I went down to Mississippi as a Freedom School teacher. My first location was in Ruleville, where I stayed for a while with Mrs. Hamer herself. Then we opened up a Freedom School in Indianola, still in Sunflower County, and I moved there with one or two other Ruleville freedom school and community center volunteers. After the summer, I stayed when most Northern volunteers went back to school or work, having been appointed by Staughton Lynd to be co-coordinator (with Ralph Featherstone) of the whole state’s Freedom Schools. From my base in Jackson, I drove all around the state, checking in and helping out as I could.
After about one year, I moved my base briefly to Greenwood, and then for almost another year to the nearby tiny rural town of Sidon, where I worked on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and also the nascent Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, as well as whatever Freedom School activity was relevant. We had come to realize that the consciousness-raising (overcoming what Steven Biko later called “the colonization of the mind”) was all “Freedom School.”
In terms of my Jewish identity, except for my Jewish values embodied in “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue!” I was essentially unaware of it, focusing instead on my whiteness and how to recognize and then overcome my previously unacknowledged white privilege. I do remember being very upset to find out the hard way — when I was one of a few Jewish volunteers who tried to attend a high holiday service, but were denied entry — that some Jewish Mississippians were still white Mississipians. In the fifty years since, I’ve noticed that, like myself, a great many of the summer volunteers stayed active in peace and justice work. In particular, in recent years, I’m impressed that many of the original Jewish civil rights workers, like myself, have been out in front on issues of justice for the Palestinians. We consider it all one struggle, I guess.
Elizabeth Aaronsohn is a retired teacher educator at Central Connecticut State University who experienced supervising student teachers as very much like riding around Mississippi checking in on Freedom Schools. She earned her education doctorate at age 50. She has been active in social justice causes, notably in a Connecticut-based group called We Refuse to Be Enemies — Jews, Muslims, and Christians Working for Peace and Justice in the Middle East, which is linked informally to Jewish Voice for Peace. Aaronsohn is the author of Going Against the Grain: Supporting the Student-Centered Teacher (1996) and The Exceptional Teacher (2003). She is now a full-time volunteer, grant-writer, and board chair at an urban organic farm in New Britain, Connecticut.
6. Patricia Barbanell
Some people call me a “red diaper baby.” My grandmother fought in the Russian Revolution and my parents met in the 1930s at Kinderland, a summer camp for politically progressive Jews. Despite the drama of my family personal history, however, it had had little relevance to how I conducted my young life. I expressed many opinions but actually did little. Then, in 1964, at a folk festival, I came upon an informational display where people were recruiting volunteers to join Mississippi Freedom Summer. I waited until I was 21 — July 15th — and took off. (My father was so angry, he did not speak to me for two years.)
This choice to go to Mississippi proved to be a defining moment in my life. My family background and my daily existence merged into one reality, allowing my personal identity to emerge.
My experience began in Atlanta where I was sent for training, and where I first encountered Robert Parris Moses, who instantly became one of my lifetime heroes. Robert Moses had a quiet strength and intelligence that inspired me; his way of motivating people to take ownership of their work remains a leadership model that guides my actions to this day.
I was sent to be a teacher at a Freedom School in Columbus, Mississippi. From the start, I discovered the realities of the segregated South, and learned much more than I taught.
I cringed at the separate sections in movie theaters, and was appalled that blacks were barred from bookstores and supermarkets. I still become emotional when I remember the extreme poverty and incredible generosity of the local black people who risked everything to provide housing and support for us.
Another lesson came with my first encounter with raw anti-Semitism. Fear of prejudice was an undercurrent in my family: Although my dad had a top secret military clearance to work in the aerospace industry, he was wary about the vulnerability of Jews because of his experiences of anti-Semitic discrimination in lodging and employment. In the early 1950s, a cross was burned on our lawn in Connecticut by followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Through all this, my parents taught me that my own safety depended upon each person’s obligation to stand up to defend the rights of oppressed people.
In Mississippi, I was shocked when I learned that some of my co-workers were not at all concerned about the rights or safety of Jews, but rather blamed us for many of the problems of blacks in America. I remember a young man saying that Jews were the worst bigots because they were slumlords and thieving grocery-store owners. I tried to point out that I and my family were not part of this wrongdoing — but I was Jewish and therefore guilty. Racial epithets came my way. I got a taste of what many black people and others experience throughout their lives, and I will always be grateful for the help of black coworkers who taught me to shed the hurt and to define myself as the person I am, not the person someone thinks I am.
Freedom Summer put me and all the volunteers in harm’s way, with threats of real violence always present. Vigilantes drove around the Freedom School, trying to intimidate us. Friends were stopped and detained by police for no reason. Driving south to Jackson for a meeting, our black colleagues had to lie on the floor of the car to avoid provoking violence on the way. One time, I picked up the telephone and heard the chatter of people who were tapping our phone; suddenly they realized that the line was open and threw a switch to activate a dial tone. These frightening realities made me realize how committed I was to the cause, gave me confidence in my own worldview, and laid a foundation for me to act positively on my beliefs and my social commitments. I will be eternally grateful for the experience.
Patricia Barbanell holds a doctorate from Columbia University and has extensive experience in K-12 education and museum education. Her specialties are integrated arts, multicultural programming and technology integration. She is past president of New York State Art Teachers and the New York Council of Educational Associations, and helped to write the New York Learning Standards for the Arts.