Chicago Freedom School, Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle

Chicago Freedom SchoolI went to a major fundraiser for Mia Henry’s Chicago Freedom School last night.

It was a lively affair, taking place in on the third floor of a seemingly converted warehouse in the West Loop.

Upon entering, you received a thin piece of paper that described a Moment of Justice that emphasized the point that the young people in the school are standing on others’ shoulders.

A five-piece jazz band played, servers dished up a wide collection of appetizers-I particularly enjoyed the grilled and roasted vegetables-while an open bar dished out a generous selection of alcohol.   In keeping with many non-profit fundraisers, there was a silent auction on which people could bid for earrings, theater tickets, or an autographed baseball, among others.

Despite the event being held on a Friday night, the mood was vibrant and festive.  The crowd was filled largely with young people of color, with an occasional middle-aged white ally or two like me there to round out the diversity quotient.

Mia is the driving force behind the Freedom School.

We first met in 2003, when I was working an education beat while in graduate school.  I covered an event where Mia received a $5,000 award for excellence in teaching at Amundsen High School from the Jorndt family of Walgreens fame.

Mia and Dunreith worked together for close to a year at Facing History before she left to pursue her passion of creating a safe, meaningful and structured space for young people to learn from activists in the past and make the lessons real in their own lives and in these times.

She’s done incredible work.

The program was a brief one that consisted of an opening and closing poem, acknowledgment of departing board members and four candle-holding young people talking about what participating in the Freedom School has meant to them.

One young man talked about gaining social confidence through working with Mia and others, while a young woman talked about learning from the courage of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee by watching an Eyes on the Prize video.   Punctuated with occasional laughter and giggling, the speeches were refreshingly unscripted and heartfelt.

In her remarks, Mia performed her directorial duty by asking for more money and noted that this February will make 50 years since four freshman from North Carolina A & T sat in at a Woolworth’s counter, sparking similar actions across the nation.

The video February 1 focuses on the four students, what drove them to take their actions, the impact they had and their subsequent life paths.

For those wanting to read more about SNCC, I recommend reading my former undergraduate thesis adviser Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle.

A former SNCC member, Carson has written was is generally considered the definitive work on this part of the movement.  The work traces the group’s founding, their sometimes difficult relationship with older and more established figures like Dr. King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the groundbreaking voter registration work they did in parts of the Deep South like Mississippi and the tensions that emerged within the group about the role of violence and nonviolence in the freedom struggle.

Ella Baker is a prominent figure in this story.

The former SCLC staffer battled sexism from many of the ministers and always encouraged the young people to go their own way, rather than to be a branch of the adults’ organization.

Carson has a lot of material about Baker, and those hungry to learn more should check out Barbara Ransby’s biography of one of the movement’s unsung heroes who still inspires reverence among its alumni.

A cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock also pays tribute to Baker in Ella’s Song.

For her part, Mia promised that the Freedom School will be doing plenty of programming around the SNCC anniversary.

I plan to attend these events.  If you can, you should be there, too.


6 responses to “Chicago Freedom School, Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle

  1. Justice in America today still carries a heavy load. While we have come a long way, we have so much farther to go. Just yesterday, I witnessed a male Latino being followed in a video and music store. I seriously don’t think he had the intention to steal anything, but, nevertheless, he was singled out to security. I admire Mia in so many ways. Because of her efforts at Chicago Freedom School, society is made more aware of how individuals can help put a stop to the kind of injustice that is based solely on the color of a person’s skin or ethnicity.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Rugenia, for your comment and thoughtful reminder of our nation’s unfinished business around racial justice. I share your admiration for Mia and look forward to continuing the conversation.


  2. 2010 will mark the 45th anniversary of the desegregation of Litchfield Junior High School in Gadsden, Alabama. I and six others (Ellen Presley, Edith Allen, Vivian Lett, Jerry Carstarphen, Larry Coats, and Millard Lett) took on this challenge at the same time hundreds, maybe even thousands, of others across the South felt was a “must-do” during this turbulent time in history. The participants in the Woolworth’s counter exercise were forerunners and set an extraordinary example for so many of us who followed. I will join in this salute to the North Carolina AT&T students and look forward to attending related celebrations and events spondored by the Chicago Freedom school.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Ms. Henry, for this note and your service to our country close to half a century ago. I did not realize you are Mia’s mother until I shared your previous note with her and she let me in on it! 🙂

      I look forward to meeting you in person.


  3. It’s good to know that some of my former students paid attention in class and have continued their efforts to build a better world. Congratulations!

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Professor Carson, for your kind words. They mean a lot to me because I think highly of you and your work. I enjoyed seeing you, albeit briefly, in the summer of 2006 at the Chicago Freedom Movement conference and hope that all is well with you and your family.

      Thanks again, and please keep in touch when you can.


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