African American life and history were an integral part of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, especially the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. This particular part of the push to empower Black communities all across Mississippi and the South significantly impacted public education and spurred the achievement of equal opportunity for Black communities.
Even though voter registration was a primary goal for the volunteers of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, it was the Freedom Schools that became community centers for Black communities all across Mississippi. The Freedom Schools, in addition to offering educational opportunities, disseminated information on how to vote and engage in activities aimed at challenging the Jim Crow laws endemic across the South. All activities were aimed at ending the broad range of inequalities foisted upon the Black community.
But an important issue emerged, that of raising the educational levels for members of the Black communities all across Mississippi. Even though this was ten years after Brown vs. Board of Education, all public schools in Mississippi were totally segregated. Black schools were in session about four months each year, while the white schools were in session for nine months. This fact alone made the educational opportunities very unequal, but coupled with unqualified teachers, few if any books, and a lack of facilities, made this inequity very stark. Members of the Black community, both children and adults, could barely read, write, and perform simple arithmetic.
As a volunteer during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, Charles Prickett was part of a team of local leaders and educators who demonstrated leadership and creativity in promoting Black History. Volunteers and staff taught reading, writing, math, and Black History to students at a Freedom School near Canton, Mississippi. Freedom School teachers detailed the accomplishments of Black people to farming, technology, politics, medicine, literature, the arts, commerce, and a host of other categories that public school curricula had purposefully excluded from the curriculum of the separate Black schools in Mississippi. Freedom School students, both children and adults, had never before encountered people like them who were recognized for their innovation and accomplishments. Freedom School students had an increased understanding of and appreciation for the heritage of Black people and all people of color and the important contributions they made to every discipline of learning and in every country on earth.
The impact of the Freedom Schools in Mississippi had a lasting effect on the students and the communities they served. Many Freedom School students went on to become engineers (Otha Williams, Jr.), politicians (Jesse Lee McCollough), and the first Black woman Chief of Police in Canton, Mississippi, Vickie McNeil. Some of the Black leaders in Mississippi in 1964 added to the rich Black History of our country. Black leaders such as Victoria Gray, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Bob Moses became role models for everyone in the Black community. The Freedom School students felt empowered to make life and career choices that they did not even dream about before they attended Freedom School.
Not only did Freedom Schools impart the importance of Black History to the students, but those important lessons and the efforts of the Black community added to this rich history. That summer also saw the emergence of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the election of delegates, and the challenge of the Freedom Democrats to the all white Mississippi Democratic party for credentials to the National Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Another accomplishment was the election of the first Black farmers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture local ASCS committee, which doled out the subsidies to farmers in Mississippi. In Madison County (county seat Canton) over 60% of the farmland was owned by Black farmers, who had never before had representation on this board. The first was Luther Honeysucker, a Black farmer in Madison County.
The leadership shown by local leaders and the volunteers and staff of the Mississippi Freedom Summer has continued through efforts to disseminate the experiences and personal stories of Black communities throughout the State of Mississippi and the entire South. During the late summer of 1964, Charles Prickett teamed with filmmaker Richard Beymer to shoot the film, “A Regular Bouquet” (YouTube). Richard and Charles traveled around Mississippi filming Freedom Schools, mass meetings, interviewing local civil rights advocates, and getting a broader view of how the Freedom Summer was being conducted in several locations.
Charles has presented hundreds of programs to educational institutions consisting of the film “A Regular Bouquet” and his personal experiences to students at all levels of education including elementary, middle, secondary, undergraduate and graduate students, as well as civic groups. Charles published a book, “Remembering Mississippi Freedom Summer”, available on Amazon, which he has donated to every school and class to which he presented. This book contains almost 80 pictures, mostly from “A Regular Bouquet” and the outtakes, and offers a view of the Mississippi Freedom Summer from the intimate prospective of one who was there.
“Remembering Mississippi Freedom Summer” and “ A Regular Bouquet” depict Black History in an evolving environment during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The continued showing of the movie and the placing of Charles’ book in school libraries help sustain the goal of continually informing all persons about the struggles faced by Black citizens, and the successful efforts to overcome those hurdles. The same issues fought for during the 1964 Freedom Summer are still with us today, in a different form. And the struggle is not over.