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I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Excerpt)

In this excerpt from a history of civil rights organizing in Mississippi during the 1960s, author Charles Payne describes the curriculum of the Freedom Schools established by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Part of the classwork consisted of traditional academic subjects. In Mississippi, though, traditional subjects were often not available in Black schools. Publicly supported Black schools tended not to offer typing, foreign languages, art, drama, or college-preparatory mathematics. Apart from whatever intrinsic interest they had, these subjects were popular with students partly because they symbolized equality.

It was the Citizenship Curriculum that made the schools distinctive. It was built around a set of core questions, including:

  1. What does the majority culture have that we want?

  2. What does the majority culture have that we don’t want?

  3. What do we have that we want to keep?

One unit of the curriculum asked students to compare their social reality with that of others in terms of education, housing, and employment; one section called for them to compare the adjustment of Negroes to Mississippi with the adjustment of Jews to Nazi Germany. Another unit was intended to convince students that “running away” to the North wasn’t going to solve anything. The “Introducing the Power Structure” unit tried “to create an awareness that some people profit by the pain of others or by misleading them.” The unit on poor whites tried to help students understand how the power structure manipulated the fears of poor whites. “Material Things and Soul Things” was a critique of materialism. The last area of the curriculum was a study of the movement itself. The section on nonviolence made sure to present it as something beyond a mere refraining from doing anyone physical harm; students were admonished to practice nonviolence of speech and thought as well. The curriculum reflects how far discussion within SNCC had progressed beyond a narrow concern with civil rights. A full analysis of society was embedded in the thinking behind the schools, an analysis that went beyond racial problems and public policy about them. What was actually taught and how it got taught varied from situation to situation. Teachers were encouraged to use a Socratic style of teaching, asking questions that drew on the experiences of students and trying to help them develop a larger perspective. Volunteers who were professional teachers often had more trouble adjusting to the teaching style than did the inexperienced.

Source | Charles Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (University of California Press, 1995), 302-304.
Creator | Charles Payne
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Charles Payne, “I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Excerpt),” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed February 26, 2024,

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