Challenging Jim Crow schools in Chicago

February 22, 2012

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor tells the unknown history of a 1960s civil rights struggle against discrimination and segregation--in the heart of the North.

LAST DECEMBER, at the behest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Public Schools announced that it intended to close or "turn around" 17 "failing" schools. A quick look confirmed that most of the schools were located in African American neighborhoods.

No new schools will replace the seven schools the Board of Education wants to close down. Instead, Black students are expected to go to other "failing" schools. Typically, the board has refused the input of anyone in communities where they are threatening to take away schools. As community activist Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization put it, "To assume that we don't have good ideas to fix our schools is racist...To ignore the voices of people that simply want to make their schools better is racist, and I dare say evil."

The attack on public education in Chicago has sparked protests in Black communities across the city, as people openly wonder what it is to become of their children's right to a decent education.

But that struggle for public education in Black Chicago has long roots--as long as when African Americans began arriving in the city in large numbers. In the early 1960s, Chicago's local fight emerged as part of a national struggle for Black youth to have equal access to public education--as per the edict of the Supreme Court in the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

Students in an overcrowded school in Chicago in 1963
Students in an overcrowded school in Chicago in 1963

Northern school districts sidestepped Brown by claiming their schools just happened to be segregated because of the "neighborhood schools" policies that required students to attend schools within walking distance of their homes. In this way, cities ignored the spirit of Brown, which was to ensure racially integrated public education.

By 1963, a mass movement of Black parents and school-aged children exploded across the urban North to demand integrated and equal education. The history of the movement is hidden, as the official national narrative is that the fight against racism and for civil rights was a Southern story--and that the white liberal establishment supported that movement from the "land of hope" in the North.

Instead of a land of hope, most African Americans who migrated to the North and West found racism, residential segregation, police brutality, unemployment--and, most of all, underfunded and inferior public schools.

In the early 1960s, there wasn't just the Southern civil rights movement, but a national movement in the North, South and West. The Chicago freedom movement for equality in public education led the entire nation in a powerful display of unity and community organizing that shook the foundations of the racist establishment governing the city.

BY THE late 1950s, Chicago was a city undergoing what was popularly referred to as "neighborhood change." Whites were leaving the city by the tens of thousands, and African Americans were moving in by the hundreds of thousands. For example, in the West Side neighborhood of Lawndale, African Americans were 13 percent of the population in 1950; by 1960, they were 90 percent.

At one point in the 1940s, there were more than 3,000 African Americans arriving in Chicago every week. In just over 50 years, more than 500,000 African Americans migrated to Chicago.

By 1960, African Americans weren't just a growing part of Chicago; they were doing well. African Americans in Chicago had the second-highest income for Blacks in the U.S. With high income came the higher expectations of how their children would be educated.

Because of the rapid waves of Blacks coming into Chicago, schools went from being racially and ethnically mixed to all-Black in a matter of weeks. Schools were also insufferably overcrowded. In the late 1950s, predominately white schools had, on average, an enrollment of 700 students. Integrated or "mixed schools" with Black and white students averaged almost 950 students, but schools that were at least 90 percent Black had more than 1,200 students enrolled on average. In some Black schools on the West Side, enrollment could exceed 2,000 students.

Because of the overcrowding in Black schools and the lack of qualified teachers, thousands of Black students were forced to go to school in shifts--meaning half-days. Black students were only 30 percent of the citywide student body, they were 81 percent of the students forced to go to school in shifts.

Meanwhile, whites were fleeing Chicago for surrounding suburbs, leaving ample space in the neighborhood schools they left behind. Yet the city refused to let African American students transfer to emptying white schools. This literally meant Black students in Chicago got a half-day of school, while their white peers received a full day of education.

The school board insisted it was only following the neighborhood schools policy, but Black students were allowed to transfer to other slightly less crowded Black schools. The neighborhood schools policy was only invoked when Black parents began demanding that their kids be able to transfer to white schools.

Not only were Black schools overcrowded, but teachers there had four years of experience on average, compared to teachers in white schools who averaged 12. Classes in Black schools were 25 percent larger than classes in white schools. This was in addition to the absolute absence of any curricula that reflected the lives and experience of Black students.

In 1961, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights confirmed the segregated and discriminatory conditions of public education in Chicago--and school officials' role in preserving those conditions. The author of the report on Chicago schools wrote, "The administration has made no effort to aid in integration; indeed, to the extent that it has recognized the existence of the problem, its policies probably have impeded rather than promoted integration."

BY THE early 1960s, Black parents in Chicago began to mobilize around the issue of segregation and overcrowding. In August 1961, Black parents organized what became known as Operation Transfer, in which parents would try to register their children at white schools. Some 160 parents were denied the right to transfer their children to the vacant seats in white schools, prompting a lawsuit that charged the Chicago Board of Education (BoE) with discrimination.

The BoE tried circumventing accusations of discrimination by simply refusing to survey their student body to determine the number of Black and white students, and where they went to school. When the BoE steadfastly refused to collect the data, the Chicago chapter of the NAACP--the largest chapter in the nation--did the work for them. It confirmed what Black Chicago already knew--the public schools were segregated and Black children received an inferior education as a result.

The Chicago BoE was all white with the exception of two African American men appointed by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Most African Americans already knew that when Daley supported Black officials, the chances they would articulate the demands of the mass of Black Chicago were unlikely.

The board was led Benjamin C. Willis, a high-paid educator with a doctorate from Columbia University. Willis had a well-established reputation of arrogance toward Black concerns. At the same time, Willis professionalized the Chicago public schools system by raising hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds that facilitated building schools across the city. Willis was considered a pioneer in public education, but when it came to the education of Black students, he was tone deaf.

In response to the growing activism of Black parents across Chicago--as well as the growing national spotlight on racism and discrimination generated by the Southern civil rights movement--Willis and the BoE finally agreed to spend $100,000 to conduct an independent study of Chicago public schools.

Black Chicago again moved into protest at the end of January in 1962 when hundreds of Black students were forced to transfer to a new "school" because of overcrowding. The new school they were transferring to, though, was no school at all--it was an abandoned warehouse.

The warehouse, which parents called the "Willis Warehouse," was in an industrial area surrounded by railroad tracks. Black parents described it as a "firetrap" because it had no sprinklers, but had wooden staircases and wood floors.

The Willis Warehouse was located at 71st Street and Lowe on the city's South Side. The NAACP, along with the Hamilton Park Improvement Association, called a community meeting to plan a protest of the forced transfer to an unsafe building, in the middle of winter and the school year, with no consultation or input from parents.

The BoE confirmed how out of step it was with Black parents when one member said in response to parent concerns about safety: "The building is a fire-resistant school with no need for sprinklers and has been approved by the City of Chicago building department." This was the same building department that regularly ignored the complaints of African Americans living in overcrowded and unsafe slums.

In response to the board's actions, activists and parents decided that they would boycott classes in the warehouse. More than 200 of 700 students stayed out of the Willis Warehouse the first week of February. Black parents involved in the organizing released a statement that framed their concerns and the reasons to boycott. The statement read, in part:

We are deeply concerned with the education of our children. We look with concern over the face of Chicago and see the pattern of segregation in public education. This is a blot on Chicago. It is a violation of the rights guaranteed by the constitution of the U.S. and it is a denial of basic human dignity and integrity.

Within five days of the boycott, Willis decided to close the school while its conditions were "investigated." The board had buckled--but not without first trying to downplay the significance of the protest. Board President Virginia Lewis, like her Southern peers, blamed "outside agitators" for the unrest building in the Black South Side, saying, "It was all too well organized to be spontaneous."

THE SHORT and successful boycott of one school in Chicago was part of several small boycott actions across the country. In Danville, Ill., there was a three-day school boycott. In Englewood, N.J., Black parents organized a boycott of segregated schools there over several weeks.

In Jersey City, N.J., more than 1,000 Black students stayed out of segregated public schools and instead went to "freedom schools" set up in local churches to learn about Black history. In Philadelphia, more than 3,000 Black students boycotted classes for one day. There were school boycotts in Kentucky and Louisiana. In one town in Louisiana, the boycott was accompanied by a sit-in at a white school that police broke up with electric cattle prods and tear gas.

These were part of a clearly identifiable national struggle for equality in public schools in the early 1960s. While African Americans in the South were engaged in a civil rights struggle against Jim Crow laws that criminalized basic rights, in the North, hundreds of thousands of African Americans were drawn into a struggle against what was popularly referred to as de facto racism and segregation--racist practices that weren't codified into law, but were the result of common practices, yielded the same effect of marginalizing the vast majority of Blacks.

This was most evident in housing and public education. In 1963, the year of the Black revolution in the Southern movement, would also be the year of the Black struggle for public education in the North as well.

By the spring of 1963, it was clear that the Black movement was rapidly ascending. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference undertook a campaign to break Jim Crow in Birmingham, Ala. During the first week of April, sit-ins, marches and mass meetings were a daily occurrence.

Alabama officials got a court order to stop all civil rights activity and protests in Birmingham--which the movement announced it would ignore. As King said, "We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is an unjust, undemocratic and unconstitutional misuse of the legal process." Days after the injunction, King was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, where he wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

Following King's release from jail, the Birmingham campaign organizers decided to include school-aged children in the protests to avoid reprisals and other complications that came with the continued arrests of adults and known civil rights activists. It was a stroke of genius in the developing media age. In the first week of May, more than 1,000 Black youngsters were arrested for defying the injunction against protest in Birmingham.

Images of Black children being attacked by dogs and hauled off to jail for exercising basic rights as American citizens were broadcast all over the world. After some weeks, under pressure from federal officials and local businessmen embarrassed about the racist spectacle unfolding in Birmingham, city and state officials agreed to proposals for desegregation.

The success of Birmingham not only created momentum for the Southern movement, but it fueled the national fight against racism, whether in the form of Jim Crow or de facto segregation. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" spoke to the degradation and humiliation of Black life under Jim Crow, but also the dashed expectations of life in the North. And the notion that unjust laws deserved to be broken spoke directly to Black parents everywhere who were worried about the quality of education.

It also generalized the strategy that put Black youth at the center of organizing. Of course, Black college students had started a wave of sit-ins a few years earlier in 1960, but the Birmingham campaign centered on school-aged children and opened a new phase of the movement. Across the North, as parents and community activists began to focus in on breaking segregation in Northern schools, Black children were increasingly drawn into the movement.

Just weeks after the Birmingham campaign, in Boston, 3,000 of 5,000 Black high school juniors and seniors walked out of school to protest segregation in their schools. Hundreds of Black and white students showed up at the area's local colleges to attend lectures at "freedom centers." It was the first act in what would be a fall of protests and boycotts of segregation across the urban North and West.

BY JULY 1963, activists in Chicago called for a "freedom movement" in housing, jobs and education. The campaign was to be coordinated by the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) that included the NAACP, Friends of SNCC, CORE, the Woodlawn Organization, and other churches and community groups.

The BoE had eased some of its restrictions on transfers, now allowing students to transfer if their classrooms exceed 35 students instead of 40. But parents had to pay for transportation. The BoE cited an obscure state law that prohibited the transport of students if there was a school within walking distance of their home unless the student was "handicapped."

Far from working against segregation in the schools, the school board ordered dozens more "mobile classrooms" to be placed in the yards of overcrowded Black schools. At the same time, the number of empty white classrooms grew. According to one study, there were 582 empty classrooms in predominantly white schools, up from 382 six years earlier.

On August 12, when several mobile classrooms--popularly referred to as "Willis Wagons"--were to be installed at a South Side school, a demonstration of almost 200 parents and students broke out. Forty-eight people were arrested, including Black comedian Dick Gregory, after protesters set a Willis Wagon aflame.

The protest demonstrated a new militancy. Two girls were arrested when police had to drag them off of train tracks--as a train was headed straight for them. A man chained himself to the equipment truck attempting to install the mobile classrooms. Several people chained themselves to police cars or crawled beneath the mobile classrooms to prevent them from being installed. Two protesters scaled utility poles in an attempt to disrupt the flow of electricity to the school.

When Mayor Richard J. Daley claimed that the growing protests were the work of "outside agitators," community leaders tried to present the mayor with a petition of more than 1,300 signatures to show "total community opposition to the Willis Wagons." They also released a statement that said, "We suggest that a municipal government responsive to the wishes of its constituency should heed our demands for removal of these segregation maintaining devices."

Parents at the school where at least 19 Willis Wagons were to be installed discussed organizing another boycott. Parents began organizing door-to-door in the area where 800 students would be expected to attend class in the mobile classrooms. Preachers involved with CCCO then raised the idea of organizing boycotts at all of the schools that used mobile classrooms.

On August 23, Black parents and the BoE settled a two-year-old lawsuit charging the Chicago BoE with racial segregation in violation of the 1954 Supreme Court decision. Parents agreed to settle the lawsuit when the BoE made a number of concessions--including the completion of that independent study and survey of Chicago schools, a statement of agreement with the principles of "integrated education," and a plan for achieving it.

The BoE admitted that there was segregation in Chicago schools for the very first time and agreed to a more liberal transfer policy. They came up with a list of 24 predominately white schools were Black students would be allowed to transfer. Finally, BoE officials also agreed to halt the use of Willis Wagons at the one school where it had sparked community outrage because of the sheer number of students to be affected by it.

Despite these concessions--none of which immediately dealt with Black students being segregated in Chicago schools--CCCO continued with plans for a boycott of all schools that used the Willis Wagons. As movement leader and Black parent Rosie Simpson put it, "We tell them that if they let their children go to schools which have the mobile units, they are helping segregation...We won't stop picketing until the units have been removed from all Negro schools."

Simpson and CCCO were very quickly proven right to press on when a mere two weeks after the settlement, the intransigent Willis went on the offensive again, declaring that he would continue to use the mobile classrooms. Simpson and other parents responded by saying that they would take their kids out of the schools completely and set up "Freedom Schools" to educate Black children.

They also called for students to begin sitting in at schools. Two hundred parents met to plan a "walk-in" protest on the first day of school at the BoE's headquarters to ask for services not provided at Black schools to draw attention to the disparity.

SEPTEMBER 5 was the first day of classes, and the Black daily newspaper, the Chicago Defender reported, "It seems that the first day of school in Chicago--as with much of the nation--can no longer be represented by three Rs...two Ps and a B must be added. They stand for picket, protest and boycott."

A school-wide boycott of Black students was called in New York City. In Boston, parents began a hunger strike demanding integrated schools. In Los Angeles, Black students threatened to stay out.

During the second week of school, hundreds of white parents organized to oppose their schools being on Willis' list of buildings that Black children could transfer to. On September 9, a meeting at a predominately white school on Chicago's Northwest Side brought out 2,500 white parents and community members.

Their alderman, who was the son of the BoE president, listened to the complaints of white parents. Within days after this well-publicized meeting, Willis defied the BoE order and removed 15 of the white schools from the transfer list. Black parents immediately went to court to obtain an injunction demanding that Willis abide by the orders of the BoE, and the board agreed, publicly challenging Willis' behavior in local newspapers.

The growing demand of the Chicago movement was that Willis had to go, and the CCCO planned a mass boycott of the Chicago Public Schools for October 22 they called "Anti-Willis Freedom Day."

After weeks of delaying the implementation of the transfer plan and avoiding the court order, Willis dramatically offered to resign on October 4. Despite his open defiance of the law and his contempt for Black parents, the board begged him not to go, refusing to accept his resignation.

Black Chicago was furious. Organizing was well underway for the big boycott of October 22. Community activists handed out more than 200,000 handbills urging parents to keep their kids out of school for the day. Local churches agreed to stay open and host "Freedom Schools" to teach students about Black history.

CCCO organizers said of the coming boycott, "Chicago must not be permitted to become the Birmingham of the North." Seventeen organizations signed on in support of the boycott and all of Black Chicago was abuzz with organizing to pull it off. Organizers also called for a mass demonstration "on the scale of the March on Washington" to the Chicago Board of Education office in downtown Chicago.

At best, organizers hoped that 75,000 students would stay away from the schools and that 10,000 may show up to the downtown rally. The hostile Chicago Tribune estimated that maybe 30,000 students would stay away and calculated that it would cost the district $30,000.

On the morning of October 22, organizers were cautiously optimistic as the usually hustle of the early morning was absent. Schools across the South and West Side of the city appeared to be either empty or very close. By late afternoon, the streets outside of the BoE in downtown Chicago were filled as far as the eye could see. The newspapers the next day would tell the story--the boycott was a success beyond the wildest imagination of the organizers.

More than 224,000 Black students had stayed out of Chicago public schools--some 175,000 elementary school children and 50,000 high school students. According to the Chicago Defender, more than 120,000 people marched downtown on the Chicago BoE.

THIS DEMONSTRATED more than anything else that the "race question" was not just a Southern issue, but a national phenomenon. The signs at the protest underlined the point. One signed simply read, "Willis, Wallace, what's the difference?" referring to the openly racist Alabama Gov. George Wallace who pledged "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." A group of high school students marched with a small coffin that they explained to a reporter was for "Jim Crow and Ben Willis."

Students from a group calling themselves Student Advocates of Negro History handed out materials reading, "We are petitioning for the rewriting of school books so that the Negro is included. Then and only then will whites be able to shed their feeling of false superiority."

The Tribune reported that "thousands" of Black students attended "Freedom Schools" set up in Black churches across the city. They also reported that instead of the $30,000 they estimated Chicago would lose because of student absences, the number was $470,000.

The BoE looked to slow down the momentum of the Chicago school movement by immediately agreeing to expand the number of students who could transfer to 17,000, up from a few hundred. But in general, Willis refused to budge. The BoE agreed to continue "studying" the problem and drawing up plans, but it never acted.

CCCO began to focus on expanding the boycott to include downtown stores and planned for another one-day school boycott to build on the momentum. But in late November, President John F. Kennedy's assassination took the wind out of the sails of the movement.

It was not clear which direction things would head as organizers had made Willis the focal point and his refusal to leave combined with the refusal of the board to act on any of the concrete demands left the movement adrift. Moreover, as the struggle began to gain greater prominence nationally, infighting emerged between some of the organizations of CCCO.

By winter 1964, the movement was again faced with questions of how to go forward when the Chicago BoE once again provided a clear direction. In January, the board suggested two more appointees both of whom were white and had absolutely no connection to education--one was described as a socialite and the other a downtown businessman.

Chicago organizers called for another boycott on February 25. This time, the boycott would be amid a wave of school actions across the country. New York City organizers called for a citywide school boycott on February 3, and its success was overwhelming. More than 470,000 mostly Black students boycotted class that day. The demand of the demonstration was the "immediate and complete integration of New York Public Schools."

There were boycotts planned for Philadelphia; Cleveland; Omaha, Neb.; Hartford, Conn.; Chester, Pa.; Indianapolis and beyond. Martin Luther King proudly said that the boycotts spreading across the North had "my moral support and deepest sympathy."

But by winter of 1964, the successful coalition in Chicago was fraying. Clashes over control over the coalition and fierce debates over strategy began to emerge. When talk of a new boycott began, the NAACP pulled out, claiming that the time had come to focus on the coming presidential election.

The nation's largest NAACP chapter said it was directing "all of its energies toward a massive voter registration program, primarily aimed at Negroes." This would become the focus of most of the civil rights movement leaders later in the year when it was clear that right-wing lunatic Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee to challenge Lyndon Johnson.

The NAACP's public declaration not to support the boycott allowed the media to portray the movement as divided, and it also signaled Mayor Daley and his political machine that they could begin picking off the edges of the coalition. Daley's handpicked Black representative on the BoE formed a new organization called the Assembly to End Prejudice, Injustice and Poverty, and it too came out against the boycott. When all else failed, Daley tried to get a court order preventing a school boycott on the basis that it would be encouraging truancy.

In the end, all of these efforts failed, and on February 25, 175,000 Black Chicago public schools students boycotted school. If Black Chicago had been as united around the February call as it had been the previous fall, the action could have been even larger. The political divisions that emerged in the CCCO pointed to significant differences in the national movement as well.

AS THE civil rights movement neared its central goal of changing discriminatory laws across the South, the question of how to confront racism in the North--where racism wasn't written into law, but was the common institutional practice in housing, education, jobs and the criminal justice system--was unresolved. Moreover, the intransigency and persistence of continued discrimination, even in the face of protest, pushed the majority of Blacks to seek out more militant solutions to the institutional racism of the North.

By the end of the 1960s, more than 40 percent of African Americans supported the "goals of the Black Panther Party"--which, of course, included the overthrow of the American government. By the end of 1968, there were urban rebellions in more than 250 American cities with upward of 500,000 Blacks participating in them.

Riots and rebellion broke out across Black Chicago in both 1966 and 1968, and knowing the history of how white Chicago officials acted and conspired to keep African Americans in inferior schools, while schools in white neighborhoods were underutilized, explains how people could turn to rioting as an alternative to participating in the sham political system.

Chicago's freedom movement also exposed the growing political tensions. For some, the focus on immediate changes in the schools was non-negotiable, which is why even as late as June 1965, 100,000 Black students, with the support of their parents, boycotted the racist Chicago public schools again!

This time, the boycott was done in complete defiance of the law, as Daley was finally successful in getting a court order against the planned school boycott. But for others--namely, the Chicago chapter of the NAACP--abandoning and even denouncing the boycott to focus on the presidential election was an easier choice to make.

Racism and segregation impacted all African Americans, but business and political opportunities did exist for a small number of Blacks in the North. This could have an impact on their politics, as they weighed whether militant tactics and strategies could jeopardize those opportunities. As fights emerged in CCCO over who would "control" the coalition, these conflicts began to get in the way.

The struggle in Chicago over public education soon became part of a larger campaign when in 1966 Martin Luther King chose Chicago as the site for his Northern campaign against racism. What became known as the Chicago Freedom Movement chose slum housing as the focus of the new campaign, but King came, in part, because the fight for public education in earlier years showed that Black Chicago would mobilize to fight racism.

By the end of the 1960s, Chicago schools were still segregated, but the focus of education activism had shifted from integration to "community control" of curriculum and the inclusion of more Black teachers and administrators. Some of this was the trajectory of Black politics over the course of the decade as the movement became less enamored with integrating into a racist society and more invested in controlling the spaces they lived in.

In October 1968, more than 30,000 Black students and Black teachers boycotted school for a day. The students listed their demands for the protest as:

1. Complete courses in Black history.
2. Inclusion in all courses the contributions of Black persons.
3. Black administration for schools in Black communities.
4. More technical and vocational training.
5. More Black teachers.
6. Repair of school buildings in Black communities.
7. Holidays on the birthdays of such Black heroes as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
8. Insurance for athletes.
9. Use of Black businessmen to supply class photos and rings to Black schools.
10. Better food.
11. Military training "relevant to Black people's needs."
12. More required homework to challenge Black students.

This marked one of the last great demonstrations of African American youth for the right to equal education that not only prepared them for the future but validated their history as an oppressed people with a proud tradition to struggle and protest against the conditions of oppression.

It is a history that Black students, their parents and all opponents of racism in the field of public education should learn from and draw the lessons that can shape the same struggle that exists today.

Further Reading

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