What Black Campus Activists Can Learn From the Freedom Summer of 1964

Alex Williamson for The Chronicle

January 31, 2016

In the summer of 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee led the Mississippi Summer Project, to bring 1,000 black and white students from the northern United States to help register black Americans to vote, and to teach them something about an American history in which they were central protagonists. The students would spend several months living with black families in rural Mississippi, a breeding ground of violence and resistance to racial equality.

Some SNCC members were uncomfortable with the idea of including white people in the movement, fearing that whites would be incapable of following black leadership and lacked understanding of the painful struggles black citizens faced. But Fannie Lou Hamer, the brilliant sharecropper-turned-civil-rights leader, asked the SNCC activist Charles Cobb, who was black but had grown up in Massachusetts and thus was considered on the periphery of Southern life, "Well, Charlie. I’m glad you came. What’s the problem with having more people come? How can you be opposed?" Her expression of acceptance was a smart strategy, and also part of an important black tradition of compassion.

Today black students at colleges across the country are calling for exclusive black spaces and resistance to cultural assimilation, a response to reports of anti-black violence and microaggressions and to a climate that treats them as undeserving visitors on the margins of campus life.

Their demands for separate safe spaces and free expression of their own culture are understandable, but nonetheless seem to contradict their desire to be included and recognized on their campuses. We believe that for black students at predominantly white institutions to expand this idea of separation is to reinforce the very exclusion they say they feel.

At the historically white liberal-arts college where we teach, it is common for people who are not from the racially dominant groups to experience the overwhelming weight of being in a space that seems occupied by whiteness. It’s like reversing the old question: Why do all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria? When we substitute "white" for "black" in that sentence, it becomes clear that we do not really give the same consideration to "all" students, and that students of color may still be treated as guests in the manor. Having a caucus in which black, Latino, and Asian students can meet and discuss their concerns seems a reasonable request. Going further begins to border on a kind of divisive calculus.

For these students to use race as a weapon, targeting individual faculty members and administrators rather than seeking transformative restructuring of institutional inequalities that have gone on far too long, is akin to shooting themselves in the foot. At our college, an anonymous group of students who call themselves "The Movement" recently generated a list of 39 demands that includes an attack on white department heads. We do not doubt that these students have legitimate grievances. These seem to have been prompted in part by the students’ frustrations over police brutality in the country at large and by feeling out of place on the campus. However, instead of addressing those issues, they generated a list of demands that reflects an apparent need for self-validation instead of real institutional transformation.

Unlike their predecessors in SNCC, these students may not have invested the critical thinking and discussions required to generate an effective and reasonable course of action. By haphazardly listing an unrealistic number of demands and attacking individuals who might otherwise have supported their efforts, they relinquished any possibility of affecting institutions that have not demonstrated a great willingness to change. Indeed, the strategy of most college administrations seems to be to deflect attention from and dissolve most or all of the grievances by talking them to death in an endless stream of meetings that the students will soon tire of.

Students of color these days often say they are tired of explaining their situation to others, but, as those who have had to navigate their lives through traditionally white institutions already know, there is little real recourse other than dialogue, no matter how trying it may be.

The educator Charles M. Payne has suggested that many black Southerners accepted white volunteers into their "hearts and families" during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Realizing that whites were, as James Baldwin wrote, "trapped in a history which they do not understand" made those seeking change willing to look past the superficial faults and failings of individuals. The close contact in the South provided black people with an understanding of white people as individuals with unique qualities rather than as a kind of cultural monolith.

Today, black activists’ rejection of white people, imbued as those people may be with an ideology of colorblindness and the conviction that they now live in a postracial society, burns the bridge of compassion that black Southerners once extended, with little more than the conviction to stand against generations of discrimination and inequality. Students must not abandon the courage and faith of those who came before them in the struggle for social justice. Working toward alliance is difficult and uncomfortable, and yet can build the kind of strength that changes societies.

Falling back on the comfort of racial isolation, selecting allies on the basis of skin color and ancestry, can be interpreted as backsliding into a world divided across a racial order. To move forward, activists must transcend this form of politics.

While college students of color seek accommodation on their campuses, black and brown people are dying in the streets. The lesson of the Black Lives Matter movement is that a gun is pointed at the collective heads of blacks and Latinos in our nation. It is time to stand up for them and their future.

This requires focus, coalition building, thoughtful long-term planning, and coordinated action. Reverting to racial nationalism and rejecting potential allies can only represent a movement backward, and an indication that higher education is in deeper trouble than we thought.

Heather Merrill is a professor of Africana studies and geography, and Donald Carter is a professor and chair of the department of Africana studies, at Hamilton College.