FS class at memorial

I don’t remember when I first began to learn about Freedom Summer. It might have been when Miami University installed a Freedom Summer memorial in 2000. It might have been when the university marked the 40th anniversary in 2004 or the 45th in 2009.

But while I don’t recall when I learned the Freedom Summer story, I know how I learned it: from journalism.

Journalists, after all, had captured the details of those events now five decades past: how some 800 students converged on what was then the Western College for Women to train for civil rights work in Mississippi; how some of those students worked on voter drives there while others taught at Freedom Schools,  ran community centers or took up political activity; how three of the young men who came to Oxford, Ohio, in June of 1964 lost their lives the day after they arrived in Mississippi; how those deaths drew the nation’s attention to a state where Jim Crow policies remained the law of the land and black citizens enjoyed few of the rights of their white neighbors.

In erecting a memorial to those events, Miami put Freedom Summer back in the headlines. And it made journalism central in telling and remembering the story, by electing to engrave headlines from that fraught summer on the back of benches at the site.

Nine years later, the university elevated the importance of journalism in the Freedom Summer story again, by digitizing its broad and deep Freedom Summer archives — and making its collection of stories and photos from newspapers and magazines available online.

Those developments made “The Journalism of Freedom Summer” — the course I taught in the spring of 2014 — possible.

Journalist and author Wil Haygood meets with students in Williams Hall.

Journalist and author Wil Haygood meets with students in Williams Hall.

On Day One, I asked students for a “race story” from their life. Several students reported that they came from communities with few persons of color. Two students with a non-white parent talked about sometimes struggling with their ethnic identity. The only African-American student in the class made clear he lived a different life than most of his Miami peers. One student talked about living in Ohio’s Appalachian region with segregation of a different kind.

I acknowledged that I, too, had limited experience with segregation, prejudice and racial tension growing up in (nearly) all-white Lincoln, Neb.  It was not until I took a newspaper job in Indianapolis in 1984 and then another in Cincinnati in 1986 that I was exposed, first-hand, to cities with marked separation of races by neighborhoods, school, churches and other institutions.

From that starting point — acknowledging that everyone has a race story of some type — we turned our collective attention to 1964 to read the race stories of Freedom Summer. As we learned the facts about those weeks and months, we learned too some of the unpleasant realities of journalism of the day: that some of it derided the goals of Freedom Summer; that some of it supported fading segregationist philosophies; that some of it threw fuel on the fire that was already burning in Mississippi; that much of it painted the Freedom Summer story in stark blacks and whites instead of the grays where most civil rights issues live.

One student met with resistance while trying to report on the condition of James Chaney's grave. (Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Johnson.)

One student met with resistance while trying to report on the condition of James Chaney’s grave. (Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Johnson.)

The study of that coverage — supplemented by a steady stream of visitors with deep experience in covering race — prepared students for the next task of the course: Determining what Freedom Summer stories still needed telling and figuring out how to tell them.

By semester’s end, each student found and told two such stories. While students met varying levels of success — proving once again that covering race remains a journalistic challenge — all produced work worth reading. Their stories are featured on this site, under “Freedom Summer stories.” Students’ own stories, in the form of reflections on the class, are equally compelling. They are posted on the “Students Storytellers” page.

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