Celebrating civil rights anniversary

Project marks black history, Mississippi movement

Correspondent photos / Sean Barron Alice Lynd, widow of the late longtime activist, Quaker and educator Staughton Lynd, speaks to students Monday on the first day of a five-day series of events at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Youngstown that are part of a Youngstown Summer School for young people. The local project is to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer movement. Also shown is Lynd’s son, Lee Lynd.

YOUNGSTOWN — Young people fighting for others’ rights during the modern civil rights movement did their often dangerous work aimed at making the U.S. more closely abide by the true meaning of its creed long before Noah Johnson’s time.

Nevertheless, he echoed what those decades before him already knew and were fighting to prevent.

“I feel we should learn it, because if we do not learn it, it will repeat itself,” Noah, 11, of Youngstown, said. “We should learn about the things America did that were bad, like racial divisions.”

Noah voiced his concerns and insights about this country’s past and future failings during the kickoff to a five-day Youngstown Freedom School project at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 343 Wick Ave., which began Monday and runs through Friday.

Hosting the summer school for students in grades five to nine are Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past and the Zinn Education Project.

The series of events for young people also are to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project in which hundreds of mostly white middle and upper middle class northern college students received training to register blacks to vote and set up Freedom Schools in Mississippi, arguably the nation’s most segregated state at the time. Spearheading the effort were the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality, two key civil rights organizations.

The local program’s primary goals for the students are to teach them about Freedom Summer, learn and incorporate the six principles of nonviolence into their lives, realize the importance of voting, develop sharper critical-thinking, research and writing skills, learn more about the area’s black history, work toward achieving social justice via nonviolent means and find their voices, Penny Wells, Sojourn to the Past’s executive director, said in an email.

Kicking off the program was Alice Lynd, a retired attorney whose late husband, activist and educator Staughton Lynd, was instrumental in organizing and coordinating the more than 40 Freedom Schools throughout Mississippi.

The schools, some of which resembled little more than shacks, were set up to teach blacks about their history and culture, as well as reading, typing, math and civics — very little of which they received in “segregated and economically unjust schools,” Lynd said. The Freedom Schools also contained libraries and clinics for blacks, many of whom had never visited a doctor.

Lynd showed a video of Gwendolyn Robinson (later Zoharah Simmons), who was a student of Staughton Lynd when he taught history in the early 1960s at Spelman College in Atlanta. Even though her grandmother and other family members opposed Robinson’s idea to travel to Mississippi, Lynd encouraged her to go, so as a result, she was assigned to work during the summer of 1964 in Laurel, which also was home to Samuel H. Bowers and the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan organization he ran.

Beforehand, Robinson and hundreds of other young blacks and whites had taken part in two one-week training sessions at the Western Women’s College (on the campus of Miami University in Oxford). Their training included role playing to know how to nonviolently handle being physically and verbally attacked by Mississippi’s white racists, as well as how to approach black people — some of whom had never interacted with whites — to encourage them to register to vote. The integrated groups also were told of the risks they faced for the dangerous work.

Lynd recalled the tragedy of when civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner were killed June 21, 1964, and whose remains were discovered 44 days later buried near an earthen dam on Olen L. Burrage’s farm outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three young men, who represented the Congress of Racial Equality, had set up a Freedom School at Mount Zion Baptist Church in nearby Longdale, where they were investigating its bombing shortly before they disappeared.

Staughton Lynd worked closely with civil rights icon and Harlem native Bob Moses, who first came to Mississippi in mid-1960 and was the Mississippi Freedom Summer’s principal architect.

Soon after his arrival, Moses learned from Amzie Moore, the Mississippi NAACP’s president, about blacks in the state being denied the right to vote. In 1961, he and other community leaders began the SNCC’s first voter registration and organizing effort.

During her brief presentation, Lynd expressed concerns about the possibility that violence could mar the Nov. 5 general election, regardless of the outcome. She also asked the students to imagine themselves in Mississippi during that tumultuous time and to consider what they may have done if they had such an opportunity.

“What do you think you can do to carry it on?” she said, referring to the civil rights workers’ risky efforts.

Some of the same battles being waged in the 1960s have re-emerged, such as state and federal efforts to ban certain books because of uncomfortable truths they may proffer, Heather Smith, a Volney McGuffey School technology teacher and Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past member, said.

“It literally goes full circle,” said Smith, who has conducted research into why the 1964 Freedom Summer movement is relevant today. “We’ve progressed, but we’re probably not where we should be.”

At the end of Monday’s gathering, several students and adults voiced their takeaways from the program’s first day, as well as Lynd’s talk. They included the importance of treating everyone with kindness, being nonjudgmental toward others, finding one’s voice, embracing the importance of a solid education and realizing they all have individual and collective power to bring about necessary social changes.

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