Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Liberal Studies


Karen Miller


Celina Su

Subject Categories

Adult and Continuing Education | Curriculum and Social Inquiry | Language and Literacy Education


Popular education, critical pedagogy, adult education, direct democracy, civil rights, grassroots leadership


This thesis looks at the question of how the direct actions of the civil rights movement worked synergistically with grassroots educational projects like the Citizenship Schools. This thesis makes the case that the lesser-known history of the popular education work of the civil rights movement provides important clues as to why activists were able to organize mass mobilizations and formulate increasingly transformative strategies for change, like the rise of the Freedom Democratic Party. I look at the popular education work of the civil rights movement through an in-depth case study of the Citizenship Schools. The Citizenship Schools were a network of hundreds of classes that were organized primarily by Black women who had often been activists in their communities. At the project’s height, there were hundreds of Citizenship Schools run by and for the Black community throughout the South in which people learned to read in order to register to vote. The Citizenship Schools were instrumental in bringing new leaders into the civil rights movement and fostering the emergence of new discourses of participatory democracy. I argue that the Citizenship Schools exemplify how the popular education work of the civil rights movement laid essential groundwork for political action. By focusing on a vision for democratized economic and political systems, participants in the schools were able to find a diversity of solutions to the multi-faceted ways their lives had been impacted by racial capitalism.

An ongoing challenge for community organizers working with scarce financial resources is how to achieve the kind of “people power” that was mobilized during the civil rights movement. The example of the Citizenship Schools is poignant for today because it challenges the prevalent mindset in many unions and nonprofits that there is a dichotomy between organizing in-depth and organizing “at scale.” The Citizenship Schools began with intensive leadership development work on John’s Island off the coast of Charleston and grew into a decentralized national coalition that was able to support the autonomy of hundreds of local classes that coordinated together to mobilize thousands of people to take action for political change.