From Freedom to Liberation: Politics and Pedagogy in Movement Schools



Oakland Community Learning Center.

By Daniel Perlstein

Evolving political conditions, goals, and analyses of American society continually 
reshaped Movement educational projects. Reflecting the Movement of the early 
1960s, the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools, explained Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer Charles Cobb Jr., sought to help “young Negro Mississippians… articulate their own desires, demands, and questions.” Organizers’ faith in students’ ability to make sense of their world—their faith that American society was not irretrievably alien to students—inspired a “curriculum that begins on the level of the students’ everyday lives…. It is not our purpose to impose a particular set of conclusions. Our purpose is to encourage the asking of questions, and the hope that society can be improved.” Freedom Schools, in Cobb’s words, reflected “traditional liberal concepts and approaches to education.” Although the schools did not “grapple with the deeper flaws in education and society,” they contributed “to expanding the idea…that Black people could shape and control at least some of the things that affected their lives.”

In the years that followed the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, the trust—in America and in students’ understanding—that infused freedom schooling began to dissipate. The Movement’s successes in dismantling Jim Crow offered little guidance in challenging the deeply rooted racial and economic oppression exemplified by conditions in northern ghettos. The belief that America itself was hopelessly racist discouraged both political mobilization through a language of shared American values and pedagogical approaches growing out of students’ American experience. A focus on critical analysis and self-expression among the voiceless was replaced by a desire to articulate a critique of society to the oppressed. Ironically, then, more radical critiques of American racism were matched by more traditional “banking” approaches to teaching. Whatever term one uses to describe the alternative to progressive pedagogy—teacher-centered, traditional, and direct instruction are popular—its essential characteristic is that a predetermined body of information or skills which students lack is delivered to them. Such an approach won increasing support from Black activists. Read the article (PDF).