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Overturning Brown author Steve Suitts writes that ‘school freedom’ twists meaning of civil rights movement

The Nation just published an article reporting on how former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and former education secretary Betsy DeVos were stumping in New Hampshire last week to promote one of the GOP’s favorite issues, “school choice.” This struck a nerve with Steve Suitts, author of the recent new book, Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement

Suitts wrote The Nation:

Jennifer Berkshire did an excellent piece chronicling how Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s former Secretary of State, is stumbling in New Hampshire in his attempt to use “school choice” as a political issue to explore a 2024 presidential bid. She points out that pollster Chris Wilson told a “school choice” meeting where Pompeo appeared that their cause could grow more popular only if they abandon their slogan of “school choice,” which now holds huge negative connotations. Based on his polling, Wilson recommended rebranding their movement as “school freedom.”

If the “school choice” leaders take Wilson’s advice, it will be yet another classic example of how a movement that originated to preserve school segregation will co-opt the language and symbols of civil rights in order to overturn civil rights goals. In 1964, the legendary activist Bob Moses, Charles Cobb, and others organized “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi to begin a massive student-operated effort to lessen the stranglehold of white supremacy. The effort involved carrying out voter registration and conducting “Freedom Schools” for black children across the state to begin to free them from what Moses called a history of “sharecropper education.”

In fact, while the work to end segregation and white supremacy in the South in the 1960s is remembered as a civil rights movement, it was called most often by those who participated and benefited from it as a “freedom movement.”

If “school choice” begins to rebrand as “school freedom” it will twist the purpose and meaning of a heroic, historical effort into a slogan to advance what Freedom Schools sought to abolish.