Six years after Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional, public schools in Chicago were still segregated. Schools in black neighborhoods were overcrowded and run down, while those in white neighborhoods were well maintained and well run. Chicago had experienced a huge migration from the South, beginning in the early 1900s—part of what was called the Great Migration. The vast majority of migrants were working-class African Americans who, due to discriminatory housing practices known as redlining, had no choice but to settle in historically black neighborhoods. With their designation of economic undesirability, those “redlined” areas were not able to draw the capital essential for investment and redevelopment. This discriminatory practice led to widespread inequality in the city, including in African Americans’ access to quality housing, economic development, and social infrastructure and services.
Derelict schools were among the worst outcomes of such policies. While school segregation was formally outlawed in Illinois in 1874, a combination of federal, local, and state policies kept schools segregated. In Chicago, school officials adjusted boundary lines during the years after World War II to ensure that school districts remained as segregated as the city’s neighborhoods. Benjamin Willis, who was the school’s superintendent from 1953 to 1966, resisted desegregation efforts, even in the face of massive overcrowding in the city’s predominantly African American neighborhood schools. During his tenure, the school district dealt with cramped classrooms by building what were called “Willis Wagons”—portable trailers for black students—rather than sending them to under-capacity white schools.
Community members protested Willis’s policies. In 1963, community groups began to organize a boycott called Freedom Day. The organizers met with Martin Luther King Jr., who had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington a few months before. On October 22, 1963, almost half of the entire school district’s students (250,000) boycotted the schools. Many marched through the city, around City Hall and the Board of Education building, demanding better schools for black neighborhoods and equal opportunities for all.
The struggle to ensure equal educational opportunities is still ongoing in Chicago, as in many other cities in the US. Can we count Freedom Day as a success? What would count as success in such a case? This is a hard question to answer. “‘Freedom Day’ didn’t succeed at its goal of desegregating Chicago public schools, but it made de facto school segregation the talk of Chicago,” writes journalist Erin Blakemore.
Is such attention a kind of success, if school segregation and educational inequality persist today?
One of the key lessons of the 1963 Chicago school boycott is that change takes time and the process is strenuous, risky, and resource-consuming. It is crucial for teachers to encourage students to hold onto an ambitious vision of change while preparing them to embrace the difficulties of changemaking, which requires fending off skepticism and building civic muscles. Students can learn to approach civic action with a sense of realism and resilience and make the best of the civic resources and opportunities available to them.