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Catherine Tarantino ’18, a history major and peace and conflict studies minor, gave a presentation on Thursday, November 9, based on her award-winning Washington Semester Thesis, entitled “I’ve Come this Far to Freedom: Voices of Summer ’64.” Tarantino is the recipient of the Vannicelli Award for the Spring 2017 Washington D.C. Semester program.
Professor Gary DeAngelis, the director of the Washington Semester and a religion professor, introduced Tarantino during the presentation and highlighted the unique nature of her work. Although the Vannicelli Award is typically given to a thesis focusing on contemporary policy issues, Tarantino’s historical research stood out for its unique content.
Freedom Summer, as Tarantino explained in her presentation, was a project that brought together African Americans in Mississippi and volunteers, many of which were white college students, from other states to help the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, particularly voter participation. Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) helped organize the movement, which became a target of violence and abuse in Mississippi.
Even within the first few days of the project, there were casualties. Two white male students and an African American male student were beaten and killed. Violence like this amplified the importance of the Freedom Summer Movement, and volunteers and locals continued to fight for equal rights.
Tarantino shared that she wanted to research Freedom Summer in order to highlight the individuals, who go unrecognized, who fought in the Civil Rights Movement. “ I fear that when the Movement is oversimplified, the ordinary individuals who fought for racial equality are forgotten. These individuals fought too hard and risked too much for us to forget about them and only focus on great men such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X,” Tarantino explained.
While researching this topic, Tarantino focused on primary sources from the participants in Freedom Summer that were available in both audio files and transcribed reports. She opened her presentation by describing her first encounter with a yellowing newspaper clipping in the Library of Congress. Tarantino explained that, because she was in D.C., she had access to the best resources available on the topic, including the Library of Congress Folklife Center and Howard University Archives, and she collaborated with archivists to find the best possible sources.
In her presentation, Tarantino also covered the emotional impact that many of the interviews carried. In the recorded interviews, participants would have to excuse themselves to compose themselves. Tarantino explained that even filler words like “um” or “uh” carried great weight: “They often had an emotional context, as in they were often used when conveying difficult information. It was a way in which to convey more of the emotional side of Freedom Summer.”
While in D.C., Tarantino also interned at Common Cause, where she looked at proposals by the Trump administration and their potential effects on the “integrity of our voting rights.” Tarantino also explained that, although not directly connected, both her thesis and her work at Common Cause reflected the larger voting rights issues in both the Civil Rights Movement and contemporary society, particularly relating to African Americans. It was interesting to look at how far we have come as a nation,” Tarantino said, “but it was also clear that we have a long way to go.”
Professor Michael West, of the history department, served as Tarantino’s advisor, and Professor Gwenn Miller, also of the history department, took on the role of reader, similar to a second advisor to Tarantino. Under their guidance, Tarantino wrote her award-winning thesis highlighting a period of the Civil Rights Movement that has contemporary implications.
Tarantino shared that, as a college student herself, the topic of Freedom Summer particularly stood out because these students who travelled to Mississippi were the same age as she is. She doubted that she herself would be able to undertake such brave, yet dangerous, actions as the participants of Freedom Summer because these students went into the heart of the Civil Rights Movement knowing that some of them would not return.
“Freedom Summer is an excellent example of the ability young adults have to affect change. Today we are in a political environment in which many young adults and college students feel disillusioned and angry. Instead of taking this frustration and becoming politically inactive, Freedom Summer shows how much can be done when that frustration is channeled in political action and grassroots movements,” elaborated Tarantino. “[Freedom Summer] is a story of the strength of our nation and it is a testament to amazing uplifting affect political activity and engagement can have on a community.”