The 1963 Chicago Public School Boycott

How do past examples of youth taking action help us think about how we can impact our world today?

The history of racial segregation in western and northern cities is an often overlooked topic in the study of American history. In these cities, many factors—including social custom, federal and local housing policies, and real estate practices such as restrictive covenants, blockbusting, and contract selling—contributed to residential and school segregation. While there are important commonalities between the North and the South, including the presence of racial animus and acts of racial terror, the history of segregation looks different from either side of the Mason Dixon line.

This teaching idea uses one episode of student activism in Chicago, the 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott, as an entry point into this complex history. The history of the boycott, ignited by the segregationist policies of school superintendent Benjamin Willis, offers some insights into the parallels between northern and southern segregation, but it is by no means exhaustive. We advise you to pick and choose from the following activities, and also to encourage your students to conduct more independent research on the boycott and the history of northern segregation.

Analyze an Image of the 1963 School Boycott

To open the lesson, project or distribute copies of this photograph from the 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott to students. To provide students the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about the image, do not provide any context at this time.

Lead students through a See, Think, Wonder activity, pausing after each prompt to give them time to record their thoughts. Consider asking students to add 1–2 more ideas to each response before moving to the next question. This step can push students to examine the image more closely, perhaps making a new observation or inference or posing a new question.

Ask students to debrief with a partner using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. Alternatively, if you projected the image, you might invite students one at a time to the board to share their “sees” and “thinks,” having them point to details in the image as they present. You might also list some of their “wonders” on the board or chart paper to refer to later in the lesson.

Place the Boycott in Historical Context

Explain to students that the image they just analyzed was an image of the 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott. Before students learn more about the school boycott, let them know that while school segregation was formally outlawed by law 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 1953–1966, resisted desegregation efforts, even in the face of massive overcrowding in the city’s predominantly African American neighborhood schools. Under his watch, 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.

Next, have students watch a video clip from the documentary ‘63 Boycott, Today is Freedom Day, featuring eyewitness accounts from CPS students attending the boycott. As students watch the film, ask them to take notes on the clip that will help them answer the following question: What conditions were CPS students protesting in 1963?

Ask students to read the Chicago Magazine article When 200,000 CPS Students Walked Out of School In Protest. Since the article may be challenging for some students, consider previewing some vocabulary in advance, or using the Read Aloud or the Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources teaching strategy to promote students’ understanding of the ideas and arguments presented. 

Use the following questions to guide a class reflection and discussion after reading:

  • What were CPS students protesting in 1963? (Students can build on their answers from the previous activity.)
  • What parallels does the article draw between the 1963 boycott and today? Why does this history matter today, in your opinion?
  • Why do you think youth are often on the front lines of social movements? Why does youth participation matter?

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

Tell students that they will now be listening to an audio recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving advice to a disillusioned high school student activist in Chicago who participated in the 1963 boycott. Ask students to take notes in response to the following question:

  • What is King’s message to the student about social progress and the role of nonviolent protest in achieving societal change? Do you agree with his message?
  • How would you respond to this student’s question?

Ask students to share their answers, first in a Think, Pair, Share with a partner, and then with the whole class.

Finally, close the lesson by asking students to reflect on the following quotation from scholar Ethan Zuckerman, either privately in their journals, in an exit card, on a graffiti board, or in a class discussion:

If you feel like you can change the world through elections, through our political system, through the institutions we have—that’s fantastic, so long as you’re engaged in making change. If you mistrust those institutions and feel disempowered by them, . . . I challenge you to find ways you can make change through code [technology], through markets, through norms [unspoken rules], through becoming a fierce and engaged monitor of the institutions we have and that we’ll build. The one stance that’s not acceptable, as far as I’m concerned is that of disengagement, of deciding that you’re powerless and remaining that way.

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