Justice  /  Retrieval

What the Civil Rights Act Really Meant

An overlooked effect of the legislation, passed 60 years ago this week, was its powerful message of hope for Black Americans.

The Freedom School students imagined new dreams for their lives based on the messages conveyed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the law did not immediately resolve America’s painful legacy of racial injustice, it did embody a wave of hope. Today, however, legislators in dozens of states are in a frenzied rush to pass laws that do the opposite for America’s youth: Animated by right-wing activists, lawmakers across the nation are seeking to ban the teaching of parts of U.S. history that they deem “divisive.”

Many of the lessons once taught in the Mississippi Freedom Schools would certainly fall under these bans. In fact, some of the very same books used to empower Freedom School students have already been censored in parts of America. In blocking access to the most potent form of intellectual empowerment, legislators convey clear societal values, especially in places such as Alabama and Tennessee, where state legislatures have passed laws to protect monuments to the Confederacy.

Although young people may not understand the complicated legal implications of new legislation, they can certainly discern broader cultural meanings behind our laws. Most of today’s young children won’t follow debates over school segregation and private-school vouchers, or even the laws dictating classroom content or efforts to ban books. But young people can sense when they are being devalued. Like the Freedom School students of 1964, they understand that laws have expressive functions. Today’s young people, too, should have the chance to know what the Civil Rights Act means for them.

That summer of 1964, more than 2,000 young Black Mississippians attended one of some 40 Freedom Schools that operated across the state. These schools were organized by a coalition of civil-rights activists to supplement the inferior education available to Black youths in Mississippi’s public schools, which remained segregated until fall of that year, when the Civil Rights Act finally forced Mississippi to begin to comply with school desegregation. Those young Black people lived in a state that tightly controlled and censored the subjects that could be taught in regular Mississippi schools. Teachers were surveilled and barred from belonging to such organizations as the NAACP.

Every child who attended a Freedom School experienced racism on a daily basis. In addition to public harassment and the prospect of violence, these youths grew up in segregated neighborhoods and attended underfunded schools, and their hometowns were filled with Confederate monuments as well as with streets and parks named for slave owners and Klansmen.