Eight years old during the summer of 1964, I recall nothing of that summer's events, so I was curious about what my mother and father--eighty-six and eighty-eight years old respectively--recalled and knew. In 1964, we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. But my father and his older brother co-owned two small businesses, one in Roxbury and one in Mattapan, predominantly African-American sections of Boston that had had large Jewish populations when my parents lived in them during the 1930's and 1940's. As a businessman in these neighborhoods in the 1950's and 1960's, my father in particular had some understandings of the consequences of institutionalized racial inequality.
The Context for Watching "Freedom Summer" Twice
Allegedly, I have a first-rate education. But the lesson of the past year is that I have always had a very limited and superficial understanding of the American Civil Rights Movement--the issues, the events, the circumstances, the heroes. It's not that I would have expected my entering-fourth-grade self to have paid attention to the events unfolding on the evening news during the summer of 1964. It's that I had no real opportunities (or didn't take advantage of the ones I did have?) to explore and come to understand any of these events widely or deeply--certainly not in the required U.S. history course I took at Needham High School* in 1972, even though we had a brand new history textbook that asked us to understand history by exploring primary source documents. Truthfully, by the time my adolescent radar detected Lyndon Johnson on a regular basis, he was the president who was sending more and more troops into Vietnam.
But it's not just the commemorations of the fiftieth anniversaries of the March on Washington and Freedom Summer that have made me conscious of my own substandard understandings; it's also been the inspirational and enlightening experiences of the first group of Kimbrough Scholars, those Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) students who, this past spring, simultaneously participated in a intense CRLS-based Civil Rights history seminar and worked closely with Northeastern University Law School's Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) which, according to its web site, "conducts research and supports policy initiatives on anti-civil rights violence in the United States and other miscarriages of justice of that period."
Not only did the Kimbrough Scholars develop the requisite skills and knowledge to research a cold case using national archives housed in the Cambridge/Boston area, but they visited McComb, Mississippi to do further research and to speak with and listen to the relatives, neighbors, and friends of the victim. Given that the perpetrators of the crime are dead, criminal justice is not possible. But restorative justice is. And a major goal of the Northeastern project is to bring healing and closure to the families of victims who have received no justice from the courts. Through their persistence in seeking the truth, their respectful attention to the stories and feelings of those most affected by the crimes, and their explicit gratitude to those willing to share with them, CRRJ Project associates acknowledge, dignify, elevate, even enshrine experiences and emotions of people who have been forgotten, unheeded, ignored, and/or dismissed.
The Kimbrough Scholars program is one of the initiatives of the Leslie H. Kimbrough Memorial Committee.** When Les Kimbrough, a former CRLS teacher and administrator, died suddenly two years ago, a group of us banded together to preserve and extend his important legacy. As the memorial plaque in a central CRLS first-floor hallway explains, Kimbrough, ever mindful of "the specific challenges of African-American and other students historically denied full educational opportunity," "believed in the power of education to transform the lives of individuals and our society." Civil Rights was part of the history curriculum he taught.
Just days before Kimbrough died, he and I had a serious conversation about the under-representation of African-American students in my AP English Literature & Composition class: only two among more than twenty students. We were both concerned that the apparent resegregation of the high school was being fueled by the combination of a nearly ten-year-old course-leveling system and an administrative emphasis on particular kinds of quantitative student achievement data. We feared that in a punitive national "accountability" climate, CRLS was choosing the less courageous path of identifying and measuring "kids who already could" and "kids who already believed they could" rather than encouraging "kids who could with the right kinds of initial supports" or "kids who could come to believe they could through some initial authentic experiences of themselves as achieving and progressing."
Frankly, I feel Kimbrough's final gift to me has been the Kimbrough Scholars. His long history of providing me with opportunities to think from important perspectives that I didn't always perceive has continued through their experiences. Without the updates from the members of the Kimbrough Committee who worked with the students regularly, and without the formal presentation the students made in late May, I wouldn't know what I didn't know, wouldn't know what I needed to pay attention to.
And so now I'm paying attention, paying lots of attention. That's why I've watched Freedom Summer twice. And that's why I can't wait to hear about the experiences of the two Kimbrough Scholars and their chaperones who have spent the last week in Mississippi at the Freedom Summer fiftieth anniversary conference.
Watching "Freedom Summer"
Freedom Summer is on again; I'm listening to it as I write the second half of this blog post.
I watched Freedom Summer for the first time last Tuesday night--and knew immediately that I wanted to watch it again. Educationally speaking, the film helped me to revise misunderstandings and misinformation I'd accumulated and constructed on the basis of my piecemeal Civil Rights education, which, fortunately, had already begun to be reshaped and enlarged by the Kimbrough Scholars' work. Prior to this year, my Civil Rights' knowledge was largely the product of the combination of various Hollywood films, television mini-series, and public television documentaries; assorted books, newspapers, and magazines, encountered randomly; research done by former students on events, figures, and speeches from the Civil Rights Movement; and social conversations. This past fall, I made some new connections among some seemingly disparate understandings I had by going to see All the Way, the play about the early part of LBJ's presidency. And even more recently, at Radcliffe Day 2014, a panel discussion entitled "From Civil War To Civil Rights: The Unending Battle To Vote,"*** gave me a new appreciation of how embattled the history of voting rights has been, how and why the voting rights of many Americans continue to be extremely vulnerable, and why there is reason for hope.
My parents and I watched Freedom Summer on Saturday afternoon with rapt attention--even though they (and I!) often fall asleep while watching television. While they had always known about hostile resistance to African-American voter registration in many Southern states, they hadn't known that Mississippi made registering to vote particularly difficult and dangerous. They did recall various events and stories the film featured--particularly surrounding the disappearances and deaths of the James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman--but there was much that was new to them, or simply not recalled by them.
As we watched, they kept remarking on courage of people--particularly of the Mississippians who tried to register to vote**** and who housed the student volunteers. They were touched by the stalwart older people who determined to register to vote after too many years of oppression and powerlessness. Their hearts went out to the parents of Miss Mississippi, ostracized by their neighbors for inviting several student volunteers for
tea. They were mesmerized by Fannie Lou Hamer's intensity and conviction, and were moved by the photos of Mississippi children relishing their experiences in the Freedom Schools: until they watched Freedom Summer, my parents hadn't known about the Freedom Schools.***** And while they had been aware of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's existence, they had never particularly linked that organization to the efforts and events they had seen reported on the news.
Without the still images, the film footage, and the remembrances of those who had been there spoken in their own voices, I doubt that my parents and I would have been so deeply engaged in this two-hour film. It seemed extraordinarily important to see the mothers****** of the three murdered Civil Rights workers, and to see the evidence that a strong relationship had formed among them. It was important to see the newly formed group
of student volunteers in their training sessions and to see the faces of those who chose to board them, those who tried to register to vote, and those who could not be persuaded to attempt to register. Putting faces on people minimizes the abstraction that frequently makes "historical progress" seem inevitable rather than hard-won. Only when people sufficiently understand not only that the attainment of the rights they assume and cherish was more improbable than inevitable, but also that others are still actively engaged in trying to deprive them or others of those rights, do people act strategically to protect those rights.
Educational Challenges Related to Teaching with "Freedom Summer"
But our current students are barraged by photos, video clips, and recorded voices everywhere and everyday. So Freedom Summer won't necessarily engage or teach them, unless we are very deliberate and creative about what we ask of them while and after they watch it. Always, the challenge is to get students to think beyond their previous understandings, especially those "understandings" that they think their teachers want them to have. This film gives students a good shot at doing that. First of all, it presents the efforts of many people whom the students may not already know by name and whom they may not have already studied because the local schools they attend are not named for them. Furthermore, many of the student activists in the film are just a few years older than the high school students who will encounter them in the film. In addition, the events in the film raise great adolescent-appropriate questions. Some might relate more to their evolving values and identities: "Would you have gone?" and "Would you have been chosen to participate?" But others might be more analytical and evaluative: "To what degree do Freedom Summer and Mississippi Burning concur about (a) what happened in Mississippi, (b) what Freedom Summer was all about, and (c) why what happened in Mississippi is important?"
And finally, given how compelling the film's images and the voices are, students might be asked the following: "If you were trying to help someone understand what Freedom Summer was, what its purpose was, and what happened during it, what 3-6 images and voices would you share? And what 3-6 images******* and voices would share to help them understand what was really important about Freedom Summer?" Students would require significant discussion time to make their choices, and teachers would need to provide individual and small group opportunities for re-viewing segments of the film--and for working on each major question separately.
"National competence" is a monumental challenge, given America's great size, distinct states and regions, and significant diversity--geographic, demographic, cultural, linguistic, religious, political--within as well as across its various subdivisions. What present-day students perceive most often is an America that regularly and rigidly devolves into camps, parties, and special interest groups that struggle to work together, if they try at all. So how can we help students understand, value, and appreciate the promise of American unity, given the tensions and conflicts that are bound to arise among Americans of widely divergent life experiences and interests even in the most cooperative of times? National competence must consist of a combination of civics, cultural studies, and history--and it must equip students with the same interdisciplinary skill sets that this graphic******** specifies globally competent students must have in order to do the following effectively: Investigate the World (or, in this case, the Nation), Recognize Perspectives, Communicate Ideas, and Take Action.
What I'm grappling with presently is the question of how to provide education that is effective for both global and American citizenship, given the finite hours in the school year. As politicians remind me repeatedly, this "one nation, under God" is a work-in-progress, so it needs our students' understanding, attention, and eventual shepherding--their national competence. But America's interconnectedness with the rest of the world--hence, our students' needs for global competence--can't be denied or ignored either.
Still, if asked to choose what to share with American students at this moment, I'd choose Freedom Summer. Americans' rights aren't "safe," but there's reason for hope: as Darlene Clark Hine, a professor of African-American studies and history from Northwestern University, explained on the Radcliffe panel********* when she expressed her confidence that "we're going to do whatever it takes to make this democracy work," "Every fifty years we have an upheaval" and "we advance and open up the franchise." To capitalize on the upheaval, among the things we do is "We educate," she further explained. Freedom Summer can indeed educate, or at least begin to educate--about what we have now that we didn't always have, about how we got it, about what we have that we may lose if we're not careful, about who can learn to work with whom, about why people take tremendous risks.
The idea of America is alive and well in Freedom Summer because the Civil Rights activists took America at her word. If today's American kids can understand what America's "word" is, if they can become the next generation that insists that America walk her talk and fulfill her expressed principles, there's a better chance of justice for all Americans. Perhaps empowered Americans who experience themselves as competent citizens of a just nation that they have helped to realize her democratic potential will be well equipped and inclined to become excellent advocates for and participants in a just, peaceful globalized world. But if all they achieve is a better America**********, that's great progress.______________________
* We moved to Needham in 1966.
*(2) I joined the Kimbrough Memorial Committee because of the easy, serious, always helpful, always congenial professional relationship Kimbrough and I shared for almost 35 years. We met in 1978 when, my Brown University M.A.T. just earned, I became part of the summer faculty of the M.I.T./Wellesley Upward Bound Program--my first real teaching job. We were among the CRLS staff members who became advisors to S.A.V.E. (Students Against Violence and for Equality), an organization students formed in response to increasing youth violence in the city of Cambridge. I taught both of Kimbrough's sons, and was especially honored to perform the wedding of his younger son and another one of my former students a few years ago.
*(3) Screen shot of <https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/video/radcliffe-day-2014-civil-war-civil-rights-unending-battle-vote>
*(4) Screen shot of <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/photo-gallery/freedomsummer-project/>
*(5) Screen shot of <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/photo-gallery/freedomsummer-project/>
*(6) Screen shot from the actual "Freedom Summer" film
*(7) Screen shot from <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/photo-gallery/freedomsummer-project/>
*(8) Graphic from Mansilla, Veronica Boix., and Anthony Jackson. Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World. New York, NY: Asia Society, 2011. Print.
*(9) Screen shot from https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/video/radcliffe-day-2014-civil-war-civil-rights-unending-battle-vote
*(10) Screen shot of portion of http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1225340/thumbs/r-AMERICAN-FLAG-large570.jpg?6>