400 Years Blog #39 – Revolutionary Learning 

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As the civil rights movement heated up, the Black community fostered more radical educational efforts. Stokely Carmichael, who led the effort by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register southern Black voters, knew how white supremacists manipulated education. He wrote about how the Bolivar County, Mississippi, school board demanded that, “Neither foreign languages nor civics shall be taught in Negro schools. Nor shall American history from 1860 to 1875 be taught.

In response, SNCC organized Mississippi Freedom Schools in 1964, temporary alternative schools that taught traditional subjects, including American slavery and racial oppression. Civic activism and pride was fostered through an emphasis on questioning and dialogue.  When this approach inspired revolutionary thinking in public schools, the system lashed out. For example, in 1965, 300 students at Mississippi’s Henry Weathers High School were expelled for wearing buttons depicting black and white hands clasped together next to the initials “SNCC.”

Revolutionary learning was also promoted in the north. John Churchville opened the Philadelphia Freedom Library offering 2,000 books by or about African Americans and evening classes advocating social revolution. In 1966 it folded after it was raided by the FBI in search of “militant groups.” The Black Panther Party’s educational efforts soon became one of the FBI’s prime targets.

The popularity of the free breakfast program for school children was particularly galling to authorities.  Convinced that it would be hard for children to learn when they were hungry, Bobby Seal, Huey Newton, and others solicited food from local vendors and fed thousands of students. Truancy rates fell and academic achievement improved.  According to historian Yohuru Williams, despite the fact that the program “became a blueprint for the federal government’s school breakfast and lunch program,” police and federal agents launched a harassment campaign, calling the program a tool to indoctrinate children with radical ideas.

  • Lesson #193: White supremacy manipulated public education so Black students would not learn the full extent of racist oppression nor the full revolutionary power of their own minds.
  • Lesson #194: One of the most radical parts of the SNCC program was the pride it instilled in young activists who challenged the system.
  • Lesson #195: John Churchville, who founded the Philadelphia Freedom Library, still works to empower the community through the Liberation Fellowship Community Development Corporation, which strives to “develop community leadership skills, encourage low income housing and economic development, and support job creation in the Germantown area of Philadelphia.”  Its goal is “to develop positive, value-laden, replicable program models that are readily adaptable to other urban areas of the country.”
  • Lesson #196: The breakfast program for school children was one of the largest service programs undertaken by the Black Panthers.  Many more hours were put into their constructive social welfare efforts, especially by women, than were put into more militant Panther activities.
  • Lesson #197: In 1977, California Governor Jerry Brown and the California legislature gave Oakland Community School a special award for “having set the standard for the highest level of elementary school education in the state.” The school hosted speakers including Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Cesar Chavez.
  • Lesson #198: Panther founder Bobby Seale went on to a long career in education and activism, declaring in 1981, “Today we don’t need guns; we need computers.”
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