Fifty years ago UFT members were among the 250 volunteers from around the country who took a stand against racism and segregation by teaching in Freedom Schools in Mississippi.
The Freedom Schools, which civil rights activists opened in church basements, parks and on back porches for the summer of 1964, set out to teach African American students not only academic skills but also the citizenship and political organization skills they would need to become a formidable voice in the civil rights movement.
For Mark Levy, now 75, it was a life-changing event. “Becoming a teacher was supposed to be a backup to becoming a doctor, lawyer or businessman,” he said. “Then I went to Mississippi.” His wife Betty became a teacher in the same Freedom School. When the couple returned home, they joined the UFT and went to work in public schools in Harlem.
Donna Garde was already a UFT member and teaching 3rd grade at PS 108 in East Harlem in 1964 when she heard about the Freedom Schools from the organizers she knew at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She had been arrested three years earlier for integrating the blacks-only waiting room at the bus station in Jackson, Miss.
“Participating in Freedom Summer was one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” said Garde, a visual artist who photographed black students on the front lines of change at the Meridian Freedom School in Mississippi.
The Freedom Schools were part of the Freedom Summer project of 1964, a milestone in the struggle for civil rights bracketed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Activities that summer also included voter registration and raising public awareness around the country of the segregationist policies and violence that dominated life in the South. In addition to SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP organized events and mobilized activists.
Students at Freedom Schools studied English and math, but also participated in discussions about voter literacy and political empowerment. “It was unique because it created a deeper bond with the students,” Levy said. Students were asked questions to spark discussion, including, “What does the majority culture have that we want? What does the majority culture have that we don’t want? What do we have that we want to keep?” Singing, dancing and the arts were also part of the curriculum.
Garde and Levy were assigned to the Meridian Freedom School in Mississippi, where some black families put their lives and jobs on the line by housing them and other volunteers. During the intensive training, Levy recalled meeting Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, the three activists who were later murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
“It’s hard to describe how we felt,” Levy said about the moment he learned that the three had disappeared. “We had been prepared for violence, but we felt sad and scared.”
The Klan had the help of local officials who wanted to strike fear in the civil rights activists just as Freedom Summer was getting underway. In fact, the murder of the three activists had the opposite effect, as volunteers poured into the region. Ultimately, 41 Freedom Schools staffed by 250 volunteers were set up to serve more than 2,000 students.
Levy, who spoke briefly about his experience at this summer’s AFT convention in Los Angeles, said that of the 12 teachers he worked with in the Meridian Freedom School, four were UFT members. “A larger UFT delegation arrived after us and included Sandy Feldman,” he said. Feldman, who went on to become president of both the UFT and the AFT, was a Freedom Rider with a contingent that helped black activists to integrate whites-only restaurants in Maryland.
The experience was an eye-opener for Levy — and not just about Jim Crow in the South. “Mississippi may have been worse, but it was not the exception,” Levy said. “We came back with knowledge that there were problems in the North, too.”
After Levy returned to New York at the end of the summer, he joined the UFT and went to work at JHS 43 in Harlem. “I was teaching 8th-grade social studies, and I got permission to do a variation of the Freedom School curriculum in my second and third years at the school,” Levy said. His students organized to put pressure on the city to make repairs on a handball court, and under Levy’s direction they pulled together their family histories in the neighborhood.
In later years, Levy became an organizer for other unions. This year, he has traveled around the country to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and one of its core lessons: “Ordinary people working together can accomplish extraordinary things,” he said.