Mississippi Freedom Summer Anniversary Conference – A Reflection

By Megan Harrison


The Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference, held June 25-29 at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., celebrated the rich legacy of civil rights activists who journeyed to Mississippi in 1964 to risk – and in at least three cases, lose – their lives to help register voters and empower disenfranchised communities.

As a child learning about the civil rights movement in school, I often wondered if I would have the bravery to stand up and risk my life in that fight for justice. It was with this desire and admiration for the original Freedom Summer volunteers that I jumped on the chance to work as a Freedom Summer Fellow with the Georgia NAACP. 

The Freedom 50 conference brought together many of the former volunteers, who now had the resumes to back up the dedication to justice they proved so intensely those years ago. I was lucky enough to meet several Freedom 50 veterans who took the time to entertain my questions, stories and very loosely controlled hero worship.

I went to the conference with one main question on my mind. Since my college graduation, I have struggled to figure out how to live my life in a way that genuinely challenges systemic oppression while alleviating the suffering of others. Not a question that is easily answered, for sure, but one that is important for us all to grapple with. My work in the south – I live in Atlanta – makes this question particularly salient. Yet it wasn’t the older activists who really made the conference for me. Though they were encouraging and inspiring, my soul was moved by the younger organizers and the Youth Congress.

The conference seemed to have an informal generational division – the majority of panelists were seasoned organizers, veterans of the struggle if not the Freedom 50 summer itself. The Youth Congress sessions went on throughout the week, often facilitated and taught by youth. The generational divide seemed to be an unfortunate side-effect of this well-designed youth event. Because younger organizers were participating in their own Congress, the other panel sessions had an older audience. This raises some interesting questions about exactly how youth voices should be integrated in such settings. 

During my first day of the conference, I noticed several young, black males walking around in green and white striped uniforms. The back of their shirts read “MDOC” – the Mississippi Department of Corrections. At first, I wondered if perhaps the conference organizers had partnered with the state to include prisoners in the celebration of Freedom 50 – after all, what good are ideas about fighting social injustice if we don’t include the most marginalized in the conversation? It took me a minute to realize that, somehow, in the mess of organizing such a huge and prolific event, inmates were contracted as free labor to clean up after civil rights activists.

Pause for a second and let that sink in. A conference organized and attended by some of the leading activists in racial, social and economic equality was staffed, in part, by unpaid inmate labor. 

Though I can’t tell you anything about how this came to be, I can tell you one story. During the conference, I attended several sessions on the school-to-prison pipeline and many more where incarceration rates, for-profit prisons and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow were discussed, both in detail and in passing. I did not see a single panelist mention the inmates currently working at the conference.

However, on my second day, I accidently stumbled into a group of friends who were headed to an impromptu immigration session. On a whim, I walked over to the chapel with them, pausing to greet a group of inmates who were drinking water on the stairs. Inside, a group of youth organizers, in partnership with the organization Freedom Side, were inviting inmates up to speak to the group about their experiences. As the inmates had not been granted permission to do this, we were asked to refrain from posting pictures or identifying characteristics.  

All of the inmates I saw and spoke with were young, black males. They didn’t have much to say to us – they weren’t familiar with the school-to-prison pipeline (though they said it sounded legit) and they definitely had never heard the phrase “prison industrial complex.” They told us, in short responses, about their crimes (non-violent drug offenses) and their punishment (in many cases, over 25 years). Mississippi offers inmates only day-for-day time. This means that prisoners must fulfill every day of their sentence. Often, states (and federal prisons) offer inmates two days off their prison sentence for every one day they are incarcerated or early release/time off for good behavior. However, this isn’t an option under Mississippi state law; the inmates we met all expected to spend the next 20 to 30 years of their lives in prison. 

Their main complaint was the food. They didn’t know what prison organizing was and they wouldn’t be very interested in doing that anyway. One inmate told us that he was volunteering at the conference and often agrees to perform free labor in order to leave the facility. “Nah,” he said, when asked about payment, “They don’t pay us for this.”

There were many other highlights of the conference, but my encounter with the prisoners stood out in driving home the importance for even the most enlightened movement veterans to recognize new cycles of injustice. Regardless of our age or length of involvement in “the movement,” we have to constantly challenge ourselves to examine how our own events, actions and omissions perpetuate oppression.

Through activism and education, we are given the tools to see and dismantle the systemic domination of low-income and minority groups. That, in itself, is a major form privilege and we must work to bridge the gap between ourselves and those who, due to the institutional forces we fight against, have never been given the words to make visible the larger injustice that controls their reality.

I returned with a deepened understanding of how vital it is to break out of our comfortable, progressive circles and engage directly with the communities of those most impacted. I am even more determined to live my life by working to challenge oppression wherever I see it.

Megan Harrison is a member of Metro Atlanta DSA, a Moral Monday Georgia activist and a 2014 Freedom Summer Fellow with the Georgia NAACP. 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Film Discussion: The Price We Pay

January 30, 2017
· 44 rsvps
The Price We Pay blows the lid off the dirty world of corporate malfeasance — the dark history and dire present-day reality of big-business tax avoidance, tax havens - and what we need to do to stop this.  DSA member Bill Barclay, who has a cameo role in the film, will facilitate the discussion. Watch the film prior to the discussion.

Full film available on Vimeo.

How to Plug in New Members

February 01, 2017
· 13 rsvps

Is your DSA chapter growing quickly and you're trying desperately to find ways to plug new members into your chapter's work? Never fear! On this conference call an experienced DSA organizer will go over the basics of new member outreach and developing a plan for plugging new members into your chapter's work. Most of the call will be devoted to troubleshooting specific issues you're facing, so please brainstorm some issues beforehand that you want to bring up on the call.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 7 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Salt of the Earth

February 05, 2017
· 9 rsvps

Join DSA members Shelby Murphy and Deborah Rosenfelt in discussing Salt of the Earth, a captivating film made in 1954 by blacklisted writers and actors about a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine. Well before the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s, these filmmakers were exploring gender inequality and solidarity. Available on Netflix.

Shelby Murphy is a Latina from Texas and former Young Democratic Socialists co-chair. Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Deborah Rosenfelt researched the making of the film and its aftermath for the reissued screenplay. Here is her blogpost about the film.


Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 7 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion.