130th Annual Meeting

Freedom Dreams: The Many Uses of History in Georgia’s Ongoing Struggle for Educational Desegregation

Anita Casavantes Bradford | Dec 1, 2015

In October 2010, the Georgia Board of Regents banned undocumented students from applying to the state’s top five public universities and denied them eligibility for in-state tuition at all public institutions of higher education. These policies, which took effect in fall 2011, came just as the state’s flagship University of Georgia (UGA) system launched a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of its desegregation. This terrible irony was not lost on a new generation of students and educational activists in Georgia. Joining forces with veteran African American leaders of the civil rights struggle, they put the power of historical memory to a different use. Just as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee established Free­dom Schools in the 1960s to empower black southerners to fight for racial justice, in May 2011 UGA faculty, undocumented student leaders, and community allies established Freedom University to offer tuition-free college-level classes and leadership training to students otherwise barred from continuing their education.

This year’s AHA annual meeting attendees will have a unique opportunity to learn more about the work of Freedom University at the panel “Students on the Front Line: The Fight to Desegregate Public Higher Education in Georgia from the 1960s Atlanta Student Movement to the Undocumented Student Movement Today” (Friday, January 8, 8:30–10:00 a.m.). Freedom University executive director Laura Emiko Soltis, student leader Melissa Rivas-Triana, and Charles A. Black, former chair of the Atlanta Student Movement at Morehouse College (1961–62), will discuss their involvement in the ongoing struggle for educational desegregation in the state. In doing so, they will speak to the powerful role the discipline of history—and the historians who write it—can play in the struggle for access to higher education in the United States.

Studying the history of the black freedom movement has inspired Freedom U’s students to take action.

Freedom U’s curriculum, which combines critical pedagogical methods with rigorous college-level content, includes a heavy dose of history, which faculty and students alike consider critical to an education for liberation. Classes on the intertwined histories of immigration, race, and labor help students understand the macroeconomic, political, and social factors that have encouraged the growth of a community of more than 11 million undocumented people—mostly poor and nonwhite—who currently call the United States home. At the same time, coursework encourages Freedom U students to explore how their own experiences of exclusion have a longer history within changing structures of racial oppression. Students learn that southern African Americans and other people of color historically have been compelled to engage in unpaid labor—or permitted to engage in mostly poorly paid work—while being denied suffrage and higher education. As Soltis observes, “When students begin to learn about and recognize the long history in the United States of importing people from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia for cheap labor, while simultaneously denying them their human rights to vote, fair pay and collective bargaining, decent housing, and education, among others, they no longer see their inability to apply to a certain college as a personal misfortune, but as a collective injustice.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, studying the history of the black freedom movement in dialogue with African American veterans of the civil rights struggle has inspired Freedom U’s more than 250 students to take action. These young people build on the techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience so effectively deployed by young black men and women in the 1960s to challenge their exclusion from Georgia colleges and universities. By encouraging students to delve deeply into the history of black student activism, Freedom University and its community allies empower undocumented students to see their quest for access to higher education as part of a broader human rights struggle that transcends racial and generational boundaries.

As a historian of immigration, Latino communities, and childhood, I have made a conscious commitment to leverage my disciplinary knowledge and skills in any way I can to advocate for the more than 500 undocumented young people who, thanks to recent changes in California law, are now enrolled as undergraduates at the university where I teach and conduct research. I can personally attest to the importance of critical historical scholarship in helping undocumented students across the nation to continue the still-unfinished struggle for educational desegregation in the United States. I look forward to seeing many of you at this exciting annual meeting panel and to introducing you to the courageous Freedom U faculty, students, and community allies who are truly using history to make history in Georgia.

Anita Casavantes Bradford is associate professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Note: In June 2015, AHA president Vicki L. Ruiz sent a letter to the members of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia protesting the policy that denies undocumented immigrants the opportunity to attend Georgia’s top five public universities. The full statement is available at historians.org/ga-daca.

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