Lesson 2 of 4
Duration:
Two 50-minute class periods

10 Questions for the Past: The 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott

From the Unit:

Guiding Questions

  • What historical conditions were students responding to when they walked out of class during the 1963 Chicago school boycott?
  • What does “success” mean in the context of social change? How should we assess the impact of changemaking efforts?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will be able to situate the 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott within the broader historical context of northern segregation and the civil rights movement.
  • Students will recognize that social change is a long-term process that requires resilience, effective tactics, and a clear vision.

Overview

Although the 10 Questions Framework was designed for student changemakers in the twenty-first century, there is much for today's young people to learn from student activism in the past. Students have “chosen to participate” in consequential ways at critical moments throughout the past century of US history. This lesson focuses on a school boycott organized in 1963 by students in Chicago. On October 22, 1963, 225,000 students boycotted Chicago’s public schools to protest racial segregation and unequal conditions in white and black schools. Many marched through the city calling for the resignation of School Superintendent Benjamin Willis. Although it was one of the largest civil rights protests in the North, the 1963 Chicago school boycott is relatively unknown compared to other protests of the era.

In this lesson, students examine the 1963 boycott through the lens of the 10 Questions Framework. They explore the strategies, risks, and historical significance of the students’ activism, while also considering bigger-picture questions about social progress. Can changemakers, for instance, still consider their efforts “successful” if it takes years for their full impact to be realized? Is social impact only measured through immediate, tangible results? Students will reflect on these questions through an analysis of two competing narratives about the boycott’s effects: a secondary source article and a 1966 interview with Martin Luther King Jr.

Context

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 Blakemore1. 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.

Citations

Notes to Teachers

  1. Building Students’ Background Knowledge
    We encourage teachers to help students place the 1963 school boycott in two broader historical contexts: African American activism during the civil rights movement, including high-school and college-student protest, and the persistence of residential and school segregation in northern cities. If you or your students would like more background on any of the above topics, consult the following resources:
    • Goin’ to Chicago (01:09:24): In this streaming video, a group of longtime Chicago residents born in the Mississippi Delta returns to Greenville, Mississippi, for a reunion with family and friends. Participants talk about their lives and reasons for migrating north as part of the Great Migration.
    • Race: The Power of an Illusion (The House We Live In) (56:58): This streaming video, which is Episode 3 in the series, covers the history of housing segregation during the New Deal and after World War II.
    • Film clips and readings from Eyes on the Prize:
      • Two Societies (57:44): Episode 8 from the PBS documentary discusses how civil rights activists brought the movement to the urban centers of the North. Pages 117–132 of our Eyes on the Prize Study Guide provide resources and connection questions to supplement the episode.
      • Back to the Movement (57:29): Episode 14 explores old and new challenges that black communities faced 25 years after the civil rights struggle. The program follows the black communities of Miami and Chicago and chronicles their dramatically different responses to these challenges. Pages 214–218 of our Eyes on the Prize Study Guide cover the history of Harold Washington’s successful Chicago mayoral campaign and may be especially interesting for students.
    • Teaching Tolerance offers useful resources to accompany the film The Children’s March.
    • Newberry Library Digital Collections for the Classroom: The Newberry Library contains a wealth of primary sources and lesson ideas on twentieth-century Chicago history that will be of interest to teachers. Two collections in particular—”Chicago and the Great Migration, 1915–1950” and “The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Urban North”—address themes raised by this lesson.
    • The persistence of northern school segregation and racial discrimination that fueled the 1963 school boycott might be worth exploring with students. You might want to consider using the New York Times article “A Portrait of Segregation in New York City’s Schools” to help students confront this legacy. Alternatively, you could use a more in-depth examination of racial injustice today to drive students’ civic action projects in the next lesson.

Materials

Activities

Day 1

  1. Place the 1963 School Boycott in Historical Context

    • Explain to students that in class today they will be learning about the 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott. Before students learn more about the school boycott, let them know that 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 superintendent from 1953 to 1966, resisted desegregation efforts, even in the face of massive overcrowding in the city’s predominantly African American neighborhood schools. Under Willis, the school district dealt with cramped classrooms by building what were called “Willis Wagons”—portable trailers for black students’ classrooms—rather than sending them to under-capacity white schools.

    • Next, have students watch a video clip from the documentary ‘63 Boycott: Today Is Freedom Day (3:06), featuring eyewitness accounts from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students attending the boycott. Pass out the handout 10 Questions Framework: Questions for the Past. As students watch the clip, ask them to take notes that will help them answer the first question on the handout (which also roughly corresponds to Question 1 from the 10 Questions Framework): What conditions were CPS students protesting in 1963? If time allows, consider showing the video twice so that students have time to both watch carefully and collect their notes. Ask volunteers to share their answers, and let students know that they will be learning more about the boycott in the next activity.

  2. Consider How the 10 Questions Apply to the 1963 Chicago School Boycott

    • Explain to students that they will now be learning more about the 1963 Chicago school boycott and using the 10 Questions Framework they were introduced to in the previous lesson to understand the protests in greater depth. Start the reading Why MLK Encouraged 225,000 Chicago Kids to Cut Class in 1963 together as a class, with the teacher reading aloud until the paragraph that begins “Then, in 1961 . . . ” and ends with “corralled in poor schools.” Once you’ve finished reading, solicit ideas from the class for notes to add to the 10 Questions Framework: Questions for the Past handout. Students should be looking for evidence that helps them answer Questions 2–4 on the handout.

    • In pairs, ask students to continue to read the article and look for answers to Questions 2–4. Tell them to stop after every four paragraphs for notetaking and to change partners.

    • Once pairs have finished reading the article and writing their responses to Questions 2–4, ask volunteers to share their findings.

Day 2

  1. Reflect on Dr. King’s Advice to a Chicago Student Activist

    • Tell students that they will be hearing a different viewpoint on the ultimate impact of the Chicago school boycott than what is presented in the article they just read. (You may want to spend a minute with students reviewing the article’s perspective on this issue beforehand.) Tell them that they will now be listening to an audio recording, Martin Luther King Jr. on School Desegregation in Chicago (4:16), of King giving advice to a disillusioned high-school student activist in Chicago in 1966. Ask students to take notes in response to the following question, which is Question 5 on the handout: According to Dr. King, what ultimate effect did the boycott have? If you have time, play the audio clip twice so that students have plenty of time to process it.

    • Lead a class discussion using the Fishbowl strategy in which volunteers share their answers, and then let students offer their own perspectives on the following bigger-picture questions:

      • Why do you think the article you read earlier and this 1966 interview differ in their interpretations of the impact of the 1963 boycott?

      • What is King’s message to the student about social progress and the role of nonviolent protest in achieving societal change?

  2. Grapple with the Meaning of “Success”

    • Using the Barometer teaching strategy, ask students to respond to the following prompt: The success or failure of a movement for social change should be determined by whether or not it provides immediate, tangible results.

    • Once students are settled in their positions, ask volunteers to share their thoughts at various places along the continuum. Advise students that they can change their initial opinions if they are persuaded by another classmate. Encourage students to refer to the information they’ve learned in the unit to support their positions.

    • Ask students to return to their desks. As a closing activity, have them write a note to the student who asked for Dr. King’s advice, providing their own advice to the student. In their responses, students can agree or disagree with Dr. King, draw on examples from their own lives, or use what they’ve learned in the unit to support their conclusions.

Unit

Introduction
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Get Started

Prepare to teach this unit by learning about the 10 Questions Framework, how to address current and controversial issues in the classroom, and more.

Lesson 1 of 4
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Getting to Know the 10 Questions

Students begin thinking about civic engagement in terms of their own passions and identities as they are introduced to the 10 Questions Framework.

Lesson 2 of 4
Democracy & Civic Engagement

10 Questions for the Past: The 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott

Students explore the strategies, risks, and historical significance of the the 1963 Chicago school boycott, while also considering bigger-picture questions about social progress.

Lesson 3 of 4
Democracy & Civic Engagement

10 Questions for the Present: Parkland Student Activism

Students identify strategies and tools that Parkland students have used to influence Americans to take action to reduce gun violence.

Lesson 4 of 4
Democracy & Civic Engagement

10 Questions for the Future: Student Action Project

Students create a plan for enacting change on an issue that they are most passionate about using the 10 Questions Framework.

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