The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fifty years ago today, the school boycott that rocked Chicago

Now this was a school boycott.

Fifty years ago, on Oct. 22, 1963, more than 200,000 students in Chicago stayed out of class and marched in the streets with tens of thousands of other people to protest segregation and inequality in  the public schools.

Just a few months after the 1963 March on Washington during which Martin Luther King Jr., gave his now-famous “I Have A Dream” speech, the event in Chicago was staged by civil rights organizations to protest the policies of segregationist superintendent Benjamin Willis.

Willis ran the public schools from 1953 to 1966 and, according to a 1988 death notice in the Chicago Tribune, was known for maintaining an “intransigent position on integration in the city`s public schools.” He refused to relieve overcrowding in schools attended by black students by sending some of them to schools attended by whites, and instead chose as a solution the installation of  aluminum mobile trailers in school parking lots and playgrounds at majority-black schools.

Today, Chicago Public Schools remains the most segregated big-city school district in the country, as school systems around the country have experienced re-segregation after a period of integration as a result of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision prohibiting separate public schools for black students. In fact, this recent report shows that African American students are more isolated than they were 40 years ago nationally, while most education policymakers and reformers have abandoned integration as a cause.

A documentary called ’63 Boycott from Kartemquin Films chronicles the Freedom Day boycott and the legacy of segregation and racism in Chicago public schools. Produced and directed by Gordon Quinn, the artistic director and founder of Kartemquin Films, the documentary features interviews from 1963 and today with organizers and participants in the boycott.

The students who participated in the ’63 Chicago boycott represented about half of those in the public schools at the time. But as large as the Chicago event was, an even bigger school boycott was staged in New York on Feb. 3, 1964, in New York, when some 450,000 students boycotted school and marched with parents and civil rights advocates to protest de facto segregation in the public schools and to demand full integration, according to the Civil Rights Digital Library.