Mississippi 2017 Summer Institute on the Black Freedom Struggle

All but two of the teachers and co-facilitator Judy Richardson. Photo by Jim Fielder.

In July 2017, fifteen middle and high school English and social studies teachers from across the state of Mississippi participated in a teaching institute at Tougaloo College (in the historic Woodworth Chapel) on the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi. Not only did teachers learn hidden history and interactive teaching strategies, they also built relationships among themselves to sustain and inform their teaching about the true history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Modeled on the philosophy of the Mississippi Freedom Schools, the curriculum throughout the week was participatory with a focus on examining history with a connection to issues of race and equity in society today. The week was full of songs, reading and writing poetry, role plays, guest speakers, field trips, lesson planning, research, meeting veterans who made the history, and more. In their final evaluation, teachers noted:

This institute has changed me in a profound way. I have learned about SNCC, the organizers, the work, the vision, the veterans…

I will never approach the Civil Rights Movement the same again. This institute forever changed my heart and outlook on those involved in the Freedom Struggle.

I so appreciate that I almost never felt “talked at” during the week. I never felt uninformed even though I have been shamefully uniformed about the movement in Mississippi.

I can never teach about the Civil Rights Movement the same way again. I will not continue to adhere to nor teach the dominant narrative in the way I have in the past. That way of teaching came from plain ignorance about the already existing work of local leaders, the intentionality of organizing groups, and the influence of young people on the localized movement. I have been blown away.

The institute was a project of the Freedom Movement Educational Initiative, a collaboration of the SNCC Legacy Project, Civil Rights Movement Veterans (CRMvet.org), Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, Teaching for Change, the Mississippi NAACP/One Voice, and the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. Tougaloo College hosted the institute with funds from a Kellogg Foundation planning grant.

Tougaloo’s president Dr. Beverly Wade Hogan provided a warm welcome to the campus.

Uncovering Mississippi History

On the first day of the institute, teachers learned from movement veterans themselves. After brief introductions, veterans met with teachers in small groups to respond to the questions they prepared in advance, rotating three times to different tables. The veterans were Frankye Adams-JohnsonMacArthur CottonFrank FiggersCharles McLaurinJudy RichardsonHollis Watkins, and Flonzie Brown Wright.

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The teachers viewed and discussed key films (and film clips), introduced by SNCC veteran and filmmaker Judy Richardson. These included Eyes on the PrizeFreedom Song, Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey CreekDirt and Deeds in Mississippi, and The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. They visited the Medgar Evers Home Museum where Minnie Watson gave a moving and detailed history of Evers’ life and legacy.

Alma McDonald with Geraldine Hollis of the Tougaloo Nine.

Tougaloo Nine member Geraldine Hollis made a surprise visit to the institute and shared her work with the campaign by the American Library Association to promote fair access to libraries today.

In addition to readings in advance of the institute, participants were asked to explore the SNCC Digital Gateway and the CRMvet.org online archives in search of a seldom taught story about their own community. This led to some profound discoveries. Gennella Graham searched for stories about her home town of Corinth, Mississippi on CRMvet.org. There she read the name of William Roy Prather. Gennella wrote,

He was a 15-year old Black male from Corinth, MS, who was murdered on Halloween 1959. After finding this information, I called my aunt, who now resides in St. Louis, MO, but grew up in my hometown, Corinth. She informed me that William Roy Prather was our cousin, and to this day she still hates Halloween because his murder took place on that date.

Laura Boughton found a story on the SNCCDigital.org about the okra farmers in Batesville, Mississippi who created a farmers’ coop so they would have “Something of Our Own.” Laura said, “I taught for 23 years in Batesville and never learned about these brave farmers.” She noted that their story could be studied in social studies, language arts, science, and math classes.

To make these stories visible, participants composed “Write That I” poems about each of the people or events they found. It is worth taking a moment to read them here.

In rethinking the traditional narrative, the teachers developed a set of learning outcomes based on the new history they had learned. For example,

Traditional Narrative: The primary demand of the Civil Rights Movement was desegregation.

Actual: The Freedom Struggle had many demands including an end to state sponsored and condoned violence, voting rights, access to health care, education, housing, land rights, recreation environmental justice, peace (anti-war), labor rights, desegregation, and more. Note that quality education has (always) been a primary focus of the Freedom Movement for African Americans.

Traditional Narrative: The primary tactics of the Civil Rights Movement were non-violent actions and mass protests.

Actual: The tactics of the Movement included economic boycotts, protests, grassroots organizing, economic coops, engaging other organizations, non-violence, freedom schools, public education, and more.

Read the full list here.

Interactive and Inquiry-Based Pedagogy

A range of strategies were used throughout the week so that teachers could determine which ones they might adapt for their own classrooms. These included:

Community building activities so that the teachers could get to know each other. These included concentric circles, and writing about “in whose shoes I am walking.”

gallery walk on the history of education in Mississippi. The text and images of the gallery walk began with pre-Mississippi in the ancient city of Timbuktu, moving through Reconstruction to the present day.

A meet and greet lesson with key figures in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement with a connection to Medgar Evers. The lesson has more than two dozen roles, shattering the narrative of a handful of heroes making history.

The Question Formulation Technique was used to generate questions in advance of the dialogue with veterans.  Teachers generated every question they could think of in response to the statement, “Local people were the foundation of the Movement.” They then selected their three top questions to pose to the veterans.

The teachers learned about National History Day as an opportunity for students to document and share local history. They saw part of a film created by students in McComb with local history interviews for National History Day. Their instructor, Oral History Association award winner Falana McDaniel, talked about the process of engaging middle and high school students in local history research, including oral history collection. State co-coordinator Al Wheat stopped in to talk about the benefits to teachers of participating and consult with some of the teachers who plan to engage in NHD this year. Teachers Gennella Graham and Tracei Willis encouraged their peers to apply for the Mississippi Writing Project.

Dr. Robert Blaine provided presentations Design Thinking and the creation of i-books as an option for curating and sharing key texts, images, and video clips.

The Movement Continues Today

Jackson Mayor Antar Lumumba and SNCC veteran Judy Richardson.

A key myth about the Civil Rights Movement is that it ended in the 1960s. Participants read The Hate U Give, the bestseller by Jackson, Mississippi author Angie Thomas, and engaged in a lesson connecting the contemporary story of police brutality to the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Tracei Willis and Sarah Ballard introduced poetry by Clint Smith (How to Make a Cardboard Box Disappear in 10 Steps) and Tupac Shakur (The Rose That Grew From Concrete) and led their peers in related writing activities.

In traditional SNCC fashion, young people joined the session each day including student interns with the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Inc. and Jackson State University student Raykesha Carter from McComb Legacies.

There was a short meeting with new mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who applauded the work of the teachers in the institute and said “We owe our young people honesty, we owe our young people correct history.”

Next Steps

Participants developed a lesson (or edited a current lesson) throughout the week. The criteria were that it include content from the SNCC Digital Gateway and the CRMvet.org online archives, use critical and interactive pedagogy, address at least one of the learning outcomes, and that it help students make connections to the continued struggle today. Participants had the option of creating i-books with the content they selected. These lessons will be revised based on peer feedback, field tested in classrooms this school year, and then made available to teachers online. Chauncey Spears from the Mississippi Department of Education visited the institute and offered his support.

Representatives from the William Winter Institute—Portia Espy, Von Gordon, and Jake McGraw—made a brief presentation about their work, providing more opportunities for participants including the Summer Youth Institute and Welcome Table.

It is everyone’s hope that funding can be found for more regional and statewide institutes. In the meantime, participants will collaborate and share updates as much as possible.

In heartfelt closing remarks, MacArthur Cotton honored the teachers when he told them that they are carrying on the work of SNCC. In the face of adversity, they are telling the truth and encouraging young people to play an active role in society.


Coordination: The facilitators were Deborah Menkart of Teaching for Change and Judy Richardson of the SNCC Legacy Project in collaboration with Noel Didla and Robert Blaine from Tougaloo. Tim Fielder of DieselFunk Studios served as resident artist. Cynthia Palmer of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Inc. coordinated the visit by the veterans. Tougaloo’s Dean of Social Sciences Daphne Chamberlain facilitated the Tougaloo Nine visit. The Tougaloo food services provided very delicious meals every day and about half the participants stayed in dorms on campus. Teacher Laura Boughton produced an institute website for the participants. This institute built on a network of Mississippi teachers developed in 2015.

Posted Saturday, July 15, 2017 |

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