The 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott

Chapter 5: The Englewood Parent Protest

Willis’ insistence on utilizing the mobile trailer classrooms — “Willis Wagons” — struck a chord with communities whose education had already been debilitated. The increasing usage of Willis Wagons served as an inflection point for parents. In the summer of 1963, significant protests began in the Englewood neighborhood. These would be an important precursor to the later, larger action of the 1963 and 1964 boycotts.

Despite pressure from parents to fix overcrowding in schools in Englewood — which was undergoing a majority-white to majority-black transformation — CPS simply kept redrawing district boundaries to keep black students segregated in crumbling, overcrowded schools. CPS proposed an all-mobile wagon school, to be built next to the railroad tracks. Parent groups rejected this, and turned their protest from petitions to civil disobedience.

Protesters crowded onto the site and actively blocked the construction from going forward. Rosie Simpson tells of how several Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) protesters scaled a telephone pole on the construction site, a particularly bold display of defiance towards Willis’ increasingly controversial tactics. Students across the city participated in the protests including an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, future U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Among demands to reduce the use of mobile classrooms, the call for Willis’ exit was louder than ever. After meetings continued to fail at appeasing protesters, Willis took the extraordinary step of tendering his resignation.

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