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Community Organizing I: Freedom Summer

Unit 2, Lesson 4

Explore the role of community organizing, Jewish values, and moral conviction in the lives of young civil rights activists as you imagine yourself a participant in Mississippi Freedom Summer.


Enduring Understandings

  • Community and community organizing played a central role in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Jewish experiences and values informed Jewish relationships to the Civil Rights Movement in many different ways.

Essential Questions

  • What was the role of community in the experience of civil rights activists?
  • What is community organizing and what role did it play in the Civil Rights Movement?
  • What are some of the Jewish values that influenced Jewish civil rights activists?
  • How did generation influence people's relationship to the Civil Rights Movement?

Materials Required

Notes to Teacher

Completing this entire lesson, as it is outlined below, will take multiple class sessions. If you have limited time, you may want to have each group go to only one station (rather than doing a round robin), choose one or two stations for the whole class to focus on, or concentrate on the letters from Freedom Summer in Part IV. Also note that the round robin described involves having two additional staff to run stations. If you are teaching the lesson on your own, consider doing Station 3 with the whole class and then have students do parts of the other two stations on their own, bringing the class back together for the four corners activity at the end of Station 1. The letters from Freedom Summer participants can then be covered in a subsequent class session.

Throughout the round-robin students are asked to imagine themselves as potential participants in the Freedom Summer by attending an information session. In your welcoming remarks the word "Negro" is used to maintain some historical accuracy to the vocabulary that would have been used at the time (and to remind students that they are stepping into a very different era). However, note that the activities the students are participating in do not reflect what an actual Freedom Summer information session would have been like. In addition, Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner disappeared after Freedom Summer began, meaning that participants already had committed to Freedom Summer and had begun training, or even already arrived in Mississippi, when the three men were discovered missing.

Introductory Essay(s)

Freedom Summer: Introductory essay

by Judith Rosenbaum, Jewish Women's Archive

The student arm of the civil rights movement, led by SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, founded in 1960 at a conference of 120 black student activists in North Carolina), focused on fighting segregation through mass action and local, community-based activity. The SNCC organizational structure was made up of a non-hierarchical Coordinating Committee and groups of fieldworkers who worked with local African American communities and determined their own direction in response to the local needs. SNCC used this model of grassroots, community organizing to make change in the daily lives of ordinary people – in contrast, they argued, to the slow pace of federal change and its lack of impact on most regular folks. SNCC's approach was more radical than that of the national black organizations and the African American elite, who sought change through cooperation with whites in positions of power and through the legislative and judicial systems. SNCC, in contrast, operated through direct confrontation, grassroots organizing, and civil disobedience.

In 1964, The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), with heavy student leadership from SNCC, launched the Freedom Summer project, a new campaign that built on and expanded the community organizing that SNCC had been doing for a few years in the South. Freedom Summer brought about 1,000 northern students – mostly white, mostly relatively affluent – to Mississippi to register voters, help organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative to the state's all-white Democratic Party, and run Freedom Schools and community centers for local African American communities. Approximately half of the white Freedom Summer volunteers were Jewish.

Freedom Summer targeted Mississippi because it was the poorest state in the US and the one least changed by civil rights activism. In 1964, 42% of the state's population was African American, but less than 5% could register to vote due to literacy tests, poll taxes, and physical intimidation. The racial caste system was held firmly in place by a tradition of violence against African Americans.

The point of bringing white students to Mississippi was, in part, to take strategic advantage of America's racism. The organizers guessed that violence against white northern college students would attract the attention of the government and the nation, whereas regular violence against African Americans did not. The federal government would then be forced to protect the civil rights workers and stand up to state authorities.

Sadly, this guess was proven correct immediately, when three civil rights workers – James Chaney (21 years old), an African American from Mississippi, and Michael Schwerner (24) and Andrew Goodman (20), both Jews from New York – went missing on their first day in Mississippi in June while investigating the burning of a black church. (Michael Schwerner, with his wife, Rita, had actually spent the previous six months organizing in Mississppi with CORE and had just returned to the South with the first cohort of Freedom Summer volunteers). The bodies of the three men – beaten, shot, and buried in a dam – were found six weeks later. (The search had also uncovered the bodies of seven black men whose disappearance had not garnered any national attention.) Mississippi officials refused to prosecute the suspected killers for murder, so the US Department of Justice brought a case against 18 men, including the Sheriff Laurence Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, on the charge of depriving the three men of their civil rights (by killing them). Seven men were found guilty but served relatively short sentences. Edgar Ray Killen, who had planned and directed the murders, was acquitted in the 1967 case but was finally convicted of three counts of manslaughter in 2005.

Over the course of Freedom Summer at least three other civil rights workers were murdered and volunteers also experienced 1,000 arrests, 80 beatings, 35 shooting incidents, and 30 bombings of homes, churches, and schools.

In addition to the daily intimidation and fears of violence, Freedom Summer volunteers also experienced interpersonal tensions. White volunteers – many of whom had never before had direct contact with African American communities – were not always aware of their own privilege, sense of entitlement, and in some cases, ingrained racist assumptions. Some white activists found the cultural differences they encountered surprisingly challenging and had trouble communicating with local African Americans in the communities in which they worked. With the volunteers working together so many hours each day and often living in close quarters, sexual relationships inevitably developed, and these relationships brought out further racial tensions – especially among black men and white women, who sometimes felt as if they were being used by the other to prove either sexual prowess or their racial politics, and black women and white women, who sometimes competed over the attention of black men. These relationships were further intensified by the danger of white women and black men working together; the mere fact of a white woman in the company of a black man could get one or both of them killed. Tensions around gender roles also arose, as some women wondered why, in a movement committed to equality, they were so often relegated to the housekeeping and administrative tasks and excluded from leadership roles.

But the intensity of the experience also created a powerful sense of purpose and community, an embodiment of the ideal of the "beloved community" of blacks and whites working together for a common cause. Many Freedom Summer volunteers recall their time in the South as the most powerful and transformative experience of their lives. Their eyes were opened to a "different America," as one volunteer put it, and while often a painful realization, it changed their worldview and their definition of community.

This communal spirit was heightened by certain practices such as the singing of "freedom songs" – traditional Negro spirituals or folk songs about the struggle for freedom and redemption that took on new meaning in the cauldron of the civil rights struggle. Meetings often began and ended with the singing of freedom songs; freedom songs also helped boost spirits and strengthen resolve in jail and during other stressful times, and helped activists remain peaceful when faced with violence.

Because Freedom Summer volunteers were predominantly young students, the project sparked some generational tensions. Many of the volunteers' parents, even if they supported the civil rights movement in general, were concerned about the violence that their children faced and discouraged them from participating. Some parents disagreed with the radical tactics of the project, believing that more traditional routes to change – legislative, judicial, etc. – should remain the focus of the civil rights movement. Others were inspired by their children's commitment to civil rights and even learned from them. The letters volunteers wrote home testify to the varied responses of concern and incomprehension, disapproval and pride that they faced from family.

The Freedom Summer project succeeded in its goal of attracting national attention to Mississippi and gaining sympathy from northern liberals. The project created more than 40 freedom schools (some of which became enduring, community-based institutions) that taught reading, math, politics, and African American history to black children. Over the course of the summer about 60,000 African Americans signed up to join the MFDP, and the newly-formed party sent a slate of delegates to the August 1964 Democratic National Convention, demanding to be seated in place of the all-white regular state delegation.

At the convention in Atlantic City, however, the MFDP ran into opposition from President Johnson, who did not want to alienate southern Democrats. MFDP leaders made a strong case for the party, with delegates such as local activist Fannie Lou Hamer testifying before the convention about the racism and brutality that blacks faced daily in Mississippi. Ultimately, Johnson offered a compromise to give MFDP two token seats, but the MFDP delegates rejected the offer, arguing that they had come to challenge the validity of the all-white Mississippi delegation, not to take two symbolic seats beside it. The defeat of the MFDP intensified the disillusionment of student activists with the Democratic Party and the political establishment.

Lesson Plan

Advance Preparation

  1. Prior to class, review the Freedom Summer introductory essay.
  2. Invite 2-3 counselors, volunteers, or aids to help lead the round robin activities. Each counselor, volunteer, or aid will stay at one station and lead that activity for each group. Provide each counselor, volunteer, or aid with the appropriate information about the station s/he will be leading. (See note to teachers above if you are teaching on your own.)
  3. Create separate signs/posters for each of the following, to post around the room:
    • "Welcome to Freedom Summer" in large print. Under the heading you may want to include
    • "Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney" in large print. You may also want to include an image of the iconic Missing poster.
    • "Jewish Participation" in large print (for station 1).
    • "Goals and Purposes" in large print (for station 2).
    • "Community Organizing" in large print (for station 3).
  4. Set up 3 stations in different places around your classroom or meeting space. See directions in III "Freedom Summer Round Robin" for station set-ups.
  5. Hang the "Welcome to Freedom Summer" poster and "Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney" poster in the front of the classroom/meeting space. Then hang the three remaining posters in the designated area for each of the corresponding stations.

Introduction - Freedom Summer Information Session (fictional)

  1. When students arrive, welcome them to an information session about Freedom Summer with the following introduction:

    Welcome to your information session about Mississippi Freedom Summer. You are all here because you care about civil rights and the situation in the South and are considering going to Mississippi to participate in Freedom Summer. I want to thank each of you for applying to be part of this important project sponsored by the Council of Federated Organizations. Our application process is thorough because we want to be sure that we have the best volunteers with the clearest of goals for this project. As you know, Freedom Summer volunteers will be leaving shortly for Mississippi (point to the map and show your students where they will be going) and other southern communities. While there, some of you will be teaching black literature, constitutional rights, reading, and math in our newly organized Freedom Schools. These schools will provide a strong educational foundation for Southern Negro children. Others of you will be registering southern Negroes to vote. Still others will be helping to organize an integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, since as you know the Mississippi Democratic Party is currently all white. We're hoping that your work will help motivate the National Democratic Party to seat a new integrated delegation at the National Convention coming up later this year. All of our efforts will be towards a goal of improving the situation for the Negro community in the South.

    We know that many of you have already heard of the recent tragedy that took place when Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney disappeared on their first day in Mississippi. Their bodies have not been found, but they are likely dead. These three young men (point to their pictures on the poster) who were civil rights activists, just like some of you, had gone to investigate a church bombing when they were arrested. After nightfall, they were released from jail only to disappear on the backroads of Mississippi. We have heard rumors that they were ambushed by the KKK. As you know, if James Chaney had been alone, it is unlikely his disappearance would have been investigated, but because Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were white, and because Schwerner's young wife – a fellow activist who was preparing to return to the South as a Freedom Summer volunteer – has kept the pressure on local and national authorities, federal officials are now searching for these men. We understand that this event may have made some of you think twice about volunteering to go south as a volunteer with Freedom Summer, but it also shows just how important our work is in changing the current situation in Mississippi and other parts of the South. You have until the end of today's orientation to decide if you're coming with us.

  2. Help students understand that today they are each taking on the role of a college student in 1964, and then divide them into three groups:

    We are going to divide into 3 groups or corps for today's information session and you will visit 3 different stations relating to our work. Take a moment to think about where you're from, where you go to school, who the members of your family are, who your friends are, and why you are thinking about volunteering for Freedom Summer. Keep in mind that at each station you will be asked to consider three questions:

  • Why are you here?

  • What is motivating you to go or not go?

  • Based on your skills and talents, which of the three main projects (Freedom Schools, Voting Registration, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) could you contribute to the most?

Freedom Summer Round Robin

Your students will spend approximately 15 minutes at each station. You may want to sound a bell or buzzer when it is time for the groups to change stations.

  1. Station #1 – Jewish Participation
    Set-up: Post the Jewish Participation Poster at this station. Have enough space for the students to sit on the floor or ground and also to spread out. Place a small table or desk at this station. Place copies of the Jewish Participation Document Study (enough for each student in the group) on it.
    1. Explain to your group: Over 1000 volunteers will participate in Mississippi Freedom Summer. Of these, approximately 1/2 of the white volunteers are Jewish, which is a very large percentage, especially given that Jews are approximately 1% of the American population at this time in 1964. Have your students think of some hypotheses as to why Jews might have gotten involved in Freedom Summer, keeping the ideas to themselves. With your students in character, ask them to reflect on their own reasons for participating in Freedom Summer, and to think about why other Jews like them might have been motivated to get involved with the Civil Rights Movement.
    2. Point out four corners (or areas) at your station, and have your students, with their character in mind:
      • go to corner 1 if you think Jewish participation in Freedom Summer was motivated primarily by the Holocaust
      • go to corner 2 if you think Jewish participation in Freedom Summer was motivated primarily by Jews feeling like outsiders themselves and empathizing with southern African-Americans
      • go to corner 3 if you think Jewish participation in Freedom Summer was motivated primarily by Jewish values of social justice
      • go to corner 4 if you think Jewish participation in Freedom Summer was motivated primarily by some other experience or values.
    3. Once all the students have chosen a corner, ask one or two people from each corner to share why they chose their corner (staying in character). For the group in corner 4, ask what experience or values they think were motivators for other Jews participating in Freedom Summer.
    4. Have your students come back together as a group and sit on the floor together. Distribute copies of the Jewish Participation Document Study.
    5. Have a couple of students read the texts out loud. Provide some brief biographical information about Vicki Gabriner and Heather Booth.
    6. Discuss the following questions
      • What values or experiences do Vicki Gabriner and Heather Booth identify as influencing them?
      • Where/how did they learn these values?
      • Where did they have these experiences?
      • What are some things you have learned within your family that shape the way you see the world and/or act in the world?
      • Do you think Vicki Gabriner and Heather Booth were conscious of their motivations at the time? Do you think it matters if you know why you're doing something to help others or just that you do it? Why?
      • Now that you've read these documents, would you change your 4 corner choice? Why or why not?
    7. If you have time, you can reinforce what students just learned and experienced by asking them to get back into pairs and discuss their answers to the three questions at the bottom of the Jewish Participation Document Study (Why am I here? etc.) Remind them to stay in character as prospective volunteers who have come to this information session to decide whether or not to participate in Freedom Summer.
  2. Station #2 – Goals and Purposes
    Set-up: Post the Goals and Purposes Poster at this station. Set up an easel with a pad of chart paper and a marker. Have enough space for the students to sit on the floor or ground around the easel. Place a small table or desk at this station. Place fine tip color markers and copies of the Goals and Purposes Document Study (enough for each student in the group) on it. You also may want to display the "Missing" poster for Goodman, Schwerner, and Cheney.
    1. Provide each student with a copy of the Goals and Purposes Document Study. Explain that these sources provide some insight into why some other individuals got involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Have your students take turns reading the four pieces of text out loud. If necessary, stop them occasionally to clarify terms or phrases, or provide context.
    2. Have each student find a partner. With their partner, students should answer the questions below the "Why are you here?" heading at the end of their document study packet (Why am I here? etc.). Each pair should then choose one text that especially speaks to the reasons they decided to get involved and then underline the section(s) that they believe explain this author's goals or purpose in participating in Freedom Summer.
    3. When the pairs are finished, have them share the document they chose and what they underlined. If more than one pair chose the same document, have each pair share one thing they underlined so that all the pairs can contribute something. With the students' help, synthesize the specific ideas described in the documents down to more general ideas about goals/purposes and have students write them on the chart paper. If there is a document that none of the pairs chose, go through the same process with this document as a group.
    4. Ask your group: Which goals and purposes on our list did you expect? Why? Which goals and purposes on our list didn't you expect? Why?
  3. Station #3 – Community Organizing
    Set-up: Post the Community Organizing Poster at this station. Place two long masking tape lines on the ground or floor parallel to each other and about three feet apart. Label one line, #1, and the other line, #2. Make sure there is also enough space for the group to sit on the ground or floor. Place a small table or desk at this station, and place copies of the Community Organizing Document Study (enough for each student in the group) on it.
    1. When a group arrives at your station, have them play the following game:
      Have half the students stand on line #1 and half the students stand on line #2 so that each line of students is facing each other. Once they are standing there, tell the students on line #1 that they need to rearrange the students on the other line so that they form a pattern (could be based on height or color of their shirts or length of their hair…something that is easier for them to see from a distance than it is for the students on the line to see). The only rules are that the students on line #1 can't get off their line and move the students on line #2 and the students on line #2 can't step off their line. (They will need to be creative, communicate, and work together.)
      If your group is smaller than 8-10 students, it may be easier to communicate the challenges of community organizing by playing "blind fetch." You'll need a floor space with some obstacles but free of serious injury hazards, a blindfold, and an object to be "hidden." The object is for the blindfolded student to retrieve the object from the "field" with the assistance of the group. Instruct the students to line up facing the wall of the classroom, their backs to the "field" of play. Choose one student to be blindfolded. Make sure the student is comfortable being blindfolded. Choose a second person to be the "seer." This person will face the group rather than stand in the line. This student is the only person who will be allowed to see the "field." The seer is not allowed to talk at any point during the game. They must communicate with the group non-verbally. Place an object (a small stuffed animal, ball, or deck of playing cards) somewhere in the "field." To make it more challenging, place chairs, desks, or other obstacles in the "field." You may even choose to place the object under or inside of a box or bucket. Be sure the seer watches you place the object. Now give the students the following directions: I have hidden an object somewhere in the classroom/field. [The blindfolded person] is the only one allowed off the line to go and retrieve it. [The seer] is the only one allowed to look at the classroom/field. The rest of you on the line must follow [the seer]'s directions to tell [the blindfolded person] where to go to retrieve the object. Any questions? (Answer questions if there are any.) Begin! Once the students have completed the task and the blindfolded person has retrieved the item, you can continue with the discussion questions for the line activity. Tip: Be sure to shadow the student wearing the blindfold to be sure they feel safe and are not at risk of tripping, bumping their head, or running into anything.
    2. Have your group sit down and discuss the following questions together:
      • Could you have accomplished your goal with only one person?
      • What challenges did you face in accomplishing your goal?
      • At what point in the process did it become easier to accomplish your goal? What do you think made it easier? What did different people in the group bring to the process?
    3. Explain to students:
      Some jobs require a community, and sometimes a community provides the support for getting a job done.This exercise was meant to give you a sense of the first step in the process of working with communities: realizing that you often can do more when different groups of people work together. The work we will be doing in the South will be a lot more complicated than this activity and will involve building relationships across difficult divides – sometimes with people who don't think you should be there interfering with their business. The Mississippi Freedom Summer project you are considering being part of is an example of "grassroots community organizing." (It's called "grassroots" because it is a process of change from the bottom up.) We're using community organizing as a strategy to empower people to make changes in their own community. It's called community organizing because it takes place in the community, but as we will probably find, new "communities" among all of us involved—the activists and the people living in Mississippi—may be built as well.
    4. Hand out copies of the Community Organizing Document Study. Direct your students' attention to the photograph at the top of the page. Discuss the following questions:
      • Ask your students to objectively describe what they see in the photograph. (Possible responses might include: a white woman and two African American women, three women sitting in front of a house, one woman has a guitar, etc.).
      • Based on what you see, what do you think is happening in this photograph? (Possible responses might include: the women are singing together, the women are getting read to sing, one woman is leading a song session, etc.)
      • Based on what you see, what do you think the relationship is between the women? What evidence do you have?
      • While doing your best to maintain the overall premise that your students are thinking about participating in Freedom Summer, identify Heather Booth and Fannie Lou Hamer in the photograph and provide some brief biographical information.

        Heather Booth went to Mississippi with the Freedom Summer project after her first semester of college at the University of Chicago. She had already been involved with SNCC, as well as with anti-war activism on campus. Her experience in Mississippi confirmed her commitment to justice and set her off on a lifetime of activism. Among the organizations she has founded or co-founded are the Chicago Women's Liberation Union; JANE, one of the country's first abortion counseling services; Midwest Academy, a national center that trains leaders building citizen-based organizations; and the NAACP National Voter Fund.

        Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was an African American civil rights activist from Mississippi. She was an important organizer of Freedom Summer and became the Vice Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Known for her powerful singing and speaking skills, she testified before the 1964 Democratic Convention and later went on to serve as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention. Explain that Freedom Music was a kind of community singing that was popular during the Civil Rights Movement. The songs were simple, usually versions of old African American spirituals, and people could easily pick up the melodies and sing along.

      • Ask: how do you think music helps to build community? (Possible responses might include: it's something that a group can do together, people feel a connection when they sing together, etc.)
      • Ask: what do you think can be learned about music and community from looking at a photograph?
      • Explain: we'll now hear about another person's experience during Freedom Summer—and to do so, we're temporarily jumping ahead in time to imagine that all of us are older now, and reflecting back on our experience as freedom workers. (Or otherwise encourage your students to go along with this process of at once imagining themselves as Freedom Summer activists and adequately evaluating primary source documents.)
    5. Play the recording of Vicki Gabriner describing the challenges she faced doing civil rights work or have someone in the group read the Vicki Gabriner text out loud. Give some biographical background on Gabriner:

      Vicki Gabriner, born in Brooklyn, became an activist during her college years at Cornell, where she was involved in the civil rights movement and nascent antiwar activities. She spent three summers—1964, 1965, and 1966—in Fayette County, Tennessee, with a Cornell-affiliated group, living with the black community, teaching at Freedom Schools, and working on local elections, voter registration, and integration of public facilities.

      Discuss the following questions:
      • In the audio/at the end of the paragraph, Vicki describes being in a church while another group is waiting outside. These two groups are divided by color, space, and values. With which community do you think Vicki Gabriner most identifies?
      • What do you think she has in common with the community with which she usually identifies?
      • What do you think she has in common with the other community?
      • Based on these similarities and differences, what do you think are some things that are important in connecting people and forming communities during the Civil Rights Movement?
      • The excerpt we read/heard is from an oral history interview for the Jewish Women's Archive's project on activists. Vicki Gabriner is reflecting back on her experience of Freedom Summer. How, if at all, does this context affect your response to the story she told?
      • What connections stand out between the photograph we looked at and the story we read/heard? What differences between them seem important to you?
      • Jumping back into the "present" in 1964: If you decide to come with us for Freedom Summer, how do you imagine your experience will be similar to and different from theirs?
      • Consider the questions at the bottom of the Document Study. (Why am I here? etc.)
  4. Once all the groups have finished each of the 3 round robin stations, have them come back together as a group. Explain that now that they all know more about Freedom Summer, you would like to hear from each of them. Ask each student to share his/her responses to the following questions:
    • Are you coming with us to Mississippi?
    • What is motivating you to want to go? OR Why did you decide not to go?
    • Which of the three areas (Freedom Schools, voter registration, and building the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) could we best use you in? Why?
  5. Reflect:
    Now ask students to come out of character and reflect on their experience during this lesson. What conclusions did they draw about Freedom Summer and the young people who participated? Invite any clarifying questions about the history of Freedom Summer and share relevant information from the introductory essay.
  6. Ask students to think back to the four corners activity. Ask:
    • If you think about Jews who are involved in social justice movements today, do you think their reasons for getting involved would fit into the same four corners? What would you add or take away?
    • If you had to generalize, do you imagine Jews are more or less likely today to connect their involvement to being Jewish?
  7. If you do not have time to do Part IV of this lesson (The Voices of Freedom Summer) you may want to share the following quote from Carolyn Goodman (Andrew Goodman's mother and lifelong activist), which appeared in the New York Times in June 1965:

    "I still feel that I would let Andy go to Mississippi again. Even after this terrible thing happened to Andy, I couldn't make a turnabout of everything I believe in."

    Ask your students to respond to this quote, in light of the discussion you have been having and their experience imagining themselves as Freedom Summer participants. You also may want to pair this quote with the first paragraph of the letter Freedom Summer participant Bonnie sent to her parents.

The Voices of Freedom Summer

Note: This piece of the lesson generally requires an additional class session. To re-orient students to the focus on Freedom Summer, ask students to go around and repeat what they had said in the previous class about why they were/were not participating in Freedom Summer. If this is the first time your students are learning about Freedom Summer, use the introductory essay to provide them with background.

  1. Explain that because Freedom Summer volunteers were predominantly young students, the project sparked some generational tensions. Many of the volunteers' parents, even if they supported the civil rights movement in general, were concerned about the violence that their children faced and discouraged them from participating. Some parents disagreed with the radical tactics of the project, believing that more traditional routes to change – legislative, judicial, etc. – should remain the focus of the civil rights movement. Others were inspired by their children's commitment to civil rights and even learned from them. The letters volunteers wrote home testify to the varied responses that they faced from family.
  2. Distribute copies of Voices of Freedom Summer Document Study.
  3. Have a different student read each letter out loud. As the students read the letters stop them if you think a term, phrase, or idea needs some additional explanation. You may also want to let them know that the letter by Heather was written by Heather Booth, whom they learned about earlier.
  4. Review who wrote these letters and when (young people during Freedom Summer, in 1964), and for what audience (generally loved ones). Encourage your students to consider the purpose of these letters as they read them again.
  5. Have your students find a partner and choose a letter that they find interesting. Distribute paper and pencils to each pair.
  6. Once your students have chosen a letter, explain that first they are to take on the role of the person the letter was written to. In that role, they should write a response to the letter writer. Then they should take on the role of the letter writer and respond to their new letter. As your students are writing, you may want to walk around the classroom and check on their progress. Make sure that they are addressing the issues included in the original text and are seriously considering how friends and family may have felt about the writer's participation in Freedom Summer.
  7. If there is time, have a few of your students share their original letter and their two responses. You may also want to include these letters as part of a bulletin board in your classroom or in a hallway.
  8. The letter-writing exercise has the potential for rich learning, but also will come at the end of a long lesson, so be sure to consider how you will use the letters and what follow-up might be meaningful (or if the letter writing should take place in a separate class session). The letters may prove a useful tool for evaluation, in that they will demonstrate your students' understanding of the letter they chose, as well as demonstrate how easily your students were able to apply what they learned earlier in the lesson. By observing patterns among your students' letters, you can gauge which concepts to re-address in subsequent class periods and which aspects of the lesson your students found most compelling. Especially if you are teaching multiple lessons on the Civil Rights Movement or on social justice more generally, this activity can be an opportunity for you to provide your students with ongoing feedback. If you create a bulletin board of the letters, you can write your (positive) feedback and questions on post-it notes. (You may even want to encourage other students and teachers to write their positive comments and questions as well.) Or you can hand back the letters at a later class period with short comments and questions that will help students recall what they learned through this exercise, and provide them with new questions to consider.

OPTIONAL: Extension Activity

  1. After your students have written their letters, share them with your school/camp's drama teacher and have him/her create a short play from the material, or stage a dramatic reading. The drama teacher may also want to include an introduction that provides some historical context to the letters.
  2. Have your students perform this short play for parents or another class.

Document Studies

Jewish Participation Document Study

Jewish Participation Document Study

Vicki Gabriner Oral History Excerpt, Jewish Participation in the Civil Rights Movement

…One of the strong things I grew up with as a kid was some sense of fighting for social justice, and without realizing it, that that was rooted somehow in Jewish tradition. It was never specifically identified to me as such, and I don’t even know that that was what was driving people. But as I look back on it now, I know that that was part of that Jewish secular tradition of social justice.


Vicki Gabriner, oral history interview conducted by Judith Rosenbaum for the Jewish Women's Archive on July 20, 2000.

Heather Booth statement excerpt on social values and Jewish tradition

I grew up in a family that had good social values, reflected in our Jewish heritage, culture, and history. When I was growing up, at one point I wanted to be a rabbi, but was told (at that time) women couldn’t be rabbis. I went to Israel when I graduated from high school in 1963, and the experience of Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum) had a transforming effect on me: I promised myself that in the face of injustice I would struggle for justice.


Heather Booth, statement for the Jewish Women's Archive's online exhibition Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution (, 2005.

Discussion Questions

  1. What values or experiences do Vicki Gabriner and Heather Booth identify as influencing them?
  2. Where/how did they learn these values?
  3. Where did they have these experiences?
  4. What are some things you have learned within your family that shape the way you see the world and/or act in the world?
  5. Do you think Vicki Gabriner and Heather Booth were conscious of their motivations at the time? Do you think it matters if you know why you're doing something to help others or just that you do it? Why?
  6. Now that you've read these documents, would you change your 4 corner choice? Why or why not?

Freedom Summer Goals and Purposes Document Study

Freedom Summer Goals and Purposes Document Study

Context and Questions

The following documents come from a variety of sources and were written for many different reasons. What can we infer from these documents about the goals and purposes of Freedom Summer? (As you read each document, remember to consider who wrote it, when, and for what audience and purpose.)

Rita Schwerner CORE application letter

Since I have become active in CORE here in New York, I have become increasingly aware of the problems which exist in the Southern states. I have a strong desire to contribute in some small way, by the utilization of those skills which I possess, to the redress of the many grievances occurring daily. I wish to become an active participant rather than a passive onlooker. Realizing the Northern newspaper and radio accounts are often distorted…, I wish to acquire firsthand knowledge of existing conditions in the South…

As a teacher I have been working in South Jamaica, Queens where I not only have had experience in dealing with teenagers, but have become increasingly concerned with the conditions under which these children must live…

As my husband and I are in close agreement as to our philosophy and involvement in the civil rights struggle, I wish to work near him, under the direction of CORE, in whatever capacity I may be most useful. My hope is to someday pass on to the children we may have a world containing more respect for the dignity and worth of all men than that world which was willed to us.


Quoted in Huie William Bradford, Three Lives for Mississippi. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2000 [orig. 1965]), 37-38.

Freedom Summer excerpt, Why people went

Discussion at Ohio orientation about why they were going: “‘Are you going,’ Vincent Harding started, ‘as “In” members of the society to pull the “Outs” in with you? Or are we all “Outs”? Are you going to bring the Negroes of Mississippi into the doubtful pleasures of middleclass existence, or to seek to build a new kind of existence in which words like ‘middle-class’ may no longer be relevant? Are we trying to make liberal readjustments or basic change?’ The floor took over.

White boy: ‘For me there is only one race, the human race. It’s one nation. Mississippi is our back yard as much as Harlem. I’ve had it good for along time. But I’ve seen too many people hungry for too long.’

Negro boy: ‘We have to try to change the South so that the people of the North will want to do better. The South is a battle-field: The North is in a stalemate. For us, it’s all intolerable. But we have to work where the situation is flexible enough for change. Open hate is preferable to hypocrisy – it can be moved.'

White girl: ‘There’s not enough justice and not enough liberty. There’s not enough truth and there’s not enough beauty. Who will work to make these things? It’s everyone’s job.’

Southern white boy: ‘I’m involved in this for my own freedom. We have to build a new South, a South ruled by law, democracy, and humanity. I couldn’t not have come.’

White boy: ‘I’m going because the worst thing after burning churches and murdering children is keeping silent.’”


Belfrage, Sally. Freedom Summer. New York: The Viking Press, 1965, p. 7.

Rita Schwerner Statement to Newspapers

My husband, Michael Schwerner, did not die in vain. If he and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths. After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm has been sounded.


Rita Schwerner, Statement to Newspapers on the Discovery of Her Husband’s Body on 4th August, 1964.

Why are you here?

Staying in character as a prospective volunteer who has come to this information session to decide whether or not to participate in Freedom Summer, think about your answers to the following questions and share them with your partner:

  • Why am I here?
  • What is motivating me to go or not go?
  • Based on my skills and talents, which of the three main projects (Freedom Schools, voting registration, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) could I contribute to the most?


Community Organizing Document Study

Community Organizing Document Study

Heather Booth and Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964

Heather Booth and Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964
Full image
Heather Booth playing guitar for Fannie Lou Hamer and others during the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, 1964.
Courtesy of Wallace Roberts.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you see in this photograph (be as objective as possible in your description)?
  2. Based on what you see, what do you think is happening in this photograph?
  3. Freedom music was a type of community singing that was popular during the Civil Rights Movement. How do you think music helps build community?

Vicki Gabriner Oral History Excerpt, Challenges

JR: What were the greatest challenges for you in doing this kind of work?

VG: (laughter) You know, I hesitate because there was such – I was so impelled and compelled to do this work. The drive was so strong and it was a drive that came from inside of me. It wasn’t like someone said, “Oh, you should do this.” It wasn’t about Bob saying, “Oh, we have to do this,” and being man ahead about it. That is in some ways so different from how I feel about almost anything today that in a way on some level there was nothing difficult about it. Because I felt held in some way in a national – and around civil rights stuff in sort of a national energy, a national movement of which I felt part, which just made all the work in every difficult moment possible.

And I don’t think I’m romanticizing it as I look back on it. I remember there were just the most extraordinary moments in that work. I remember times being at a mass meeting inside a church and singing “We Shall Overcome” and knowing that there were white people outside in their cars, in their trucks, probably with guns, and feeling as though the roof were just going to lift off the church because the energy of the people with whom we were working was so intense. You know, the struggle – they were so involved in the struggle that it was palpable. It was palpable…


Vicki Gabriner, oral history conducted by Judith Rosenbaum for the Jewish Women's Archive on July 20, 2000.
Audio excerpt available at

Discussion Questions

  1. At the end of this paragraph, Vicki describes being in a church while another group is waiting outside. These two groups are divided by color, space, and values. With which community do you think Vicki Gabriner identifies?
  2. What do you think she has in common with the community with which she identifies?
  3. What do you think she has in common with the other community?
  4. Based on these similarities and differences, what do you think were some things that were important in connecting people and forming communities during the Civil Rights Movement?

Voices of Freedom Summer Document Study

Voices of Freedom Summer Document Study

Letter to Mom and Dad from Bonnie

June 27

Dear Mom and Dad,
This letter is hard to write because I would like so much to communicate how I feel and I don’t know if I can. It is very hard to answer to your attitude that if I loved you I wouldn’t do this – hard, because the thought is cruel. I can only hope you have the sensitivity to understand that I can both love you very much and desire to go to Mississippi. I have no way of demonstrating my love. It is simply a fact and that is all I can say…

I hope you will accept my decision even if you do not agree with me. There comes a time when you have to do things which your parents do not agree with … Convictions are worthless in themselves. In fact, if they don’t become actions, they are worse than worthless – they become a force of evil in themselves. You can’t run away from a broadened awareness… if you try, it follows you in your conscience, or you become a self-deceiving person who has numbed some of his humanness. I think you have to live to the fullest extent to which you have gained an awareness or you are less than the human being you are capable of being … This doesn’t apply just to civil rights or social consciousness but to all the experiences of life…

Love, Bonnie


Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965), 22.

Letter to Dad from Sylvie

June 24

Dear Dad,
The mood up here [in Oxford, Ohio] is, of course, very strained with those three guys who disappeared Sunday, dead, most likely. Saturday night, I ate dinner with the wife of one of them. She was telling me about all the great things she and her husband were working on. She looks younger than me. What does she do now? Give up the movement? What a terrible rotten life this is! I feel that the only meaningful type of work is the Movement but I don’t want myself or anyone I’ve met to have to die. I’m so shook up that death just doesn’t seem so awful anymore, though. I’m no different from anyone else and if they’re risking their lives, then so must I. But I just can’t comprehend why people must die to achieve something so basic and simple as Freedom…

Love, Sylvie


Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi. (NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965.)

Letter from Hattiesburg

Hattiesburg, July 4

Every time I talk to people, I hear about things which bring tears to my eyes. I have begun, finally, to feel deep inside me this horrible double existence Negroes have to lead in both North and South… the strategies they must learn to survive without either going crazy or being physically maimed – or destroyed. Mr. Reese describes how a Negro must learn to walk through a crowd: weaving, slightly hunched – shuffling helps – in order to be as humbly inconspicuous as possible… Then I hear from men who served in Korea or elsewhere, that they alone had no flag to fight for… I talked with a fellow whose closest buddy [in the Army] had been a white man from Mississippi; when they were homeward bound on the train and they crossed the Mason-Dixon line, the white man left his seat beside the Negro to change seats with another Negro. I could go on and on about all the people I’ve met… Baby, it takes coming down here to grasp all this no matter how many books we’ve read.


Elizabeth Martínez, ed. Letters from Mississippi. (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 63-64.

Letter to Jon from Heather Tobis Booth


To my brother,

…Last night I was a long time before sleeping, although I was extremely tired. Every shadow, every noise—the bark of a dog, the sound of a car—in my fear and exhaustion was turned into a terrorist’s approach…

“We are not afraid. Oh Lord, deep in my heart, I do believe, We Shall Overcome Someday” and then I think I began to truly understand what the words meant. Anyone who comes down here and is not afraid I think must be crazy as well as dangerous to this project where security is quite important. But the type of fear that they mean when they, when we, sing “we are not afraid” is the type that immobilizes…The songs help to dissipate the fear. Some of the words in the songs do not hold real meaning on their own, others become rather monotonous—but when they are sung in unison, or sung silently by oneself, they take on new meaning beyond words or rhythm…There is almost a religious quality about some of these songs, having little to do with the usual concept of a god. It has to do with the miracle that youth has organized to fight hatred and ignorance. It has to do with the holiness of the dignity of man. The god that makes such miracles is the god I do believe in when we sing “God is on our side.” I know I am on that god’s side. And I do hope he is on ours.

Jon, please be considerate to Mom and Dad. The fear I just expressed, I am sure they feel much more intensely without the relief of being here to know exactly how things are. Please don’t go defending me or attacking them if they are critical of the Project…

They said over the phone, “Did you know how much it takes to make a child?” and I thought of how much it took to make a Herbert Lee (or many others whose names I do not know)…I thought of how much it took to be a Negro in Mississippi twelve months a year for a lifetime. How can such a thing as a life be weighed?…

With constant love,
Heather [Tobis Booth]


Elizabeth Martínez, ed. Letters from Mississippi. (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 172-173.

Letter to Mother and Father from Ellen

Gulfport, August 12

Dear Mother and Father:

I have learned more about politics here from running my own precinct meetings that I could have from any Government professor… For the first time in my life, I am seeing what it is like to be poor, oppressed, and hated. And what I see here does not apply only to Gulfport or to Mississippi or even to the South … The people we’re killing in Viet Nam are the same people whom we’ve been killing for years in Mississippi. True, we didn’t tie the knot in Mississippi and we didn’t pull the trigger in Viet Nam – that is, we personally – but we’ve been standing behind the knot-tiers and the trigger-pullers too long.

This summer is only the briefest beginning of this experience, both for myself and for the Negroes of Mississippi.

Your daughter,


Elizabeth Martínez, ed. Letters from Mississippi. (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 269.

Traditional Jewish Texts


Community Organizing

Community Organizing

An approach to social change that involves bringing community members together to form powerful organizations that allow them to act on their own behalf to make systemic changes in their lives. Community organizing aims to generate collective power for those who have been powerless and to create social change through collective action. The term and organizing model was originated by Saul Alinksy, a Jewish activist from Chicago and founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation.




The National Association for Colored People was founded in 1909, by whites and African Americans appalled at the violence perpetrated against African Americans, especially in the form of lynchings. Among the founding members were notable African Americans, such as W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Jews, such as Joel and Arthur Spingarn and Lillian Wald. The NAACP later became involved in legal battles over segregation and was instrumental in bringing Brown v. Board of Education to the Supreme Court. During the Civil Rights Movement, the NAACP supported and helped organize many projects including Freedom Summer.




(Pronounced "snick") The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded at Shaw University in North Carolina in 1960. SNCC played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement, organizing and participating in many projects including Freedom Ride, Freedom Summer, and the March on Washington. SNCC focused on issues including desegregation of public facilities and voter registration using techniques of grassroots organizing and civil disobedience.

Freedom Schools

Freedom Schools

As part of Mississippi Freedom Summer, 30-40 schools were set up in Mississippi as alternatives to public schools. These schools met in churches, outside under trees, and on back porches. Teachers at these schools taught subjects that the public schools wouldn't teach such as black literature and history, and constitutional rights. They also taught basic skills like literacy and arithmetic.

Mississippi Freedom Summer

Mississippi Freedom Summer

A community organizing project that took place during the summer of 1964, in which northerners went South to help African-Americans register to vote, run Freedom Schools, and to build the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The project was sponsored by SNCC, CORE, COFO, and the NAACP. Approximately half of the white northerners who participated in Freedom Summer were Jewish.

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

In 1964 the Democratic Party in Mississippi was all white. As part of Freedom Summer, civil rights activists started the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as an integrated alternative to the official party and hoped that the National Democratic Party would recognize it at that year's convention.

Teacher Resources

Jewish Women's Archive civil rights feature:

Jewish Women's Archive Go & Learn: "Jews, Music, and the Civil Rights Movement:"

Schultz, Debra L. Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Martinez, Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers. (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002).


I recently discovered this lesson from the CUNY "Let Freedom Ring" curriculum It is really excellent. Having students take a sample literacy test is a great way to introduce the topic of voting rights.

Medgar Evers was the NAACP's first field secretary to the South. He lived under constant threat of death for his community organizing work, and had his life taken in June of 1963. NPR just broadcast a story on the 50th anniversary of his death:

Thanks Michelle. This may help to set the tone and give students a sense of what Mississippi was like in the time of the Freedom Rides, and then Freedom summer the following year.

I found a great resource that is an archive of history, timelines, oral histories, discussions and all sorts of material gathered from the Civil Rights Movement Veterans - There are photos, letters, posters, lots of primary sources like training manuals, the letters sent to those who were accepted to teach in the Freedom Schools--the list is extensive. There's even a list of speakers that you can contact to speak in your classes. It's very deep--definitely take a look to see what you can use in your lessons.

I highly recommend the documentary "Soundtrack for a Revolution" which goes through the history of the Civil Rights movement highlighting the importance of music. Even just a clip of the film would probably be a great addition to this lesson, or to the associated Go and Learn lesson.

Thanks, Jessica. That is an excellent recommendation. For those interested in the Go and Learn lesson mentioned above, go to: Which side are you on?

Pretty! This has been a really wonderful article. Many thanks for providing this information.

Heather Booth and Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964
Full image
Heather Booth playing guitar for Fannie Lou Hamer and others during the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, 1964.
Courtesy of Wallace Roberts.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Community Organizing I: Freedom Summer." (Viewed on February 15, 2019) <>.


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