Video: Jon Hale on Freedom Schools and Students as Political Activists

Laura Hoxworth

Special guest Jon Hale, author of a book on the Mississippi Freedom Schools of 1964, shared his insights on social and political activism in education ahead of a public lecture on the history of Freedom Schools.

As part of the Race and Education lecture series, the Curry School’s Center for Race and Public Education in the South recently hosted a talk by Jon Hale, associate professor of educational studies at the University of South Carolina. Hale’s research focuses on the history of American education, specifically the history of student and teacher activism, education reform during the Civil Rights Movement, and the intersection of race and policy in the field of education. He is the author of “The Freedom Schools: Student Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement” about the six-week long summer programs that were held in Mississippi in 1964 to educate disenfranchised African Americans and prepare them to become politically active.

Ahead of his lecture, Hale sat down for a discussion with Derrick Alridge, professor and director of the Center for Race and Public Education in the South, and Kristan McCullum, a Social Foundations Ph.D. student. Hale shared insights from his research on the fascinating history of Freedom Schools – and how social activism can be used today to bring about social and educational reform.

Read a few highlights or watch the full conversation below.

On the history of Freedom Schools

Hale said the Freedom School model brought a new student-teacher dynamic to 1964 Mississippi. “The social dynamic of the schools stood in stark contrast to what was expected in schools at the time,” he said. “It was really an unorthodox learning space.”

Most Freedom Schools teachers were white, affluent, and well-educated college students recruited from up north as part of a larger volunteer force that moved to Mississippi in 1964. “For many of the African-American students in class, this is the first time they’ve met someone white who’s treated them as equals,” he said. “Conversely, for the white students, this was the first time really working with students of color.”

The Freedom Schools also introduced a curriculum focused on student interests and political activism. “Especially in the context of Mississippi in 1964, the Freedom Schools were a radical departure from what was going on in traditional schools,” Hale said. “The curriculum was grounded in the students’ interests, and the students’ interest was largely the Civil Rights Movement. So they taught a lot about the history of the movement, the philosophy of the movement, how it developed over time.”

A typical day, Hale said, was broken into two parts: the first half of the day was devoted to a traditional academic curriculum, the second to political organizing. “Students were out canvassing, encouraging their neighbors, their parents, their families, and their families’ friends to vote,” he said. “It was basically getting students out in the community, it was getting them organized, and really doing the work of the footsoldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.”

On what current teachers can learn from Freedom Schools

Hale said the example of Freedom School students and their immersion in political activism holds important lessons for modern-day teachers. “Students are inherently political change agents,” he said. “The first takeaway is that it’s okay to talk about politics in the classroom, because that's what our students are experiencing, and that’s how they want to experience the world. So to bring in that type of teaching and curriculum in the classroom really fits with what history is telling us.”

Secondly, he added that it’s important for teachers to understand and appreciate that all students bring a rich set of experiences and perspectives into the classroom. “These are living, breathing, political people who are experiencing the world and need to really discuss this,” he said. “Instead of running away from that, I think this history teaches us that we really need to embrace that.”

On the work that still needs to be done

Hale emphasized that during the Civil Rights Movement, the central goal of integration was about creating equal educational access and opportunity for all students — a goal that has not yet been realized.

“Schools in Mississippi, like across the country, they’re still segregated, they’re underfunded, we have this privatized school system that’s drawing resources away,” he said. “There’s still so much more we have to gain, and there’s still so much more we have to do when we talk about the movement and education reform today.”