'63 boycott still

Still from "'63 Boycott." 

Bret Harte students, as well as a longtime education activist, discussed how to build communities and activist movements in schools during a virtual panel Thursday evening, drawing on lessons learned from the 1963 CPS boycott. 

The event was organized by Friends of Bret Harte, and began with a screening of “‘63 Boycott,” a 2016 documentary from Kartemquin Films. The film’s director, Gordon Quinn, was 21 years old and a student at the University of Chicago when he shot footage of the CPS boycott that took place on Oct. 22, 1963. (Quinn’s fellow student, Bernie Sanders, was once arrested at protests that preceded the boycott itself, a fact that came to light when a photo of his arrest surfaced in 2016.) 

The boycott came in response to the continued resistance against integration by CPS Superintendent Benjamin C. Willis, who erected portable trailers — known as Willis Wagons — to house Black students at overcrowded schools instead of allowing them to enroll at mostly white schools nearby. More generally, subjects interviewed in the film pointed out, it was an early attempt by Black communities in the northern part of the country to highlight the type of systemic inequalities they faced in education, housing, policing, and other areas. 

The boycott was the most drastic step in a long campaign to force Willis’s resignation — it was the first large-scale school boycott of the civil rights era, followed over the next few years by similar actions in New York City and Seattle. Estimates vary, but show that anywhere between 150,000 and 250,000 students participated. Many of the students attended “Freedom Schools” set up for the day, where they learned about forgotten Black history, before marching downtown to the Board of Education building. 

Quinn’s curation of his own footage, as well as other archival material, seems designed to clarify the political and moral lines that were being drawn by the boycott. There are still photographs of white mothers holding up segregationist signs, and a few ominous shots of policemen wielding batons — a reminder of the violence that gave the 1960s protest movements much of their force, even as it was avoided in this case. 

Toward the end of the documentary, Quinn also suggests there are parallels between civil rights struggles for racial equality in education, including the 1963 boycott, and the educational campaigns in Chicago over the past decade, particularly against school closings. As journalist Natalie Moore points out, integration is in some ways a side issue these days — less than 10 percent of CPS students are white — while many South and West side schools remain under-resourced, with a shortage of nurses and counselors. 

The panel discussion after the screening included Rosie Simpson, one of the parents who organized the original boycott, along with a couple of Bret Harte students. Much of the conversation focused on the intergenerational possibilities of education activism — mapping out the relationship between allowing students autonomy and providing them with necessary guidance or help. 

“First of all, listen to the young people in terms of their aspirations. But secondly, (adults) should be willing to be advisors and work along with the young people because they can’t do it by themselves,” said Simpson. “And because the adults have had some experience, they should listen to those who have been through the battle. I think they have to work together — you have to encourage them to raise their voices.” 

“I feel like if adults just try to understand young people more and try to understand the things that they like, and the things that they are in touch with, you know, they could help us much better,” said Jefferson Davis, one of the Bret Harte students. 

Part of listening to students, Simpson continued, is to get clear on what the goal of any activist movement is. “Know exactly what you’re saying and how you see that materializing,” she said. “Be willing to listen to those who may be able to advise you as to whether they think that would work and you all work together on what you’re trying to accomplish.” 

The two Bret Harte students also pointed out that, within Hyde Park, they often feel like their school is undervalued. 

“I feel that Hyde Park should take some attention off of Kenwood and maybe shine a little more on Bret Harte. I think it’s a lot of favoritism going on in Hyde Park,” Davis said. 

“Most of the schools in Hyde Park, like Dyett and Murray and Kenwood, those are great, great schools. I’m not saying Bret Harte isn’t a great school, but we need more attention like they have. We need more attention, we need more things — we need the stuff that they have at their schools,” said Jade Perry, the other student on the panel. 

As a couple of the former students profiled in Quinn’s documentary pointed out, one of the benefits of the boycott, even though it didn’t immediately accomplish its goals, was the political education it provided to participants. Simpson echoed this point Thursday, pointing to the type of learning that can take place through the communities that are created inside and outside of schools by students, parents, and staff. 

“To me, education is more than academics, it’s experiences, it’s preparing yourself for life. And so life is not just academics and socialization — it’s interacting with others and communities, people you may not know,” she said. “It’s knowing how to communicate at every level and, I think, coming together and being in agreement, or agreeing to disagree without having strife.”

Editor

Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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