Jon Hale hit the ground running. He arrived at the College of Charleston in 2011, joining the faculty of the Department of Teacher Education.
His activist instincts quickly kicked in. Surveying the education landscape of the Lowcountry and beyond, he recognized persistent problems of inequity. And because he is a historian with an interest in the civil rights movement, he knew that these problems were not isolated but systemic.
Hale was soon spending just as much time outside the classroom advocating for public school reform as he was inside the classroom educating his students about the history of student activism, civil rights and more.
Earlier this year, his book “The Freedom Schools” was published by Columbia University Press. It’s a deep look at the role young people played in the civil rights movement in Mississippi.
Q: In “The Freedom Schools,” you draw attention to the many young people involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. In brief, what should we know about the contributions of young people in the 1950s and 1960s?
A: Young people, oftentimes students still in middle and high school, placed their lives on the frontlines of the freedom struggle. We often remember college youth who initiated the sit-ins or the Freedom Rides. But we must not forget that these students often learned of the movement while attending an all-black middle or high school, through NAACP Youth Councils, or both.
Once these young people raised their voices, the local community listened. Burke High School students, for instance, led the Kress sit-in in 1960 and it awakened the local community.
The role of young people helps remind us just how pervasive the movement was in the multitude of institutions and age levels it influenced.
Q: At what point did you develop an interest in racial issues and disparities, and how did that shape your academic career?
A: I developed a keen interest in how people addressed social, economic and political inequalities through education while I worked as a history teacher intern in Wisconsin when finishing college in 2004.
I knew from my history and philosophy of education courses that John Dewey, George Counts and Paulo Freire advocated for education for social change but it was not until I read an obscure article by Howard Zinn, “Schools in Context: The Mississippi Idea” (1964), that I really learned what education for social change truly looked like.
The most radical forms of education were coming from black organizers in the freedom struggle and, therefore, I learned that the history of education is a history of racial disparity. The two cannot be separated.
Q: Much has changed since the 1960s, but racial disparities in education persist. What can the activism of the 1960s teach us about today’s situation?
A: The civil rights movement and the black freedom struggle puts forth the clearest models of reform for educators and organizers to follow. These movements were led by those who were disenfranchised and excluded from genuine American citizenship.
By the nature of exclusion, disenfranchised communities were forced to work in ways that the vast majority of white folks did not, which put forth some very radical and unconventional notions of what education, community control, and self-determination looks like.
... One other aspect that was particularly enlightening is how white people participated in and attempted to shape the civil rights movement. In a movement that was by and for the disenfranchised, whites were always getting in the way, often appropriating local movements and seeking to speak for (and down upon) the black and brown community.
By 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee expelled all whites and asked well-intentioned white folks to work in racist communities where they were needed most.
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow, whites have a lot to learn from this history. White organizers and educators can truly benefit from taking a long look at how whites have helped the movement but have also harbored a tendency to get in the way of genuine progress if they are not critically reflective.
Q: If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change about the education system in Charleston County?
A: I would like to see that quality education is a federally protected constitutional right, which makes any funding inequality unconstitutional under the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.
And I would like to see that every public school in Charleston County is taught and led by people who come from the same background as the students, who have the same experiences as students, and who can relate to the trauma that young people go through on a daily basis living in poverty. These basic principles would fundamentally transform the type of education we provide to our young people.
Q: Who are your education heroes, the people you look to for inspiration and ideas?
A: My education heroes are Myles Horton, Septima Clark, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Howard Zinn. All of these educators understood the transformative potential of education for social change and they built their careers upon it. They fashioned systems of education in the spirit of active citizenship that challenged any and all forms of injustice.