Into the Circle: Reflections on 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer Commemorative Events in Mississippi—Part 2

Tuesday, June 24
Fifty years ago, Meridian was home to the largest freedom school. It was held in the historic Meridian Baptist Seminary building, a two-story brick building wonderfully equipped for a school. This summer, the Meridian Freedom Project was launched. The MFP is a college pathway program, modeled on Sunflower County’s highly successful program and sharing major tenets of the 1964 freedom schools. The MFP facility, though far from plush, is a modern one-story space with modern audio-visual capabilities. When I wrote about the Meridian Freedom School, I never dreamed I might one day teach in a freedom school. Yet here I was, conducting an “I Have a Dream Writers’ Workshop” for rising sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders.

Following morning meeting, which concludes with singing freedom songs, I was off to visit with each rhetoric class, where students brainstormed in response to the targeted prompt: “I have a dream that one day…” While researching The Fog Machine, I’d acquired compositions on the same theme by 1964 Meridian Freedom School students. MFP students, teachers, and I then engaged in a rare opportunity to compare and contrast viewpoints by students, then and now.

Similarities were both heartening and sad. Like their 1964 counterparts, 2014 students have great aspirations. Inspired by their mayor, several hope to one day follow in his footsteps. Girls have expanded their reach since 1964, with multiple students hoping to go into medicine, especially to serve the homeless population. Kids then and now appreciated the value of education. Although problems the 2014 students dreamed of eliminating took on modern-day shapes, there were eerie similarities. Kids then and now worried a great deal about safety, theirs and their family members’. Seemingly gone is the fear of being terrorized as a race. In its place is the fear of rising violence in response to economic inequality, and bullying based on anything from gender preference to the clothes they wear. And even as kids in both groups dreamed of race becoming a non-issue, today’s kids are troubled by its persistence.

Kids at the MFP are roundly encouraged to question, just as their 1964 counterparts were. And they are learning African American and civil rights history. Yet there are miles to go, in Mississippi where efforts are being made, and across America where they often are not. The kids at the MFP gave me hope.

Wednesday, June 25
Wednesday was the big day in Meridian. Hundreds of students arrived by bus as part of the Children’s Defense Fund civil rights tour. The day began with a screening of Stanley Nelson’s film “Freedom Summer,” introduced by Dave Dennis. Mr. Dennis was co-director of COFO in Mississippi during the civil rights era. His eulogy at James Chaney’s funeral was transformative and unforgettable. A host of volunteers, organizers, elected officials, and Mississippi residents both black and white, both supportive and not appear in this marvelous documentary. Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, Mississippi sharecropper turned activist, seemed to resonate most powerfully with the predominantly student audience, much as she did with Freedom Summer volunteers, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and Americans who saw her televised testimony before the credentials committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

I met some delightful people who stopped to talk with me afterwards about my novel. By way of example, I’ll mention two: Julie Kabat and David Crittendon. Julie’s brother Luke was a med student in 1964 when he volunteered for the MS Summer Project and was assigned to teach at the Meridian Freedom School. Tragically, Luke passed away several years later. Julie, who has devoted her life to arts in education, came to Meridian to meet folks who worked with her brother. When she and I talked at greater length on Saturday, she shared some of Luke’s writings, which she is working on publishing. David Crittendon was a Freedom Summer volunteer. Artist and educator, he is now actively involved with the Los Angeles Writing Project. David’s passion for the world, education, and the lessons of personal experience was evident to each of my family members during interactions over several days.

That evening’s event was “Freedom Summer: Honoring the Legacy & Pursuing Greatness,” with Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the National Children’s Defense Fund as keynote speaker. A lifelong activist, her passion for children and education runs deep, her declarations of personal responsibility and calls to action rained forth, at once eloquent and stern. Honored during this event were the “Meridian 5”—Sadie Clark, Sandra Falconer, Alberta Hopkins, Faye Inge, and Patricia Stennis. These five women, bravely determined to gain access to the best education available, desegregated Meridian High School in 1965, five years prior to court-ordered desegregation in 1970.

About the Author

Susan Follett grew up in Meridian, MS, home in 1964 of the largest freedom school and the COFO office where Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney stopped before their fateful trip to Mount Zion. Her debut historical novel The Fog Machine, set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1964, explores prejudice and what enables change, from the perspectives of a 12-year-old white girl, a young black woman who has left Mississippi for Chicago, and a Jewish Freedom Summer volunteer from New York City.