Last Wednesday night I attended “Freedom Summer School” in Oakland. And unlike any other class I’ve ever attended, the “students”—nearly 2,000 of them—piled into the “classroom” at Beebe Memorial Cathedral on Telegraph Avenue an hour early and buzzing with excitement. It’s no wonder, too, because one of our teachers that night was none other than human rights activist Angela Davis.
That excitement remained undiminished for three hours as Oakland commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by honoring the work of Civil Rights attorney, general counsel for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and long-time Oakland resident Howard Moore, Jr. with a “Freedom Warrior” medal, and by remembering the roots of that ground-breaking legislation in the Freedom Summer of 1964 and the efforts of its many unheralded workers.
Signed into law on July 2, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the bases of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It also deemed illegal voter registration requirements (like poll taxes and literacy texts) as well as racial segregation in schools, places of employment, and public accommodations.
Freedom Summer was a civil rights campaign earlier that same year spearheaded by SNCC (pronounced “snick”) that brought student volunteers from across the nation to Mississippi to help blacks living there. It focused on registering black voters, founding freedom schools, and forming the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Freedom schools taught black history and literature to local black residents, material that would otherwise not have been taught because of Jim Crow racism and segregation.
Organized by Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and Black Elected Officials and Faith Based Leaders of the East Bay, the evening’s program was emceed by Elaine Brown, former Black Panther Party Chairman, featured rousing talks by Clayborne Carson, the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University and a leading historian on SNCC, Davis, and Moore as well as performances by Grammy Award-winning artist D’Wayne Wiggins and violinist Tarika Lewis. We also watched an advance screening of the documentary Freedom Summer, produced by Firelight Media, and set to air on PBS on June 24.
Clayborne Carson framed the evening’s discussion by focusing our attention on “why we should celebrate [the Civil Rights Act of 1964] and why we shouldn’t celebrate it too much,” echoing a central and recurring theme of the night. He emphasized that even after the act became law, “freedom fighters still continued,” Martin Luther King, Jr. among them, because “rights are more than legislation [that] can be changed tomorrow.”
According to Davis, Freedom Summer was “one of the most electrifying moments in our history” and crucial to the progress of civil rights. “How slowly news traveled then,” she asserted, “but how quickly students traveled in order to change the world!” Davis reminded us that Freedom Summer inspired the Free Speech Movement at nearby UC Berkeley, as Berkeley students Bettina Aptheker and Mario Savio tried to organize students to go down to Mississippi.
Introducing Moore, Davis celebrated him “not just for his individual accomplishments, but for what he enabled,” arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be “inconceivable” without his largely unsung actions. She herself was freed from prison 42 years ago thanks to Moore’s efforts as her attorney, revealing that he moved his entire family out to the Bay Area when he represented her.
When Moore took the stage, he started off by recognizing the power of collective action, declaring, “It was the power of the people that saved Angela Davis!” Moore charged the audience further by elaborating on important American historical and legal lessons, ranging from the “second slavery” of Jim Crow laws instituted against blacks after the Civil War to the long-fought for guarantees of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He addressed urgent and ongoing struggles in the areas of education, prisons, workplace discrimination, and a living wage.
Turning the attention firmly back on us, his audience, at the end, he said, “The reason that we look back and celebrate what happened with the passage of the Civil Rights Act [of 1964] is not just to recall ‘the olden times’ but to raise historical consciousness, to fire you up as to what you can do. Can you do it?”