The 1963 boycott of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) wasn’t just about achieving the rights for black children to sit next to white children in classrooms. The fight against educational segregation was also about gaining equal access to resources so that every student was given the same opportunity to learn. A group of panelists who analyzed the parallels between educational access in 1963 and the present day on the 50th anniversary of the boycott say the fight for equality still rages on.
In Chicago, many African American students still attend “separate but unequal” schools, according to members of the Tuesday night panel.
“Today we’re still fighting for educational equity, albeit in a different political climate,” said Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Our children today still do not have equal access to state resources and this is not primarily a question of diversity, but a problem of economic and racial justice.”
On October 22, 1963, more than 200,000 students boycotted CPS schools to push back against segregationist policies in the district. Marking the 50th anniversary of the unprecedented protest, education activists from then and now came together at the DuSable Museum of African-American History to discuss the legacy of racism and inequality in CPS.
The event, titled “Lessons from the 1963 Boycott: The Struggle for Quality Education in Chicago Then and Now,” also screened a preview of Kartemquin Film's documentary '63 Boycott, which includes original 16mm footage of the student march and past and present day interviews with participants.
“Through education you can transcend your station, it’s a point of social mobility. But so often that’s not the case and that’s not how education actually functions,” said Todd-Breland, who sat on the six-person panel with Rosie Simpson, Timuel Black, and Fannie Rushing, who all had integral roles in organizing the 1963 boycott. Also included on the panel were contemporary education activists Jitu Brown, education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and Jason Perez, co-chair of the Black Youth Project.
“Dr. Martin Luther King had the famous quote that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ That arc doesn’t bend on its own, and it must be pushed and prodded by the hard work and constant fight of women and men who remain committed to racial and economic justice,” said Todd-Breland.
In May, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close a record-breaking 50 neighborhood schools. Citing a $1 billion deficit and an impending $400 million increase in pension payments, CPS officials slashed budgets and fired more than 3,000 school employees, including 1,700 teachers, as cost-cutting initiatives for the 2013-2014 academic year.
But education activists allege the school closings, which are concentrated on the city’s South and West Sides, disproportionately impact minority communities.
While approximately 42 percent of CPS’ student body is African American, roughly 80 percent of the students affected by the school closures and consolidations are black.
At Tuesday’s panel discussion, Brown, who served as the lead organizer of a student boycott in August that saw roughly 500 protesters rally against the school closings and budget cutbacks, continued the call for an elected school board.
“What we know, since the advent of mayoral control in 1995 [is that] schools have not gotten better ... They’ve offered this mediocre product in our community, and the only reason that mediocre product is accepted is because of the race of the children that are being served,” said Brown. “Until we get an elected, representative school board in this city, there’s no school that’s safe.”
“When a wolf is hungry and it sees sheep, the wolf just eats,” he said. “What you’re looking at right now, we have the corporate community looking at our community, drooling at the fangs, because we have not organized ourselves to stop them.”
Here’s more from Brown and Tuesday’s panel discussion:
Meanwhile, Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), who attended the panel discussion, said today’s education activists have much to learn from the civil rights activism seen in 1963.
“The way in which people addressed the inequities was to organize, have mass demonstrations, and maintain a high level of organization and continue to fight relentlessly against those injustices,” he said. “It really shows us a model for what we’re going to have to do moving forward to combat the biggest budget cuts in a generation, the greatest number of school closings in our country’s history and the massive inequities that exist today.”
Potter said CPS’ disinvestment in struggling neighborhood schools perpetuates a pattern of inequality that serves as a destabilizing force in low-income communities of color.
“If you deprive students of lower class sizes, ample resources, wraparound services, and then you condemn them when they don’t perform at the higher level that they’re capable of, it’s really improper, unjustified, and really an outrage,” he said. “They’ve set up the conditions for which failure is inevitable ... And, like in 1963, they’re doing this almost exclusively in black and brown communities.”