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The Struggle for Racial Equality: 1964/1994

Cynthia Silva Parker

1964: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) spearheads Freedom Summer, an ambitious effort to draw national attention to the injustices suffered daily by Black people in Mississippi and across the South.1 From 1961, SNCC had been working with local Black leaders in Mississippi, organizing to establish and enforce the right to vote. In the summer of 1964, nearly 1,000 SNCC workers and student volunteers were brought to Mississippi to staff hundreds of Freedom Schools and community centers that would serve as alternative, indigenous institutions, and to secure the rights of citizens by registering voters and building a new political party.

1994: Honoring the courage of SNCC and the Freedom Summer volunteers, Boston's Ten Point Coalition launches Boston Freedom Summer '94 (BFS). Designed to draw the attention of Black students to the injustices suffered by the people of inner-city Boston, the project grows out of the Coalition's church-based agenda for youth-centered outreach, public safety, and economic development. It recruits primarily Black college students to organize among urban gangs, promote literacy among court-involved youth, and assist neighborhood-based efforts to rebuild inner-city communities -- from the ground up.

The Ten Point Coalition

In May 1992, gang members invaded a wake for a Boston youth at Morning Star Baptist Church, shooting randomly and stabbing one of the mourners. The incident dramatized the depth of the chasm separating the churches from young people in the streets. Neither the sanctity of the house of God, nor the solemnity of the occasion kept the gang members from pursuing their bloody agenda. The message was clear: the churches hadn't reached out into the streets, so the gangs would bring the streets into the church. Several area pastors responded with A Ten Point Proposal for Citywide Church Mobilization to Combat the Material and Spiritual Sources of Black-on-Black Violence.2 Addressed to local clergy and lay leaders, the proposal offered ten programs for discussion and possible implementation by churches -- programs designed to stem the tide of violence by addressing its material and spiritual roots.

Over a two year period the dialogue provoked by the proposal has broadened to include drug dealers, gang members, street workers, theologians, seminarians, pastors, and lay leaders. At the same time, several of the churches in the coalition have begun to implement the Ten Point Proposal. Singly or in collaboration, member churches have established working models for programs of male and female gang intervention; court advocacy and mentoring; urban street missionaries; youth entrepreneurship and job referral; urban-suburban and downtown-to-inner-city church linkages; neighborhood crime watch support; brotherhoods; and court-based literacy-through-history education.

The Coalition also offers two formal workshops for pastors and lay people -- "Outreach to the Overlooked" and "Ministry to the Marginal." They provide an historical, sociological, and theological approach to reaching disenfranchised urban youth -- especially adolescent gang members and drug dealers. And since May 1992 the Coalition has sponsored a Friday night street ministry which trains pastors and lay people to work with at-risk youth in an urban setting. In addition, the Coalition has sponsored or participated in numerous activities aimed at broadening public discourse, increasing the involvement of churches in the ministries advanced in the Ten Point Proposal, and bringing the church's perspective to bear on important issues affecting the community.

With the approach of the 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer, Coalition leaders decided to fashion a project that would, by coordinating the work of its member churches, commemorate the courage and successes of the 1964 effort. Under the direction of adult leaders from several Ten Point Coalition churches, Boston Freedom Summer employed a corps of 26 college students and 12 street workers to operate a wide variety of programs for 55 high school students and 55 middle school students, and to organize several community-wide events. For example, the Science and Technology team and the Algebra Summer Camp focused on building skills and interest in math, science, and technical literacy. Groups within the Street Ministry team developed a dynamic youth council and an interactive citizenship curriculum for teens, and organized night patrols to persuade young people to move away from life on the street. The Health and Healing, Voter Education and Registration, and Court Advocacy teams likewise contributed to our efforts to leave young people and their neighborhoods more peaceful and more powerful.

Borrowing a Page From History

Boston Freedom Summer '94 (BFS) traces its roots to the original Freedom Summer. Bob Moses, a principal architect of Freedom Summer '64, played an important role in the intellectual development of several leaders of BFS through his interactions in the 1980s with the Seymour Society, a Harvard-Radcliffe-based Christian fellowship and precursor to the Azusa Christian Community (one of the Ten Point churches).3 Moreover, several members of that Community participated in the Algebra Project, Moses's effort to bring mathematical literacy into the repertoire of citizenship skills, and to make that literacy attainable for all public school students. The Boston affiliate of the Algebra Project, the Algebra in Middle Schools Project, operated one of the seven teams that comprised Boston Freedom Summer '94. And Marian Wright Edelman and Robert Coles, each of whom was involved deeply in Freedom Summer '64, have served as honorary co-chairs of BFS.

The connections to 1964 extend, however, well beyond such personal links. The heart of SNCC's political model was a deep respect for the intelligence and talent of local communities and their leaders, and a strong desire to bring out the best in those communities and strengthen (or create when necessary) indigenous institutions that could serve their interests. BFS sought to build on this community-organizing model while focusing on a particular stratum of the community -- its young people -- and a few communities -- Grove Hall and Four Corners in the Dorchester section of Boston. SNCC also provided (not coincidentally) an important example of a biblical principle: that the most impressive and powerful leaders are those who are willing to serve. This "servant" model of leadership stands in sharp contrast to the more familiar "star model," emphasizing command decision-making and celebrity leaders. BFS, too, subscribed to the servant model, which we explained in leadership development activities with the college students.

The role of the Black church in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement has been amply documented. BFS pushed this role one step further by having churches initiate projects to counteract urban violence and decay. With churches playing a key role in secular efforts, we hoped to lay strong spiritual foundations for such work.

Freedom Summer 1994 also pursued the same fundamental aim as 1964: the empowerment of disempowered communities. Freedom Summer '64 focused on the vote -- on political enfranchisement -- as the crucial vehicle for empowerment and community development. But the Freedom Schools, a less celebrated aspect of the 1964 effort, were also an essential element of the strategy; these schools concentrated on African-American history and literature, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, and the need to challenge unjust conditions. In 1994, we focused on enfranchisement and participation in the electoral process with our Voter Education and Registration team, which registered 500 voters in a neighborhood with a 40% registration rate, set up voter registration boxes at 40 local churches, businesses, and non-profit agencies, and developed a citizenship curriculum for five high school students who worked with the team. At the same time, we took a broader view of enfranchisement: young people in the target neighborhoods needed more than voter registration cards -- they needed to develop the skills and awareness required for literate, informed, and active citizenship. For technical instruction, Alan Shaw of Imani Information Systems brought his four-year old Community Youth Technical Exchange under the BFS umbrella. Twenty-six high school students on the Science and Technology team learned computer skills, appliance repair, and other basic applications of science in daily life. We also promoted mathematical literacy through the Algebra Summer Camp team, operated by the Algebra in Middle Schools Project.

In addition, both 1964 and 1994 involved multi-racial coalitions. The major strategic initiative in 1964 was staffed by nearly 1,000 White and Black college students, backed by support groups of parents and friends. SNCC itself was an integrated, majority-Black organization with a commitment to modeling the kind of Beloved Community it was struggling to create throughout the country. In 1994, the Ten Point Coalition assembled its own multi-racial Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to guide Boston Freedom Summer '94. Members of COFO represented individual churches and other religious organizations, community-based organizations, university research centers, and even the City of Boston. Together they gathered an impressive array of resources from corporations, foundations, individuals, and religious organizations.

Finally, as in 1964, we faced formidable obstacles in balancing the development of leadership among the college students with the need to cultivate indigenous leadership. It is easy to imagine the challenges faced by SNCC in bringing White college students to Mississippi to work with people who had been systematically shut out of major social and political institutions. The position of the White students -- privileged by race and class -- contrasted sharply with that of even the most brilliant and astute local residents, and also with that of the Black volunteers and staff. Acutely aware of the imbalance, the SNCC staff always reminded the students of the value of local citizens' knowledge about their communities and the powers that controlled them.

In 1994, we had to address imbalances of class. Kids from Four Corners and Grove Hall have been taught all their lives that they can never match the successes of the college students -- even the students who come from neighborhoods like Four Corners. We could not simply tell them to change their attitudes toward institutions that have written them off. Instead, our job was to bring out their best, without rigidly prescribing what that "best" would look like -- without saying: "I am the definition of success. Be like me." And that required us to struggle against our own sense that we could solve all the problems, and to strive instead for the kind of humility that says: "We are here to learn from you and to do our part." We had some success in this area, but also saw considerable misunderstanding in discussions between college students and neighborhood youth.

'64 to '94: Chains of Change

Although the threads that connect the 1964 and 1994 experiences are strong, there are also some striking differences.

In 1964, the enemy was clear and the strategies for challenging the most obvious injustices were fairly direct. Freedom Summer '64 was designed to open up the political process to Black citizens in Mississippi by continuing earlier efforts to organize in Black communities, and forcing a confrontation between federal and state authorities. In the fall of 1963, SNCC organized a "Freedom Vote" in select counties. More than 80,000 Black Mississippians voted in this election, challenging several hundred years of violence and intimidation. The Summer Project was a larger, statewide effort to build an alternative political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The Freedom Vote had employed northern White college students to assist in the field work. The Summer Project expanded that practice, ultimately bringing some 1,000 relatively affluent, northern (mostly White) college students to the state to register voters, assist with the organization of the MFDP and the county, regional, district and statewide proceedings, and operate Freedom Schools and community centers. Some of the planners clearly had the development of indigenous institutions in mind. Both the MFDP and the Freedom Schools were intended to last beyond the summer. While the MFDP suffered a devastating blow at the 1964 Democratic Convention, some of the Freedom Schools evolved into enduring, community-based educational institutions.

By bringing White students to Mississippi, SNCC aimed to use America's racism to strategic advantage. Organizers calculated that the federal government, and indeed the nation, would not sit idly by as the "best and the brightest" received (in)justice Mississippi-style, even though they had remained unmoved by the murder of countless Black Mississippians -- activists and non-activists alike -- for decades. Faced with a public spectacle, the federal government would be forced to protect voter registration workers and take a stand against state authorities. The media did indeed bring the project to America's living rooms -- including the murder of three CORE workers within days of their arrival in Mississippi. Even so, federal protection was withheld, and the Democratic Party refused to seat the MFDP delegation at its convention. The project did, however, succeed in organizing Mississippians around

the franchise, laying the foundations for several community-based educational institutions, exposing the federal government's complicity in the prevailing injustice in Mississippi, and opening up the Democratic Party for the first time to Blacks and large numbers of women.

In 1994, there were no intransigent registrars, sheriffs, or county officials. No shot-gun-carrying vigilantes. No Democratic Party operatives offering unacceptable compromises. The enemy was harder to identify, and remedies correspondingly more difficult to devise. In some ways, the enemy is still external, but it also lies within our communities and ourselves. Our project's outreach poster describes the situation this way:

A generation of poor Black adults and children will almost certainly reach the end of the century in an economically, politically and spiritually inferior position to their ancestors who entered the century in the shadow of slavery. Unable to see a more rational future through the eyes of faith, they lack the hope that sustained their forebears. Lacking hope, their experience was called "social death." But unlike the social death of slavery, this social death is fundamentally spiritual -- rooted in the destruction of faith and hope. It is, in the end, this profoundly spiritual nature of the current crisis that gives it its unique historical character.4

In 1964, faith sustained people during a difficult and dangerous struggle; today, faith is precisely what people must struggle to sustain. To be sure, faith has supported the leadership of the Ten Point Coalition and BFS in their work. But a large part of that work is to lay the foundation for rebuilding faith in the larger community.

The broader national culture has also changed markedly since 1964. Freedom Summer '64 was conceived after a series of important civil rights victories -- the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 56, the sit-ins in 1960, the Freedom Rides in 1961, and the Birmingham demonstration and the March on Washington in 1963. The times were unusually optimistic; young adults, in particular, had the firm conviction that through determination and courage they could change the world. By and large, they believed that America's promise of "liberty and justice for all" could be extended to Black people in the South in a way that would begin to transform relations of power on a national scale.5

Over the past 30 years, this cultural optimism has largely dissipated. Real income has dropped steadily; the current generation of young people may be the first in American history to have a lower standard of living than its parents. During the 1980s, a small group of wealthy individuals mortgaged the future of the current generation through the savings and loan rip off, tax giveaways, and a massive increase in military force. Crack cocaine has exacerbated the consequences of parental and peer drug abuse on young children and teens. Gun play and the murder of children by children have caused more than a few young people to marvel at reaching their 16th birthday. Turning 18 is now a long range plan. For some of the youths we worked with this summer, the idea of having a family was a notion too remote for serious consideration. One young man said he wasn't going to have a family because it would be "too expensive." Labeled "Generation X," the 1990s counterparts of 1960s optimists are perceived as aimless, uncommitted, self-centered, cynical, and without hope.

Another important difference between the two projects stems from the changes in race relations over the past 30 years. In Freedom Summer '64, White student volunteers were used quite deliberately as a lightning rod to draw the nation's concern to the plight of Blacks in Mississippi. The planners judged, correctly, that the country would find it hard to ignore the circumstances of White students. At the same time, the volunteers embraced the idea of a Beloved Community -- building interracial cooperation, first in Mississippi and then nationally.

By 1994, we had experienced Black Power and the expulsion of Whites from SNCC and the movement more generally, affirmative action, claims of "reverse discrimination," an explosion of Black elected officials that coincided with the evisceration of the municipalities over which they had jurisdiction, urban rebellions -- a.k.a. riots -- and a multitude of "Black faces in high places" with uncertain commitment to the most disadvantaged sectors of the Black community. For all these reasons, the 1990s have provided an important opportunity to reflect on integration as a tactic versus integration as an end in itself. Having bravely fought segregation in earlier decades, Blacks now lead the struggle in many school districts to return to neighborhood (read: segregated) schools. As a result, some well-meaning White allies have begun to question not only their role, but the way their Black colleagues regard them. In 1994, at least one of our White partners asked explicitly about our paradigm for interracial collaboration as he considered whether and how deeply to involve himself. Another was wary of involvement for fear that at some point she would no longer be wanted. Our response has been that we attempt to find culturally appropriate assignments for everyone concerned, and more generally that we are building partnerships based on mutual interests -- like safety in our cities and public institutions, a literate, enfranchised citizenry to participate in the governing of our communities, a competitive work force, and conditions of life that promote the development of every citizen's fullest potential.

Not only have race relations and interracial coalition-building shifted over the past 30 years, relations within the Black community, too, have changed significantly. At least since the publication of William Julius Wilson's The Declining Significance of Race in the late 1970s, scholars, politicians, and other commentators have noted the growing gulf between the stable, even affluent, sectors of the Black community and the Black poor. The disparity between rich and poor is widening throughout the United States (hence the alarm about the endangered middle class), but it has reached especially extreme proportions in the African-American community. Professional Blacks need no longer depend upon the Black community for their livelihood and upward mobility, as they did under segregation. And because of residential desegregation of middle and upper income communities, they no longer need make Black communities their home. As Martin Kilson points out in his essay "Memorandum to Black Intellectuals: We're in the Mainstream, but We're Losing the Brothers,"6 professional Blacks who have achieved their status outside the Black community typically meet profound suspicion when they attempt to connect with poor Blacks -- if they make such attempts at all. So BFS encouraged Black students to commit themselves to the work at hand and to consider what it would mean for them personally and professionally to sustain that commitment through their life's work, choice of residential neighborhood, and volunteer time.

Building New Leadership

One of the long-term aspirations of Freedom Summer '64 was to cultivate leadership skills among the "target populations" and among Black staff and volunteers. The planners did not intend to influence the White volunteers, but the summer left an indelible mark on them, too. They became more politically radical, more committed to acting on their political convictions, and thirsty for the kind of Beloved Community they had experienced in Mississippi. As the role of Whites in the civil rights movement narrowed, the volunteers went on to play leadership roles in the student, anti-Vietnam War, and women's movements.7

In 1994, we hoped to do what Freedom Summer '64 had done by design for Black staff and volunteers and inadvertently for an entire generation of White activists: prepare them for leadership by providing on-the-ground experience and opportunities to reflect on the significance of the work and the context in which it was taking place. Specifically, we aimed to: (1) nurture commitment among college students to applying their skills to the problems faced by their inner-city peers, and to sharpen their understanding of those problems; (2) increase their awareness of the interests and resources of local communities and develop a collaborative sensibility rather than one of noblesse oblige; and (3) start to redefine the Black movement itself by addressing questions of philosophy, politics, policy, program design, and personal commitment. The roundtable discussion published in this issue of the Boston Review (see pages 13 17) indicates some of the progress we made in achieving these objectives.

We are grateful for the examples of SNCC and Freedom Summer '64 as we attempt to address our own pressing concerns. Their experience provides a rich point of departure for our work, and we are blessed by the continuing commitment to justice of so many former SNCC activists. But the contrasts between then and now challenge us to adapt their best to our very different reality. Our prayer is that the fruit of our labor, as revealed in the lives of the young people we touch and are touched by, will stand the test of time.

Click here to return to the Boston Review Series, Freedom Summers.

Originally published in the December 1994/January 1995 issue of Boston Review

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