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.
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