It was 8am in Jackson, Mississippi. I had been traveling for the past twenty-four hours, with only three of those hours dedicated to sleep. It was hot and humid, and I was tired from carrying around all the luggage that I had brought along with me. As I was finally able to get into a taxicab, my friendly cab driver began asking me questions about my reasons for visiting Jackson. I wasn’t in much of a talkative mood, but I figured that a little conversation would help me stay awake. I told him that I was there for the Freedom Summer’s 50th Anniversary Conference at Tougaloo College and that I would be there to help lead a workshop on using creative media to push social movements forward, and also to learn more about Mississippi’s rich history of organizing and of the Civil Rights Movement.
He asked me to tell him a little bit about Freedom Summer. I told him that Freedom Summer was initiated by a few organizations in 1964 with the goals of registering more black voters in the state of Mississippi and providing an equitable education to black youth. As I finished telling him a little bit about what I knew, he mentioned that, “those were scary times back then.” I replied that I was sure it was, and that it was mainly that fear of repression and physical violence that prevented many people from registering to vote and getting involved in the movement. As we were about to pull into the hotel, he told me that he had actually been in Mississippi during the 1960s, and he had experienced the Civil Rights Movement as it was happening. He still remembered the three activists being killed and the great deal of physical violence endured by those involved. When he dropped me off, he said “I bet you didn’t know I was here and a part of it all, did you?” And he was right, I didn’t know. I hadn’t even stopped to think about the stories that the local community had to share. At that moment, with only a few hours of sleep and a packed day ahead of me, I realized that I was in a city with a rich history of organizing, but that hearing those stories would require me to be fully present and intentional in my listening skills for the days that were to follow.
As I spent the next four days at the conference, I had other similar encounters with people who had been in Mississippi during the 1960s. I met some of the the volunteers who had come from different parts of the United States to participate in the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, as well as some of the youth who had been a part of the Freedom Schools. As I sat for an interview with one of the Freedom Summer veterans, Gail Falk, she noticed the book that I had in my hand: Freedom’s Children. She asked to borrow the book and began to quickly scan the pages. She scanned through them, pointing out pictures of children who she knew; children who she had taught during her time as a volunteer at the one of the largest Freedom Schools that had been set up during that summer of ‘64. After our interview, I realized how lucky I was to be sharing the same space with a person who had been a part of the movement for the past 50 years, and to be in the same space as people who were currently organizing for seemingly different causes, yet with the same desire for human dignity and respect.
I left the conference with a stronger conviction about the intersections that exist not only between issues, but also between generations. It became apparent that throughout these past years of organizing, I’ve misunderstood the Civil Rights Movement as only pertaining to the 60s, when in reality it is a movement that still continues today. I learned that whether it is organizing for the LGBTQ, immigrant, or black community, the underlying message that was carried during the Civil Rights movement and that continues to be carried today, is that we all deserve human dignity and respect. Perhaps the most important thing that I learned during my participation at the Freedom Summer’s 50th Anniversary Conference, however, is that in order to continue creating positive changes for our community, we must never forget to learn from the past and to remember that our issues are not separate issues that we should be fighting in separate platforms. Instead, we should support each other and stand in solidarity with one another to effectively fight against the various forms of injustices that try to keep our communities oppressed.
(photo credit: Ted Polumbaum Collection/Newseum)