Forty years after Mississippi Freedom Summer, poll taxes, literacy tests and Jim Crow laws are history — but not the electoral system that disenfranchised many voters.
To change that, organizers of a new generation of Freedom Schools are spearheading a massive voter registration campaign and mobilizing youth activists across the country.
“In the original Freedom Schools, it was mostly young people organizing to get adults the vote,” says David Billings, an organizer with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISB), one of the organizations sponsoring Freedom Schools this summer. “Right now, we’re trying to direct the political energy and enthusiasm in the youth culture toward voter registration, to bring together a youth politic which is larger and more varied than the one that existed in 1964.”
The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds who vote has fallen from 42 percent to 28 percent since 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18. Freedom School activists with PISB and the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) hope to make this year the one that breaks the trend.
There are 71 Freedom Schools, including 64 sponsored by CDF, in operation, training young people to register voters and build anti-racist political movements within their communities. Three new schools were established this summer. All are free and draw participants mostly from historically disenfranchised groups like African Americans and Latinos.
Students at the Manhattan Freedom School, which opened July 6, are working in conjunction with college-age volunteers, called Freedom Crews, to register 15,000 New Yorkers by September, says CDF Deputy Director Sandy Trujillo.
“These kids go out every day to knock on doors and talk to people on the streets,” says Trujillo. “We recognize that this year is particularly important for a voter registration campaign.”
The New Orleans PISB Freedom School kicked off a similar registration drive in July.
Besides promoting direct action, organizers from both PISB and CDF Freedom Schools work to educate students about the history and politics of anti-racist work in the United States. Students are encouraged to examine the specific needs of their communities.
“The purpose is to have the youth experience an educational setting and curriculum they’re not receiving in their school situation,” Billings says, “a curriculum that talks about race and power and the importance of organizing.”
For more information, visit www.thepeoples institute.org or www.childrensdefense.org.