Soul Sessions Podcast: Ayana Jones | Freedom Summer

On today’s episode, the Two Mississippi Museums’ Ayana Jones helps give context to Freedom Summer, where over 700 mainly white volunteers came to our state and teamed up with African Americans for a voter registration drive.

Ayana Jones
Credit: MDAH

Host and Managing Editor Paul Wolf talks to Ayana in today's show.


Freedom Summer at the Two Mississippi Museums | History of Freedom Summer

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Mississippi is ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement from Medgar Evers to James Meredith and Freedom Summer.

Hey, it's Paul Wolf with a front-row seat to conversations on culture from Jackson, Mississippi. We call our podcast Soul Sessions. It's the people, places and events that make the City With Soul shine. On today's episode, the Two Mississippi Museums, Ayana Jones helps give context to Freedom Summer, where over 700 mainly white volunteers came to our state teamed up with African Americans for a voter registration drive to boost black voter registration and combat discrimination and intimidation.

You are from Philadelphia, Mississippi. And since we're talking about Freedom Summer today, that was kind of the spot of the first incident in freedom summer in Mississippi when Cheney, Schwermer and Goodman were killed in Philadelphia as part of Freedom Summer. Does that way on you? Do you understand the significance and feel the significance of that?

Yeah. So being from there around eighth grade is when I learned about the incident. Unfortunately, it wasn't in school. And that's when I was like, ‘OK, I don't like this. I should be knowing this. Other people should be learning about it that are my age.’ But the way it happened was there was a community reconciliation group that came together and then they saw that young people learn about this information as well.

And then this is the organization that I was a part of in the eighth grade. It's called the Philadelphia Coalition or the Neshoba Youth Coalition. And so, you may know in eighth grade, we take a Mississippi studies class. However, that was not being taught. And I joined this organization or this group and that's when I landed around and I was like, ‘I'm not gonna judge my teacher, but I don't know why I'm not learning about this.’ So yeah, I mean, it was just an eerie feeling seeing or going to the site that they were learning at in the eighth grade had never really been exposed to any type of violence or that type of those type of stories. It was quite overwhelming, but over time, of course, you just, you know, you get with the flow of it and you just continue to learn about it, but also share it with your friends and pass it along and say that like, this is something that we should all be learning about.

And then of course, you know, we gave tours in like ninth grade and 10th grade to people who came to Philadelphia. So it was like making us like, not only just talking about it, but also sharing it with other people. So it gives light to them as human beings and as people, meeting some of the family members who were beaten at the church that they were investigating. That gives light to the people and the stories. And I think that's what makes it a little easier to grapple with when you get to know people, but also see them as humans.

Yeah, I'm going to back up just a little bit, Ayana, because you said you gave tours. This is when you were a kid, like when you were in high school, junior high, you were giving tours to expose this history to people around you. You kind of had been bitten by the museum bug way back then, right?

Yeah, yeah. So of course, you know, just like Jackson, right, we had this Civil Rights tour that people can take around here or museums, like you said. And every summer we would have a Freedom School or summer camps that we would have. So not only would we be teaching young children that are in our neighborhood, you know, friends or whatever, but we'd also be touring people who wanted to come in the state to learn about the history.

And we would take them to different sites around the county. A local church called Mount Nebo Missionary Baptist Baptist Church, Booker T. Washington High School was the first Black high school in the city. And then the church that was bombed, Mount Zion, and the murder site of the Civil Rights workers. So yeah, we did it on charter buses and like, this is like, here you that we did our Vanna White, you know, ‘here you have this and like, this had been here and Mark Luther King came to Philadelphia and he talked about this.’ So yeah, I guess I am. I didn't think about, like, yeah.

You said something that makes me think about the education system across this country and in our state and how some things are left out. Some things are whitewashed. But the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum certainly is a place where you go to get an honest and oftentimes brutal story of what happened during the Civil Rights Movement. I think you have a fascinating opportunity. And this summer, marking the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Summer, I was reading earlier, it was called the Mississippi Project, so it's specific to our state. Tell me more about what the Museums and the Department of Archives and History will be doing over the coming months to commemorate this occasion.

I'm a museum educator now, so it's truly a pleasure to welcome people into our space and to tell them about it, especially, you know, having so many schools from around the area, but also around the state who come here. We get to share with them about some stories about their hometowns and they're shocked as well, just like I was when I was younger, and then to walk them through, but also to get them thinking about what they could do for themselves and their community and just the way to share these stories. And this summer is just a great opportunity because we're going to have people coming from around the world to come to this museum and to honor the 60th movement, but local people, but also the Freedom workers who came here and did a great deal of work.

We have programs throughout the whole summer. We have themed tours that are going to be centered around Medgar Evers birthday to highlight what he did and how he kept the people leading up to ‘65. Also, we'll have Emmett Till’s birthday highlighted to see how he's a catalyst for the movement. So we're really honoring the people who pushed other people to be aware, to acknowledge what was going on to Black people here in the South. We'll have our famous history happy hour. It's going to be Freedom Summer-themed. That's going to be a full event where you can come and take tours through the museum, but also just listen to some music, get a few drinks if you'd like. We'll have food on site that you can partake in as well. And we'll also have several lectures that'll be going on in our auditorium. So that's our History is Lunch. They are every Wednesday and we have people like Leslie McLemore, Bruce Watson, and so many other people who are going to be here to lecture and just to educate a little bit more about what's going on.

And then the kind of the thing that's gonna round out our experience for this summer is gonna be a screening by Joan Trumpauer and her son, Mr. Loki. Lots of things coming up. We have a full calendar and minutes that you can find on our website. It's under the events tab. Or, come see us and we'll give it to you in person.

Yeah. And also I think when we talk about Freedom Summer and the Freedom Riders, I always call him an accidental freedom rider, but you have a living legend that's at your museum all the time. And that is Mr. Hezekiah Watkins. I love to hear his story about how he was caught up in the Greyhound arrests here in Jackson at the Greyhound station when the Freedom Riders came through. I just have to know, you having the occasion to work with him: are you not just inspired every time you hear the man talk?

My gosh. Every day, like my colleague Jasmine yesterday, she walked up to him and she was like, I just need to touch history. And she was like, started poking him. And she's like, ‘I just want to touch history. How you doing today?’

But yeah, it's amazing to sit down and talk to him every day about what he's done, but also this insight about today. That's the part that I really enjoy is talking about what's going on today within our institution and how we can just better as interpreters, but also what's going on in the world. You know, he's a grandfather. So, you know, we talk about his grandson, and like, you know, what life that he wants for him and how I am impacting the life that his grandchildren have, how he is doing that himself, and just the thought of him being pushed into the movement. He talks about how that's literally everybody. If you have a good-will bone in your body, you are pushed into wanting to do service. You're pushed into wanting to be a good person. So we just all got to get there in like a whatever way that looks like, at whatever time. He didn't think it was going to be 13. I didn't think it was going to be an eighth grade, but we all have that moment in our life and we have to be aware of that. It's truly a decision that you have to make if you want to do it or want to be involved or want to educate yourself a little bit more or just help other people get along. So yeah, he's amazing.

Now, if people want to get more education, as it were, on Freedom Summer and on the history of Mississippi, but also what we're doing today, what is your advice as an educator?

Come to the museums, right? That's what I'm supposed to… you go to the museums. But I think if you are more of a visual learner, there are a lot of fields that you can find out that are real. They have real photos from the 60s thinking about “Eyes on the Prize” and other things like that. But our films here at the museum are really great. That'd probably be the best way because I'm a visual artist as well. But also just take the time to talk to people who are older than you, even your parents, they know things. Like my mom knew about the recent rice workers well before I learned about it in eighth grade and she had never told me about it. That could be for several reasons. So, everybody has something to share and to pass on, so don't be afraid to try to learn from other people in your community no matter their age, even old people. They being knowing stuff! They know things, whether we know it or not, they're listening. Community: gotta get back there to just share things with each other. Everybody has different experiences and we may find along the way that we share the same experiences in some kind of way.

That's Ayana Jones from the Two Mississippi Museums with a personal insight into Freedom Summer and a look at ways we can commemorate those events right here in Jackson. Find more in our show notes at

Soul Sessions is produced by Visit Jackson, the destination organization for Mississippi's capital city. Our executive producers are Jonathan Pettus and Dr. Ricky Thigpen, and I'm our managing editor. You want to know more about the great work we're doing to make Jackson a better place? You can do that at

I'm Paul Wolf, and you've been listening to Soul Sessions.

Paul Wolf


Paul Wolf