This upcoming weekend, past and present members of the University community will come together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer. This celebration is co-sponsored by Director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life and John E. Andrus Professor of Sociology Rob Rosenthal; Director of the Center for African American Studies Lois Brown; Artist in Residence of the Theater Department Leslie Weinberg; the Center for the Arts; Olin Library and Special Collections and Archives; the Office of Equity and Inclusion; Academic Affairs; Green Street Arts Center; and Cross Street A.M.E. Zion Church. Admission is free of charge for all events.
The Freedom Summer took place in 1964 when a group of college students, including students from Wesleyan, traveled to Mississippi for six weeks to enfranchise Southern African Americans to participate in voter registration. While there, these students actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement.
Having grown up in a segregated Louisiana, Weinberg explained that she has a personal connection to the events that unfolded during the Freedom Summer.
“I realized everything I profoundly loved about New Orleans had been created by artists, craftsmen, musicians, and chefs who had been the slaves of the people who still owned and operated New Orleans,” Weinberg wrote in an email to The Argus. “The Freedom Riders opened my eyes. I understood history, culture and commerce in a new way. Understanding, like naming, is a way of feeling some control in a chaotic world. And I wanted to give back for that extraordinary gift.”
The two-day event will begin on Friday with a concert beginning at 6 p.m. at the Cross Street Dance Center. Since Civil Rights demonstrations traditionally began in churches where singing would summon solidarity and strength, this concert will migrate throughout campus and pause at Olin at 6:30 p.m., where two more groups—a choir from Middletown High School and the Children’s Choir of the Cross Street A.M.E. Zion Church will join the musicians.
“[The concert] is not so much about performances as it is an invitation to participate,” Rosenthal said. “I think the…concert is going to be amazing.”
From Olin, the growing group will head to the Memorial Chapel, where Dar Williams ’89 and duo Kim and Reggie Harris will perform for the crowd.
Student coordinator Connie Des Marais ’17 explained that she has been acting as a representative of the student body for the Freedom Summer celebration.
“[I served as] a student sound board to throw ideas off of,” Des Marais said. “[Everybody is] so invested in the event.”
Saturday’s schedule will consist of two panels and a keynote address given by Margaret Burnham, a prominent civil rights lawyer and a faculty member at the Northeastern University School of Law. She herself took part in the Freedom Summer of 1964.
The first panel will commence at Beckham Hall, featuring three alumni who also have personal experience with the Freedom Summer. The program, titled “Go South, Young Wes Men,” will be presented by Ron Young ’86, John Suter ’67, and Stephen Oleskey ’64. These individuals will share their experiences from the landmark summer of 1964.
Following that, “Unwavering Courage: Civil Rights Activists of Freedom Summer” will feature three women activists—Penny Patch, Muriel Tillinghast, and Gwendolyn Simmons—activists who lived in the South and participated in many aspects of the Civil Rights Movement.
Rosenthal explained the goals for the event.
“We wanted to emphasize the rank-and-file workers and especially the women activists [during the Movement,] who do not get enough credit,” Rosenthal said.
The events will conclude at 4:30 p.m. with Burnham’s keynote address.
“I’m looking forward to conversations between students of today and these people who were the age of students who did this very brave thing,” Rosenthal said. “We think of history as being made by special, great people, yet these were just ordinary students who felt they had to do something about a problem that they saw.”
Additionally, an exhibit at the Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives, “Civil Rights Activism and Welseyan,” will be on display on Friday from 3 to 5 p.m., as well as Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.