By Shea Howell
January 2, 2017
This year the first day of 2017 was also the last day of Kwanzaa, Imani, the affirmation of faith. Over 200 people gathered at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to share in celebration of the day. Young people with the Detroit Independent Freedom School Movement joined with parents, teachers, friends, artists, and activists to emphasize our faith in one another and our capacity to create a better city and a better world.
It was a good way to begin this new year. The Al Nur Drum and Dance Company set the energy for the event as people gathered to light the Kwanzaa candles. Each candle calls forth a value that will be important for us to remember as we face the choices of the coming days. Unity, Self Determination, Collective Work & Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith are critical guideposts to judge our actions.
People were reminded of the powerful history of the Freedom Schools that emerged in the 1960’s. These schools were about more than classrooms. As Jon Hale wrotein the Atlantic, freedom schools were part of a larger movement for Black Liberation and were designed to teach “the art of resistance and the strategies of protest.” In the process they raised questions about the very nature of our democracy.
The forces of white supremacy did not welcome this questioning. In fact, the Freedom Schools and the Freedom Fighters in Mississippi who were part of them were subjected to a “level of terrorism that had not been seen in the South since Reconstruction. From June to August 1964 alone, police arrested more than 1,000 protesters and local segregationists murdered three freedom workers, assaulted over 80 activists, opened fire on demonstrators over 35 times, and set fire to 35 churches.”
In response to this violence, “Activists remained undeterred. During the course of the summer they successfully pressured Congress to end a seven-week filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Freedom Fighters also forced Southern states to admit a handful of black students to all-white desegregated its schools in 1964, becoming the last state in the country to do so.”
These victories only lead to more questions for the Freedom School Movement. Bob Moses who would later founded the Algebra Project asked in the fall of 1964, “Why can’t we set up our own schools? What students really need to learn is how to be organized to work on the society to change it.”
For the Freedom School Movement “a quality education did not mean seating a black student next to a white student. It meant making sure every school adopted a rigorous curriculum, hired excellent teachers, and provided an opportunity for economic mobility.”
This is an important history for all of us to remember as we decide how to resist the growing greed, dehumanization, and destruction of the coming federal administration.
Congressman John Lewis, who was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), wrote that the objective of Freedom Summer was to “force a showdown between the local and federal government.”
As we move into 2017, we face another “showdown.” None of us should have any illusions about the level of violence that so quickly surfaces against those who move us toward a more just future. Nor should we lose faith in our capacity to resist, to find ways to work together, to celebrate our creativity, and to forge a place for our children.