Freedom Summer

50 years after the Civil Rights Act, signs of both progress and frustration in matters of race are all around us

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerJuly 5, 2014 

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"Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me

And before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord and be free"

Thinking about the summer of 1964 -- Freedom Summer, per a CNN documentary -- brings to mind church bombings, burning Greyhound buses, and the death of three young men murdered in rural Mississippi. Arrested in late June near Philadelphia, Mississippi, released, and soon missing, the whereabouts of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman was the focus of a widespread investigation and search. Finally, in early August, their bodies were discovered under an earthen dam.

Much has happened in the half century since Freedom Summer, good things and not so good things. In 2014, segregation by law seems other-worldly almost, even quaint had it not been so evil, so pervasive in the Deep South fifty years ago. Today's Americans have come to know and respect, sometimes grudgingly, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Barak Obama. Mixing the races in public affairs and places is routine today. Moreover, the 2010 census reveals that nearly one in twelve U.S. births is bi- or multi-racial.

On the other hand, while most American cities -- Columbus, Georgia, among them -- have a street named for Martin Luther King, Jr., it is in a mostly segregated, economically depressed part of town. Many of us live in desegregated neighborhoods, yet from one city to the next, public schools are more segregated in 2014 than they were in 1980.

In 1993, thirty years after the September bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ellen Levine published "Freedom's Children," an oral history detailing the experiences of children and teenagers in and around that horrific event as well as the Children's Crusade in Birmingham, the 1950s Montgomery bus boycott, and others.

Also in 1993, I sensed that Freedom's Children would be a good read for Columbus College's Challenge program, a two-week summer enrichment experience for local gifted 5th and 6th graders that I co-directed for the School of Education. In vivid detail, the children of the 1960s -- middle-aged when Levine, tape recorder in hand, interviewed them -- recalled lunch-counter sit-ins at Birmingham's Newberry's five-and-ten-cent store, marches, arrests, and songs such as "Oh Freedom" which demonstrators sang in makeshift jail cells to keep their spirits up.

Those of us planning the 1990s Challenge program agreed that it was important for Columbus youngsters to deal with the Civil Rights Movement. We had observed that school history in Columbus and elsewhere seemed needlessly sanitized. Black History Month didn't go much further than Rosa Parks and MLK. Going beneath the surface might make people uncomfortable, but we knew that discomfort is often the door to learning.

In July, therefore, Challenge's middle-schoolers spent two weeks studying "Freedom's Children Then and Now." They learned about separate water fountains and railroad waiting rooms, police dogs, and non-violence as a strategy promoted by both Gandhi in India and King in the Southeast. They read the accounts of then-teenaged Birmingham African Americans who risked their lives in marches and sit-ins and, later the same day, found themselves in jail. The Challenge kids role-played these scenes and sang "Oh Freedom" and "We Shall Overcome" themselves.

At the end of the first week, we boarded buses and headed for Birmingham's Civil Rights Institute and, across the street, the 16th Street Baptist Church, firebombed in 1963. At the Institute, we saw "white" and "colored" water fountains and the burnt shell of a Greyhound bus which, until it was stopped by mobs, had carried 1964's Freedom Riders.

At the church, we met with three forty-something "freedom's children" -- Judy Bostick, Myrna Jackson, and Francis White. These three women were among Ellen Levine's sources for her book.

I can't speak for our busload of 5th and 6th graders. I can say, though, that I was deeply affected by our 45 minutes together. Each woman told her story in turn, speaking calmly yet with the passion of having been part of something important, something worth risking her life for.

I returned to Columbus, Georgia, different, sad for my own indifference during the 1960s, but maybe stronger.

Today, 50 years after Freedom Summer, I choose to believe that, as we remember the Children's Crusade, some of the Challenge kids from those days -- today's teachers, bankers, homemakers, and soldiers, many of them parents -- recall the day they met Judy Bostick, Myrna Jackson, and Francis White as vividly as I do. Maybe they'll hum a strain or two from "Oh Freedom." I certainly have.

James Brewbaker, Professor Emeritus of English Education, Columbus State University;

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