The Freedom Side – a collective of young leaders comprised of members of the Dream Defenders, United We Dream, Young People’s Project and nearly two-dozen other organizations at the center of this generation’s racial justice movement – have used the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer to mobilize, inform, train, and sustain the next generation of change. Steadfast in their directive towards civic engagement, these young leaders look to face the conversations and advance the action surrounding the criminalization of youth, educational disparity, economic stabilization, and facilitating the critical participation of young people in the democratic process of these United States of America.
We spoke to three such agents of change during the Freedom Summer’s 50th Anniversary and Youth Congress, held recently in Jackson, about their roles in this era of action, the misconceptions and mishandling of youth apathy, and the ties that now — and forever will — bind the souls that have impacted the ways we experience freedom in this world. Be sure to check out our first profile with Albert Sykes here, and our conversation with Charlene Carruthers here.
As one of the participants in the first Freedom Bus Ride from Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi in 1961, Dave Dennis connects the purposes of over 50 years of Civil Rights activism amongst youth in the United States. Born in Louisiana, Dennis was one of the organizers of the first Freedom Summer in 1964 and, alongside colleagues Bob Moses and Medger Evers, was an active organizer or creator of many of the Civil Rights organizations that defined the 1960’s South – including the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He currently serves as the Director and CEO of the Southern Initiative of The Algebra Project, a non-profit he and Moses founded to improve minority mathematics education. Here, Dennis shares his experiences, discussing his transition into becoming an elder statesman while navigating us through a half-century of unpaved roads and re-built bridges.
EBONY: Where do you find the energy to keep up with these kids?! There is a lot going on right now.
DAVE DENNIS: I’m hanging in there. You don't try to keep up… you try to stay engaged with them. They keep you going, really. Watching young people become interested and moving to action and being passionate about what is going on now and wanting to talk about the future…that keeps me going. I want to be there as it happens. To be able to have that kind of relationship is key.
EBONY: What motivated you then and what motivates you now?
DD: I went through some different phases in my life. First and foremost, I was born on a plantation as part of a sharecropper’s family in the town of Omega — which is close to the Shreveport area. I grew up in this life where you had to stay in your place. My family moved out of the farm and into the city later on, and I remember vividly how the men in the community responded when Emmet Till was killed. They would gather all the boys and young men together and teach us how to survive. If you saw white people — particularly females — walking down the street, you would cross the street to avoid encounters and misinterpretations. That was the era I lived in. I was the first in my family to graduate from high school. Going to college was a real thing however, even in high school, I didn’t have this interest in civil rights that you might think most people are born with.
EBONY: This changed in college though.
DD: I went to Southern High School — which was connected to Southern University — and was there during the time period when there was the mass student walkout being proposed on campus. One of the organizers was a gentleman by the name of Ned Brown. Ned attempted to persuade my best friend, Hubert, and I to join in. We declined, opting instead to go to Hubert’s house to play basketball, which highlights the lack of interest at that moment in our lives. Hubert ended up being better known as H. Rap Brown.
I went to Dillard University and happened to find my way into my first meeting as a means to get a date with a woman I fell for. She was handing out meeting flyers and speaking to a group of students on campus one afternoon. I thought she was cute, walked over to talk to her after her presentation and, sooner than I realized, agreed to attend a core demonstration — a ‘Hit and Run’ — at a Woolworth store that weekend. Normally, a group of students would go to sit in a Woolworth store on a Saturday morning or afternoon and, once the police would arrive and tell them to leave, would move on. This particular Saturday, however, the police decided to change their tactics and arrest everyone without warning. [Laughs]
EBONY: The lengths we go to impress women.
DD: Exactly. Though the true turning point came right after the first Freedom Rides from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. The New Orleans CORE chapter was to play host to the first riders. After the riders were mobbed and beaten in Anniston, Alabama, they had to ship people to New Orleans for medical attention at Goodridge Hospital, the medical facility attached to Dillard University. Seeing the mangled bodies of James Peck and others affected me profoundly. I, along with several other members, immediately boarded a train into Montgomery that night to join the other groups of riders and supporters. There was an all-night meeting with elders including, most notably, Dr. King. They were asking the young people to not continue riding for the best interests of their safety. We, of course, took a strong position to continue. I was still having strong doubts; questioning why I was there when I should be concerned with finishing school. It was a statement made in that moment, though, that turned my life around. Amongst all the confusion, someone in the meeting stood and said, “There is no space in this room for both God and fear.” Right there I made the choice to be on the first bus out and never turn back. I dropped out of school and started on what would be my path for the rest of my life. Ironically enough, I was arrested shortly thereafter in Shreveport on the same day Barack Obama was born. [Laughs] In 1962, at the age of 21, I started to work with Bob Moses in Mississippi as part of the core that would go on to organize Freedom Summer.
EBONY: How have you developed your approach over time?
DD: The overarching emphasis [in 1964] was getting people registered to vote and taking charge of the political system — not only in Mississippi, but the rest of the country. We wanted to bring attention to the atrocities that were happening within the voting system. Another was education, as Mississippi was using literacy as a requirement for people to become registered to vote while, at the same time, denying people to literacy education. The need to speak to that with the same breath is how the Freedom Schools emerged. Our other two buckets were economic development and healthcare. These issues are obviously still prevalent today. Though we have a large number of people registered, and Mississippi has the most Black elected officials per-capita than any other state in the U.S., it still falls very short in the categories of healthcare, economic development, housing, education, etc. Just having the right to vote isn’t enough. Our communities need to learn how to harness that power in an effective way. Education is the same. It is not only about people being denied education anymore. The country does requires states to provide “equal” education today, but don’t require “quality” education. Our kids are being given inadequate education at the public school levels. Our initiatives now, both on the state and national level, are asking for constitutional amendments making quality education a constitutional right. The United States is 26th in the world in regards to its educational rankings. The privatization of education is also a model we want to focus our attentions to based on what is happening in New Orleans. After Katrina, New Orleans fired all their teachers and, by September of this year, will be the first state that is 100% charter. We feel this is dangerous for everyone, but specifically to children of color. We have to face these issues in addition to protecting the erosion of the rights we have fought for. We have over 800 kids who will participate in Freedom Summer this year and are hoping kids can go back to their communities to organize and figure a way they can address these issues on the local and national levels.
EBONY: Are we further ahead or behind where you thought we would be 50 years ago?
DD: I never dreamed that we would have so many people of color in these powerful positions. That was never expected. At the same time, I understand that we have a price to pay for what we obtain. We are elected into offices, but still have no power. You can look on the local level, where we have black mayors in many major cities across this country. As soon as they obtain their positions, the money goes away and the decisions that actually impact the growth of the cities are being made by those who are in power structures that they aren’t included in. We have a black president who, even with the title of President Of The United States Of America, can’t get anything passed because the real power structures in our country’s system has a divergent agenda. Because we as a people are so affixed on having a black president and, therefore, what is happening on the national level, there are legislations that are being passed – both locally and nationally – that are having adverse reactions to our communities. We have this feeling that to attack legislation would be to attack Barack Obama, when he really is not in the position to wholly fulfill his agenda. Teaching people how to understand and address these dynamics is a new challenge.
EBONY: And would you tell your successors to forecast for the next 50?
DD: People look at my generation and give us credit like, “You young people came in and changed the world!” When we started in Mississippi and Louisiana, there were already movements occurring, even though some might have been considered very underground. They took us in. The NAACP local members took us in. These groups gave us the space, support, and guidance necessary for folks our age to be able to bring light to our own missions. When Freedom Summer began, we had our backs against the walls. Medgar Evers and others had been killed and the country was doing nothing about it. We had to expand our focus. As this country continues to grow and change we have to learn how to not only bring in our people, but also every child born under the constitution of this country. Opening that door beyond our walls so that the country as a whole can really see what is going on.
Ugi Ugwuomo is a culture writer based in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow him on Twitter @RLfNowhere