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Distributed February 1, 2005
Contact Mark Nickel

About 640 Words

Susan Smulyan
‘Freedom Now!’ is a rich Web archive of the U.S. struggle for civil rights

Students at Brown University and Tougaloo College have developed a Web-based archive of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and the four-decade cooperative exchange between their schools. The “Freedom Now!” project – and the exchange it represents – provides historical documents to help visitors understand and remember a complex history and to see the freedom struggle as ongoing.

The recent arrest for the 1964 Mississippi murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman shows the continuing and complex importance of history to all of us. The Freedom Movement, as Mississippi people active in 1964 described their work, remains one of the most inspiring examples of grassroots activism in U.S. history; it had a crucial impact on the fight for racial equality.

I teach at Brown University in Providence, R.I., which, since 1964, has participated in an exchange with Tougaloo College, in Jackson, Miss. Tougaloo, a historically black college, was one of the centers of the Freedom Movement struggle. Faculty and students on both campuses created a Web site – – from documents found in our libraries and archives to support continued learning about this important moment in United States history.

History does not provide simple or easily understood lessons. It’s a messy story full of quickly identified heroes (Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner, who worked to register African American voters), obvious villains (those who murdered them) and many other actors less easily identified as heroes or villians. The documents on the Web site, particularly those referring to Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, tell us about the intractability of racism; the difficulty of social and political change; the importance of local and individual efforts; and the support of people from across the country for the Freedom Movement:

  • A flyer from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, helped sustain the legacy of the three slain civil rights workers with a dramatic image of voting levers labeled with their names.
  • A chronology of contacts between federal agents and activists in Philadelphia, Miss. where the workers had disappeared, shows that local, state and federal authorities dragged their feet investigating this crime.
  • A 1971 flyer from the Republic of New Africa, a Black Power organization, noted that black Mississippians had lived with a history of unremarked violence before and since the murders of the integrated group of Civil Rights workers.

Tougaloo and Brown students were moved by some of the documents they found and shocked and dismayed by others. The Tougaloo College Archives provided letters from two contrasting participants: a white Dartmouth student fearful for his life as a prisoner in a Mississippi jail and Annie Rankin, a black grassroots organizer, writing to her “freedom friends” in Providence, R.I. Students found state laws that provided funding for the racist Sovereignty Commission particularly appalling. Students selected and scanned these and other documents (including the Dartmouth student's missive, written on prison toilet paper), which are now available on the Web site. It is our hope that these materials will help others learn about the complexity of the Freedom Movement first-hand.

The Web site also documents the often troubled relationship between two dissimilar institutions – the rich, elite and mostly white Northern university and the struggling, black Southern liberal arts college, a center for Freedom Movement activities. The Brown-Tougaloo relationship was one of the earliest of many exchange programs between Northern and Southern schools.

While the relationship was awkward and troubled at times – Brown students cringed when they discovered that Brown’s first effort was an initiative to improve the speech of Tougaloo students – it continued long after most others were abandoned and still provides important benefits to both campuses after more than 40 years.

History tells a complex story about the Mississippi Freedom Movement and of two colleges that have worked together since then. But it is easy to see the events of the early 1960s and our lives today as intertwined. At Brown and Tougaloo, faculty, students and staff work daily to understand the histories of the two institutions, their relationship, and the historical events of which we have been a part. This gives us an understanding of the bravery of the individual activists, many the same age as our own students, who fought for equal rights, as well as of the complex issues they encountered. We must also remember that the issues our colleagues faced in 1964 haven’t disappeared. We owe it to our history to show courage in continuing the fight for equal rights and against racism.

Susan Smulyan, associate professor American civilization at Brown University, was one of several faculty members at Brown and at Tougaloo College who worked with students to develop the Freedom Now! Web site.

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