment with Freedom Schools or school boycotts as desired, but as a statewide movement they would go back to their old schools. I believed then, and I believe now, that it was the correct decision. We did not have the resources to create a permanent parallel school system. Had we tried to do so, the effort would predictably have collapsed and students might have had to face the world without even a high school diploma.
But that was not quite the end of the story. To begin with, there was the experience that Freedom School students carried into the rest of their lives. John Dittmer says that he could always tell which of his students had been in Freedom Schools: they did not hesitate to challenge the professor and ask questions, they were comfortable in discussions, and they were not intimidated by white teachers. Dittmer tells the story of one such alumnus, Wayne Saddler. Saddler attended the Freedom School in Gluckstadt, Mississippi. Saddler recalled the night that the school was burned to the ground and how, after the summer ended, he continued to attend a Freedom School in nearby Canton. Little more than a decade later, Wayne Saddler was the anchor of the state's most widely watched TV news program.
The Freedom Schools also laid the basis for the Mississippi Headstart program, which in summer 1965 served 6,000 children through eighty-four centers in twenty-four counties. I nelieve that many of the church basements in which the pre-school children gathered had previously been used for Freedom Schools and that many of the African American women who staffed the Headstart program had previously welcomed 1964 summer volunteers into their homes.
And there was also the following. Years later I was making my way through law school. I read the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines, the case of a high school student in Iowa who wore a black arm band to school to protest the Vietnam war, and was sent home. The high Court held that what she did was protected by the First Amendment. I noticed that the Supreme Court, in its opinion, repeatedly cited a case called Burnside v. Byars decided by an appeals court in the South. I looked it up.
It seems that on the first day of school in Fall 1964, African American students in Philadelphia -- that same Philadelphia where Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney had been murdered a few months earlier -- went to school wearing buttons that said "SNCC" and "One Man One Vote." They were sent home, but the federal appeals court held that what they did was not so disruptive as to outweigh their right to free speech. Thus the action of these black students -- the single most courageous action I remember from that summer of bravery -- protected the right of a young white student in a Northern state to protest the Vietnam war a few years later.
So my proposed solution to the dilemma I posed at the outset is, Let's try to make every school a Freedom School. 15,750 hours in which a young person who makes it through high school has been in the presence of someone called a teacher is a fair chunk of time within which to try to offer young people a glimpse of the dawning of a new day.
Am I saying, Because we did it in Mississippi under these dangerous and difficult conditions, you should be able to do it? No, I'm not saying that. Danger and difficulty gave rise to opportunities as well as obstacles. Who amongst us would not wish to teach with a program for first-time voter registration, or any other kind of popular liberation, going on -- so to speak -- next door?
But I am saying, we did do it. And hopefully, knowing that may make it a little easier for you when next you confront the teacher who teaches out of last year's notes but has more seniority; the Neanderthal principal and School Board; or indeed, hostile parents and students who seemingly don't give a damn.
In the face of all that, I say, Let's make every school a Freedom School.
Every school a Freedom School, because how else will young people have the experience of putting the chairs in a circle and sharing as equals?
Every school a Freedom School, because this may be the one time and place, the one island of experience when youngsters experience the possibility of taking seriously ideas and ideals.
Every school a Freedom School, because the military is raiding inner city public schools to recruit for its imperialist wars and we have a duty to help our students resist.
Every school a Freedom School, because this may be a young person's one chance to meet a person whose example will reverberate for the rest of that student's life, namely, yourself.
Every school a Freedom School, because even for those who make it through high school it is very difficult to find a decent job and young people will need whatever inner reourcses we can help them to develop before graduation.
Every school a Freedom School, because if that aspiration will create risks for teachers, it is a greater risk for our students to grow up in inner city America.
Every school a Freedom School because: If not now, then when? If not here, then where? If not ourselves, then who?