This page is referenced by:
Civil Rights Activism in the North
Civil rights activists, parents, and students in Northern cities were organized, creative, and persistent in their protests of school segregation and educational inequality. In cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York, civil rights advocates lobbied school officials, filed lawsuits, and organized massive school boycotts in the 1960s. Once the school desegregation story became framed around “busing” and “white backlash” in the late 1960s, it was easy to forget that black people and their allies had fought for years to secure equal education or that powerful local officials underwrote school segregation in the North.
In September 1963, more than six thousand black and white protestors marched through Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood to protest against school segregation. The Boston march concluded at Sherwin School, built in 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War. Pointing to the dilapidated ninety-three-year-old building, Thomas Atkins, executive secretary of the Boston branch of the NAACP, told the crowd, “This is where Negro kids go to school in Boston! What are you going to do about it!” After observing a moment of silence for the four young girls killed a week earlier in the bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the crowd joined Susan Batson, the teenage daughter of Boston civil rights leader Ruth Batson, in a chant that clearly outlined the marchers’ demands. “Jim Crow,” Batson shouted. “Must go!” the crowd replied. “The School Committee”—“Must go!” “De facto”—“Must go!” “Mrs. Hicks”—“Must go!” Like black people across the country, black Bostonians wanted to end the system of legal segregation known as “Jim Crow,” and like protestors in other cities and towns outside the South, they wanted to label and defeat de facto segregation. Atkins made reference to the Boston School Committee’s refusal to use the term de facto segregation when he told the crowd, “The School Committee is unable to decipher a Latin phrase. So we are here today to tell them that there is segregation, in fact, in Boston today.” Susan Batson and the crowd coupled calls to end “Jim Crow” and “De facto,” which resonated with other national and regional campaigns, with local references to the Boston School Committee, the local officials responsible for maintaining segregated schools in Boston, and the committee’s chairwoman, Louise Day Hicks. When Boston’s “busing crisis” exploded in the mid-1970s, the media’s focus on the violence in South Boston and white resistance to desegregation obscured years of black civil rights activism in Boston and the specificity of the changes black activists, parents, and students sought to bring about.
The campaign against school desegregation in Boston would not have developed without the work of Ruth Batson. Born and raised in Roxbury, Batson recalled being exposed to politics at an early age by her Jamaican parents, who supported Marcus Garvey. “Every Sunday there were meetings held in a hall that was called Toussaint L’Ouverture Hall,” Batson remembered,
And I would have to go with [my mother] to these meetings. And at these meetings I heard Africa for the Africans at home and abroad. And we heard racial issues constantly being discussed. And so as I grew up I was not swayed as much as some people I knew by this business of Boston being such a wonderful place to grow up, being such a great city with the cradle of liberty. I knew, even though I wouldn’t have expressed it this way, that there were flaws in the cradle of liberty. I know I used to go home and tell my mother things that the teacher said or did and she would go up to school and say something to them but it was an unusual upbringing that I had.
As a student and later a parent of three girls, Batson gained personal knowledge of how Boston’s public schools shortchanged black youth. Baton began working formally on school and political issues in the 1950s. She become active in the local NAACP and the state Democratic primary committee, and though she was not elected, she became the first black person to run for the BSC in nearly fifty years. Batson and a group of parents affiliated with the NAACP started investigating Boston’s schools with the aim of forcing city and state officials to acknowledge and remedy the condition of predominately black schools. “When we would go to white schools,” Batson recalled, “we’d see these lovely classrooms, with a small number of children in each class. The teachers were permanent. We’d see wonderful materials. When we’d go to our schools we would see overcrowded classrooms, children sitting out in the corridors and so forth. And so then we decided that where there were a large number of white students, that’s where the care went. That’s where the books went. That’s where the money went.” By 1960, over 80 percent of black elementary school students attended majority-black schools. Most of these predominantly black schools, like the Sherwin School, were overcrowded, and the buildings needed repairs. Across Boston’s public schools, spending per pupil averaged $340 for white students compared to only $240 for black students. These reports failed to persuade state or local officials, as both the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) and the BSC continued to insist that racial segregation was not a problem in Boston.
Batson and other black parents and activists continued to press their case in the summer of 1963. On June 11, 1963, three hundred black Bostonians demonstrated outside city hall, while Batson and other NAACP members met with the BSC. “We make this charge: that there is segregation in fact in our Boston public school system,” Batson told the BSC. “The injustices present in our school system hurt our pride, rob us of our dignity, and produce results which are injurious not only to our future but to those of the city, state and nation.” In a hearing room crowded with press, the BSC did not respond positively to these charges. “We made our presentation and everything broke loose,” Batson recalled. “We were insulted. We were told . . . our kids were stupid and this was why they didn’t learn. We were completely rejected that night.” Paul Parks, a black engineer who chaired the Boston NAACP’s Education Committee, described the disastrous meeting with the BSC as a decisive moment for the city’s civil rights activists. “Up until then, it was the quality of the schools and fairness when it came to resources that we were after—not desegregation,” Parks recalled. “In the beginning, we didn’t care that much about whether our kids were going to schools with their kids or not. We just wanted to make sure our schools got the same things as they did.” Mel King, a community organizer who ran unsuccessfully for the BSC three times in the 1960s before being elected as a state representative in 1972, remembered that by June 1963 “the energy that was now coming out of the black community became focused on desegregation.”
A week after being rejected by the BSC, civil rights advocates organized a “Stay Out for Freedom” protest, with nearly three thousand black junior- and senior-high-school students staying away from public school. Organizers preferred stay out to boycott because students were staying away from public school to attend community-organized “Freedom Schools.” “I feel that the Stay Out for Freedom Day was a success,” Batson told the Boston Globe. “It demonstrated to the Boston community that the Negro community is concerned and that they want action.” The Boston School Committee was particularly resistant to the charge that school segregation existed in Boston. The BSC, an elected five-person committee, wielded enormous influence over the city’s schools. Democrat Louise Day Hicks was initially elected as a moderate in 1961 but quickly took up opposition to school desegregation as her defining issue. The gulf between civil rights advocates and the BSC was evident in a second meeting in August 1963. After Batson raised the issue of “de facto segregation,” Hicks replied, “The committee has decided and voted by a majority not to discuss the question of de facto segregation.” The meeting, scheduled for an hour, ended after only a few minutes with the BSC unwilling to have anyone use the phrase de facto segregation during the hearing. Batson told the Globe, “We’re not quibbling about a word. It is not the word. It is the fact that it exists. Our whole quarrel is with their refusing to admit that the situation exists.” June Shagaloff, who attended the meeting from the NAACP national office, said after the meeting, “The Boston School Committee can’t afford to bury its head in the sand. They can’t go on pretending there is no segregation in Boston schools.” Interviewed years later, Batson noted how the BSC members benefited from digging in their heels and resisting school desegregation. With school desegregation, Batson argued, “we found out that we had brought to them a wonderful political issue, and that this was an issue that was going to give their political careers stability for a long time to come.” As civil rights pressure continued through the fall of 1963, Hicks and the BSC only grew stronger in their opposition to school desegregation. When Hicks received the most votes in the November 1963 Boston School Committee election, she saw the election as a referendum on school desegregation. “The people of Boston have given their answer to the de facto segregation question,” Hicks opined.
Having failed to oust Hicks or elect someone to BSC who would support school desegregation, the black community organized a second “Stay Out for Freedom” on February 26, 1964. The “stay out” kept more than twenty thousand students (over 20 percent of the city’s public school students) out of school and connected Boston to similar school boycotts that had taken place earlier in the month in New York and Chicago. The “stay out” got the attention of Massachusetts governor Endicott Peabody, who the next day assembled a committee led by state commissioner of education Owen Kiernan to examine discrimination in the state’s schools. The Kiernan Commission released their report, “Because It Is Right—Educationally,” in April 1965. It found that the majority of nonwhite children in the state attended predominantly nonwhite schools and that most white children attended schools that were either all white or had only a handful of minority students. “It is imperative that we begin to end this harmful system of separation,” the committee asserted. “The means are at hand. Each day of delay is a day of damage to the children of our Commonwealth.” While the report did not find the BSC or other local school committees to blame for school segregation, the Kiernan Commission offered official support for the black community’s critiques of Boston’s schools.
Coupled with the Kiernan Commission’s findings, black protests of school conditions encouraged Massachusetts’s legislators to pass the Racial Imbalance Act on August 18, 1965. The Racial Imbalance Act called for an annual racial census of public schools and for local school boards to take steps to ensure that no school’s nonwhite enrollment exceeded 50 percent. “Today we write another page in the history of Massachusetts’ leadership in education with the signing of this bill guaranteeing truly equal educational opportunity to all our children,” Governor John Volpe said as he signed the legislation. “Our signing of this bill affirms our commitment to strike at the causes of prejudice.” In theory, the Racial Imbalance Act could have closed the loophole in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that excluded “racially imbalanced” northern schools from the definition of desegregation. In practice, it became a touchstone for both foes and supporters of school desegregation, with white parents and politicians railing against “busing” and black parents organizing mass tests of the city’s open enrollment policy. With these positions clashing at the start of school in 1965, the Globe warned that “the Boston school crisis is threatening to become a local Viet Nam—limited but with broad consequences, difficult to solve and indefinite in length.”
Led by Hicks, the BSC repeatedly voiced its opposition to the state’s Racial Imbalance Act and worked to limit meaningful school desegregation efforts. Of the dozens of suggestions made by the state committee that studied remedies to school segregation, Hicks seized on the proposed cross-“busing” of five thousand students to reduce racial imbalance. “Mrs. Hicks’ temerity is totally insulting,” said Brandeis professor Lawrence Fuchs, who worked on Kiernan Commission. “She doesn’t want to discuss the recommendation, she simply seized on the [bus] transfers as one issue.” Hicks’s colleague Joseph Lee made the BSC’s fixation on “busing” clear: “White children do not want to be transported into schools with a large proportion of backward pupils from unprospering Negro families who will slow down their education. White children do not want large numbers of backward pupils from unprospering Negro families shipped into their present mainly white schools either.” Hicks remained unconcerned with charges that opposition to school desegregation was racist. “I believe in the neighborhood school, and I’m opposed to busing,” she said. “And if that’s being anti-Negro, then I guess I’ll have to live with it.”
In August 1965, days before Governor Volpe signed the Racial Imbalance Act, Hicks led the Boston School Committee in a 3–2 vote against “any further busing of children in any form for any reason under any conditions.” Paul Parks called the vote “the committee’s first overt act of containment of Negro children.” The vote was primarily designed to signal BSC’s opposition to “busing,” since the Racial Imbalance Act, in deference to concerns of white parents, already included a provision against “forced busing” (“No school committee . . . shall be required . . . to transport any pupil to any school . . . outside the school district established for his neighborhood, if the parent or guardian of such pupil files written objection thereto with such school committee”). Hicks viewed the overwhelming support she received in the school board primary election in September 1965 as a vindication of her position. “I feel the people of Boston have spoken,” Hicks declared. “They have endorsed the policies of the school committee majority—my policies. Education, not transportation, is the answer to the question of imbalance in Boston schools.”
The BSC’s resistance to “busing” and token compliance with the Racial Imbalance Act meant that Boston’s black students continued to attend overcrowded schools. Overcrowding led many black schools to run double sessions, where students were in class 25 percent fewer minutes per day. School overcrowding, as well as concerns about aging school buildings, limited curricular options, high percentages of temporary teachers, and racism in textbooks and teacher-student interactions, led black parents to organize mass tests of the city’s open enrollment policy. Boston had started an open enrollment policy in 1961 that allowed students to transfer to schools with open seats, but like southern “freedom of choice” plans, Boston’s open enrollment policy had served primarily to allow school officials to avoid more substantial desegregation policies. The city’s open enrollment policy also placed enormous demands on parents, who needed to research school openings and provide their own transportation. Nevertheless, some black parents successfully used open enrollment to seek better education opportunities for their children.
Like Boston, civil rights activists and parents in Chicago employed a range of protest tactics. A group of black mothers with the Woodlawn Organization, a Saul Alinsky community organization that favored direct action protests, staged uninvited visits to white schools to search for empty classrooms. Four of the “truth squad” mothers, as the Defender called them, were arrested and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct. Another group of parents staged a two-week-long “study-in,” with parents and volunteer tutors teaching students in school hallways and basements, to protest a transfer order that sent students from the overcrowded Burnside Elementary School to another black school rather than a nearby white school. Outside the school, black and white parents and ministers carried signs reading “Schools Factually Segregated” and “No Double Shifts,” and twenty-six demonstrators were arrested for trespassing and unlawful assembly. “The situation calls for a showdown,” the Defender editorialized. “The community cannot continue to have its rights brazenly flaunted [sic] by irresponsible school officials. The battle line must be drawn somewhere in the struggle to democratize the Chicago schools; Burnside is just as good a place to start the fight.” Leading the school battle was the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), formed in spring 1962 as a civil rights coalition including the NAACP, the Urban League, Teachers for Integrated Schools, the Woodlawn Organization, CORE, Chatham-Avalon Park Community Council, and Englewood Council for Community Action.
Parents and activists directed much of their anger at Superintendent Benjamin Willis. In addition to condemning Willis’s refusal to acknowledge or address school segregation, civil rights advocates were upset with Willis’s policy decisions regarding school overcrowding. Willis ordered the purchase of over one hundred mobile classrooms, called “Willis Wagons” by his detractors, to relieve overcrowding at black schools without transporting black students to white schools with open seats. While school officials contended that mobile classrooms addressed the black communities’ complaints about overcrowding, the Defender saw the policy as the last straw for black Chicagoans: “It is bad enough to deny us membership on the Mayor’s School Board Nominating Committee; it is frustrating enough to prevent us from having a responsible spokesman on the Board. On the top of all this come . . . mobile classrooms, aptly dubbed Willis Wagons, to cram down our throats Mr. Willis’ segregative school policy. . . . On the eighth anniversary of [Brown v. Board], Chicago is witnessing a display of defiance of the Court’s order undreamed of even in Alabama and Georgia.” Fed up with Willis’s resistance, civil rights advocates called for the superintendent to be fired. CORE circulated petitions across the city calling for Willis’s resignation. “Dr. Willis yields immediately to the protest of white parents, while the complaints of dozens of Negro groups . . . go without any comment from the superintendent,” Chicago CORE chairmen Milton Davis said. The Defender dedicated their front page on August 15, 1963, to a series of accusations about Willis. “WE ACCUSE him of gerrymandering school districts for the primary purpose of ‘containing’ Negro children in predominantly Negro schools. . . . He is an emblem of racial segregation. Dr. Willis must go.” Protestors picketed outside Willis’s Lakeshore Drive apartment, carrying signs reading “Willis-Wallace, What’s the Difference?”—comparing Chicago’s superintendent to Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace—and “Whitson Votes Good Like a Segregationist Should,” referring to school board member Frank Whitson. Chicagoans at the March on Washington in August 1963 chanted “Down with Willis.”
Years of frustration over overcrowding, temporary teachers, and inadequate resources at schools attended by black children, led CCCO to organize a massive “Freedom Day” school boycott. Similar to school boycotts in cities like Boston, Cleveland, Milwaukee, New York, and Seattle, the Chicago boycott was designed to force the school board to take action to address school segregation. Led by Lawrence Landry, a Chicago native with two degrees from the University of Chicago, the CCCO published a list of thirteen demands in advance of the boycott. The list included demands that the school board remove Willis as superintendent; publish an inventory of school population, classroom availability, and racial demographics for students and teachers in each school; and fully use all available space before using mobile classroom units. Over 220,000 students (47 percent of total enrollment) stayed away from public schools on October 22, 1963, with many attending Freedom Schools at churches and community centers. Ten thousand people marched around city hall and the board of education building, including students carrying signs reading “Willis Must Go” and “No More Little Black Sambo Read in Class.” Boycott leaders said the boycott exceeded expectations and threatened to hold one-day boycotts every month until their demands were met. The Defender’s headline sprawled over half of the front page: “Boycott a Thumping Success! 225,000 Kids Make Willis Eat Jim Crow.” The Chicago Tribune saw the boycott in a different light. “No government can permit such a reign of chaos,” the Tribune editorial page read. “Chicagoans as a whole have been patient with the civil rights demonstrations and generally sympathetic with the aims of Negroes to achieve equality of opportunity. Much of the public’s patience vanished Tuesday when the reckless men at the head of the civil rights movement ordered thousands of children out of the public schools. The patience that remains will disappear if the tactics of obstructing government and business are continued.”
A second school boycott on February 25, 1964, further revealed the gulf between civil rights advocates and the city’s white officials. The Defender declared Freedom Day II a success, with 175,000 students staying out of school. The February boycott and protest march around city hall was also designed to impress on Mayor Daley and other politicians that they could not sit on the sidelines of the school fight. Alderman Charles Chew, the only black alderman who supported the boycott, said, “The Democratic machine is no longer oiled.” “It is clear that we won today,” Lawrence Landry declared regarding the boycott and protest march. “We walked thru the City Hall this time. Next time we will walk over it.” Mayor Daley was unimpressed with the boycotts. “What do they prove?” he asked. “Education should never be a political issue and it should never be used by either party to take advantage in politics.”
Schools officials linked their opposition to the boycotts and civil rights demands to concerns about “busing.” Speaking days before the second school boycott, school board president Clair Roddewig said he strongly opposed “busing kids all over town to integrate schools.” Roddewig saw civil rights demands as triggering a dismal chain of events. “First, civil rights leaders demand that Negroes be bused out of all-Negro districts to all-white schools,” he said. “Then, as during the recent New York boycott, they demand that white students be bused to all-Negro schools that still remain in the Negro residential districts. Next, when white parents begin sending their children to private schools, they will demand that parents be told where to send their children to school. When in America the day arrives that the state assigns all children to schools, we are finished.” For Roddewig, as for many of his peers in other cities, this dire forecast justified school officials’ opposition to school desegregation. Framing this as a resistance to “busing” rather than resistance to school desegregation was more than simply a choice of words. Describing civil rights leaders as asking that “Negroes be bused out of all-Negro districts to all-white schools” focused attention on “busing” rather than on the educational rights black students were denied in the “all-Negro districts” perpetuated by school officials. Roddewig’s fear that “the state” might someday assign all children to schools overlooked the role school boards, as state agencies, already played in assigning children, and presented school officials as innocent bystanders to questions about school zoning and assignment. Finally, presenting civil rights demands as the trigger for this grim educational future made the movement seem unreasonable and ultimately un-American.
In the mid- and late 1950s, several parent and community groups organized to address the school conditions faced by black students. One group was a coalition of black and Jewish parents and community members, led by educational activist Annie Stein, Brooklyn NAACP branch education committee chair Winston Craig, and Reverend Milton Galamison, minister at Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Siloam Presbyterian Church. This group called for zoning changes to integrate JHS 258 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The school opened in the fall of 1955 with an enrollment of over 98 percent black students despite the school board’s promise earlier that year to end “racially homogenous” schools. Two years of community rallies, petitions, and calls on the school board to zone for desegregation were not enough to overcome the board’s concerns about how white parents would respond to rezoning. “It is known that the Board of Education members are deeply concerned by the issues involved in desegregating the school,” the New York Times reported. “Several members said privately that if white children were forced to attend, violence among the parents might break out.” The NAACP’s national leadership also factored the potentially violent responses of white parents into its thinking: “If zoning is so conducted as to arouse substantial resistance in some part of the school community, and if the resistance should in fact have a violent outcome (or be susceptible to depiction as such) the consequences to the overall desegregation program, North as well as South, could be incalculably damaging.” Concerned about alienating supportive donors in New York and other northern cities, the NAACP’s national leadership made their decision to not support the Brooklyn branch’s protest of JHS 258.
In Harlem, a concurrent school boycott resulted in an important legal victory and ultimately pushed the school board to establish an “open enrollment” policy. A group of Harlem mothers organized in 1956 to protest school conditions in their neighborhood, forming the Parents Committee for Better Education and enlisting young black attorney Paul Zuber. The committee expanded quickly and joined forces with local chapters of the NAACP, the Negro Teachers Association, Harlem’s Parents Committee for Better Education, and other local organizations to form Parents in Actions Against Education Discrimination. The coalition worked to organize parents across the city throughout 1957, culminating with a protest and rally at city hall at the start of the school year that drew several hundred people. The Amsterdam News’ headline, “Don’t Forget N.Y. Has Its Own School Problem,” connected the rally to the ongoing school integration crisis in Little Rock, as did a protester’s sign that asked, “Is Brooklyn, New York above the Mason Dixon Line?” While the protest did not result in any immediate changes in the schools, the group continued to organize parents. The following year parents of twenty-one black children in Harlem and Brooklyn kept their children home in a boycott aimed at forcing the school board to allow their children to transfer to integrated schools with better resources and more experienced teachers. The Amsterdam News dubbed the Harlem mothers the “Little Rock Nine of Harlem,” and the six-month boycott was a clear indication of the resolve of black activists to fight school segregation in the North. The school board took the parents to Children’s Court. Judge Nathanial Kaplan found four of the parents guilty of violating the compulsory attendance law, while two other mothers appeared before Judge Justine Wise Polier, who dismissed the charges.
Judge Polier’s ruling in the Skipwith case validated many of the black parents’ critiques of the school board. Judge Polier found that half the teachers at majority–black and Puerto Rican schools were unlicensed, compared to only 30 percent at majority-white schools. “So long as non-white . . . schools have a substantially smaller proportion of regularly licensed teachers than white . . . schools, discrimination and inferior education, apart from that inherent in residential patterns, will continue,” Polier wrote. “The Constitution requires equality, not mere palliatives. Yes the fact remains that more than eight years after the Supreme Court ruling in Sweatt v Painter and more than four years after its ruling in Brown v Board of Education, the Board of Education of the City of New York has done substantially nothing to rectify a situation it should never have allowed to develop, for which it is legally responsible, and with which it has had ample time to come to grips, even in the last four years.” As a result, Polier ruled the parents should not be bound by the compulsory attendance law: “The Board of Education has no moral or legal right to ask that this Court shall punish parents, or deprive them of custody of their children, for refusal to accept an unconstitutional condition which exists in the schools to which the Board has assigned their children.” After initially appealing Polier’s decision, the board of education ultimately reached an agreement with the parents for their children to transfer to a different junior high school in Harlem that had a pilot project to provide enhanced guidance and counseling services and cultural programs. Judge Kaplan, who had convicted the mothers who were in his court on the same charges, followed Judge Polier’s lead and declined to sentence the mothers if they enrolled their children at the new junior high school. It took six months, but the parents successfully forced the school board to transfer their children to better schools.
While Skipwith did not set state or federal legal precedents, parents and civil rights activists viewed the decision optimistically in their fight against school segregation in the North. The Amsterdam News praised the decision and published the ruling in serial form over four issues of the newspaper. “The Polier decision,” Kenneth Clark said, “was the initial and dramatic first step in a series of tests to see whether it is possible to get relief from de facto segregated schools.” Over the next half dozen years, groups of New York City parents used school boycotts in an effort to get their children transferred to better schools. Influenced by the Harlem parents he represented in the Skipwith case, attorney Paul Zuber encouraged parents in New Rochelle, New York, to keep their children out of school, protests that resulted in Taylor v. Board of Education of City School District of City of New Rochelle (1961), the first ruling against school segregation in a northern city after Brown. In Brooklyn, Reverend Milton Galamison, who had left the NAACP to form the Parents’ Workshop for Equality in New York City Schools with Annie Stein, threatened a large-scale boycott of schools in the fall of 1960.
By 1964, the black community’s frustration with the glacial pace of change in the schools led to a boycott that was the largest civil rights demonstration in the history of the United States. The boycott was a high point for the New York Citywide Committee for Integrated Schools. For a brief period, this committee brought together relatively moderate local chapters of the NAACP with more militant local chapters of CORE, as well as the Parents’ Workshop and Harlem Parent Committee. Led by Brooklyn minister Milton Galamison and organized by Bayard Rustin, the civil rights stalwart who organized the 1963 March on Washington, over 460,000 students stayed out of school on February 3, 1964. Groups of students, parents, and some teachers marched in front of three hundred schools and the board of education headquarters, chanting “Jim Crow must go” and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Rustin was particularly encouraged that in addition to hundreds of thousands of black students, the boycott had support from over one hundred thousand Puerto Rican students. “I think we are on the threshold of a new political movement—and I do not mean it in the party sense—that is going to change the face of New York in housing, in jobs and in schools,” Rustin remarked. At a rally on the eve of the boycott, Puerto Rican community leader Irma Vidal Santaella declared, “This is the beginning of the partnership between the Puerto Ricans and our sisters and brothers.” Tina Lawrence, a black college student who helped organize the boycott, saw the massive protest as a challenge to New York City’s white residents. “They thought it was all right when it was happening in Jackson, Miss., but now it’s happening here,” she said. “The people are going to wake up.” The boycott, however, did not draw significant support from white liberals and moderates. Organizations that supported school integration, like the United Parents Association, Public Education Association, Anti-Defamation League, Catholic Interracial Council, and American Jewish Congress, opposed the school boycott as an inappropriate tactic.
While the boycott succeeded as a public demonstration of unity among blacks and Puerto Ricans, these alliances began to fray shortly after the boycott. Eager to build on the success of the boycott and to keep applying pressure on the school board, Galamison planned a second boycott for March 16. Galamison’s plan failed to draw support from the national leadership of the NAACP, CORE, or the Urban League, who worried that another boycott would only alienate white moderates and hamper potential negotiations with school officials and city politicians. The National Association of Puerto Rican Rights withdrew from the boycott coalition, and local Puerto Rican organizers shifted their emphasis to community control of schools, including bilingual education. Bayard Rustin, whose organizing skills had proved crucial to the success of the first boycott, also did not support the second boycott because he felt that Galamison was moving in a militant direction that would result in an all-black protest and foreclose the possibility of interracial organizing for school desegregation. The Brooklyn and Bronx chapters of CORE, the Parents’ Workshop, and the Harlem Parents Committee supported the second boycott, as did Malcolm X, who told a local television news reporter that he had come to “see the successful exposé of the New York City school system, it proves you don’t have to go to Mississippi to find a segregated school system, we have it right here in New York City.”
Return to Introduction