Place of Protest: Chicago's Legacy of Dissent, Declaration, and Disruption

Chicago Board of Education, 1963

Boycotting Segregated Schools

Black Chicagoans walk out of underfunded schools to demand access to equal education.

FOR DECADES, THE CHICAGO BOARD OF EDUCATION CARRIED A REPUTATION FOR CONTROVERSY. Conflicts with teacher unions began at the dawn of the twentieth century and charges of corruption and mismanagement continually plagued the city's public school system. In the 1950s and early 1960s, superintendent Benjamin Willis received praise for bringing financial stability to the system. In white neighborhoods, students enjoyed new school buildings and lower class sizes. Schools in black neighborhoods, however, experienced disrepair and dramatic overcrowding—some even operated on double shifts. Despite Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregation in schools, Willis stubbornly resisted integration. Instead, he responded to overcrowding by building portable units pejoratively dubbed "Willis Wagons." In 1963, black parents, students, and teachers organized to protest the rampant racism in their city's education system.
LED BY THE COORDINATING COUNCIL OF COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS (CCCO), over 200,000 Chicagoans boycotted public schools in October 1963. Some took to the streets while others coordinated day-long Freedom Schools with alternative curricula. Others marched directly to City Hall or occupied the Board of Education several blocks north. Together, the boycott, march, and sit-in disrupted business as usual and sent a clear message challenging Chicago's segregated school system.

WILLIS STILL REFUSED TO DESEGREGATE, so a second school boycott took place in February of 1964. Local activism drew attention to the city as state and federal forces attempted to enforce integration. Even after Willis resigned in 1966, desegregation efforts took decades and the quest for racial equality among the city's schools persists to the present day. By walking out of schools, the 1963 boycott nodded to the tradition of labor strikes while illuminating local obstacles to pursuing racial justice in a northern city.

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