A Cultural History of Civil Rights: Two men sit inside a rural Mississippi community center. One of them, a black civil rights activist, has a shotgun at the ready. Their vigil — in a town where the Ku Klux Klan could strike at any moment — is in a makeshift library whose walls are covered with books.
This compelling photograph, taken during the historic 1964 Freedom Summer, is a reminder of the multiple and sometimes conflicting tactics of the civil rights movement. It is also a hopeful metaphor for the power of knowledge to combat prejudice and oppression.
With this idea in mind, thousands of volunteers, many of them college students from the North, descended on Mississippi in June 1964. Their purpose was to work with local activists to register African-American voters in a state that often denied them that right. To address the racial inequalities in Mississippi’s education system, they set up 30 Freedom Schools in small towns, as well as meeting houses and community centers.