Exhibit written and curated by Ben Simonds-Malamud

Introduction

In the North in the 1960s, racial discrimination was deeply entrenched even if it was not codified into law. The agency governing Boston Public Schools was as resistant to desegregation efforts as Southern segregationists like George Wallace. Massachusetts passed the Racial Imbalance Act in 1965, which imposed sanctions on schools with a majority of nonwhite students, in hopes of making schools more racially diverse. The Boston School Committee under Louise Day Hicks refused to implement the law, claiming that segregation in Boston Public Schools was the result of “voluntary” residential patterns, rather than decades of discriminatory housing and lending practices [1].

 

In educational and academic settings, we tend to approach the Civil Rights Movement from a historical distance rather than recognizing it as part of an ongoing, multifaceted struggle for liberation that has not yet been realized. We also tend to view the legislation it produced with finality, as if segregation were something that two new laws could simply reverse. In Boston, the fight against segregation faced a serious challenge: city agencies refused to admit that segregation existed.

 

As the Civil Rights Movement was sweeping the U.S., communities of color were becoming empowered to demand equal treatment, which included more control over their local schools. In Boston, community groups pressured the School Committee to acknowledge and address the de facto segregation present in the school system. Today, as in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Boston students, parents, and community-members are organizing an uphill battle against inequality in the city’s public schools.

 

Examining the links between past and present movements for racial justice in Boston can improve our understanding of these movements and the power structures they are up against. Although organizing tactics have evolved since the 1960s, the students’ primary tactic of protest – walking out – has endured. In this article I analyze the forces that push Boston’s students to walk out, and the victories the students have won as a result.

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Protesters outside the School Committee building hold signs reading, "Equal education for all," "School Committee refuses to negotiate," and "Look around: We do have segregation." From WGBH.

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"The Soiling of Old Glory," Stanley Forman's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph for the Boston Herald American, depicts a white teenager assaulting a black man during an antibusing protest. From Wikimedia.

“Freedom Stayout Day in the Boston Public Schools”

 

A fact sheet created by the Brookline Committee for Civil Rights to encourage participation in the stay-out. From Northeastern Digital Repository Service.

A map from the Home Owners' Loan Corporation showing Boston divided into grades of different colors. It would have been more difficult to get a loan in Roxbury (Grade 4) than it would have in Brookline (Grade 1) From www.UrbanOasis.org.

In 1963, when Boston’s School Committee was refusing to acknowledge de facto segregation, parents and students responded by organizing daylong “stay-outs” in which thousands of Boston students skipped school and attended Freedom Schools offering social justice curricula [2]. Fifty-three years later, in 2016, thousands of students walked out again, this time in protest of impending budget cuts to Boston Public Schools [3]. Both of these moments are shining examples of community activists mobilizing responses to Boston’s often backwards bureaucracies, and both played a role in forcing change. They also display a thread that has been prominent throughout decades of organizing in Boston (and in other cities across the country): that when communities get left behind by local institutions, they unite into powerful groups and fight back.

 

The organizers of the stay-outs in 1963 were inspired by a flurry of activism after King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail had been published in April of that year. Michael Curry, president of the Boston NAACP, discusses this dynamic in an interview with Boston.com:

 

“So in 1963 you had this battle going on with the chair of the School Committee around the issues of equity within the Boston school systems. And the Birmingham campaign became really a platform to launch our local movement here to challenge the School Committee and the city council and the mayor at the time to wipe out the taint of race in our education system.”

Michael Curry, Boston NAACP president [2]

 

 

Boston was more than just a strategic link in the national movement’s chain. Boston Public School students and their families maintained heavy involvement in the school system’s operation and politics, and saw the national Civil Rights Movement as an opportunity to push for more community control in Boston.

 

Despite the fact that Boston schools were not segregated by law, community groups pointed to housing discrimination as the main contributor to de facto segregation. A fact sheet produced by the Brookline Committee for Civil Rights, one group that organized anti-segregation protests in the 1960s, poses the question, “Isn’t [segregation in schools] caused by segregated housing?” with the response, “In part, yes. But whatever the cause, it makes for bad education of both Negro and Caucasian” [4].

 

The movement for community control found more immediate success in its ability to build grassroots power than in implementing full-scale change. After 3,000 students stayed out of school on June 18, 1963, a follow-up action in February, 1964 garnered more than twice the number of participants. It would take many years before Boston was forced to address the segregation in its schools. Meanwhile, important organizing was taking place to reach this goal.

“Landlord, landlord, my roof has sprung a leak”

 

Perhaps the most well-known example is the case of Jonathan Kozol. Kozol taught fourth grade at Christopher Gibson Elementary School, which served a mostly black student body from Roxbury and Dorchester. Kozol’s experiences at Gibson were defined by rotting classrooms and racist teachers – he was unable to spark his students’ interest in the “Jane and Spot kind of textbooks the school wanted them to read” [5]. His choice to diverge from the curriculum and teach the poems of Langston Hughes (in particular, “The Ballad of the Landlord”) was a breakthrough in connecting to his students, but ended up getting him fired.

 

A follow-up investigation by the School Committee found that there was no misconduct on the part of Gibson’s administration and concluded, “Mr. Kozol, or anyone else who lacks the personal discipline to abide by rules and regulations, as we all must in our civilized society, is obviously unsuited for the highly responsible profession of teaching” [6].

 

Kozol then released a short statement in which he unleashes some of his primary complaints about teaching at Gibson. “I agree with [School Committee member] Mr. Eisenstadt that the poem is not the sole reason I was fired. It has been suggested since my dismissal that, in addition to my civil rights activities, another key reason was a report that I wrote … in [which] I said I had heard statements of prejudice by school personnel that would make President Kennedy cringe with shame if he were alive” [7].

 

The most notable aspect of the controversy surrounding Kozol is not his firing itself, but the community’s reaction. Thelma Burns, who was then a parent of a Gibson Elementary student, said the school’s principal would not meet with her and other concerned parents.

 

“No one at the school would talk to us,” she said. “That’s the way it was at that time” [6].

Ballad of the Landlord

by Langston Hughes

 

Landlord, landlord,

My roof has sprung a leak.

Don’t you ’member I told you about it

Way last week?

 

Landlord, landlord,

These steps is broken down.

When you come up yourself

It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.

 

...

A press release from Jonathan Kozol in response to his firing from Gibson Elementary School. From Northeastern Digital Repository Service.

“Liberation School Strong on Spontaneity”

 

Larry Van Dyne's Sept. 13, 1968 article in the Boston Globe offers a look inside the classroom of a Liberation School. From Northeastern Digital Repository Service.

In response, parents boycotted Gibson for ten days, cutting attendance in half. Meanwhile, they operated Liberation Schools in three locations, which offered a community-controlled alternative curriculum focused around self-expression, spontaneity, and black pride. One teacher spoke with a Globe reporter about the school's philosophy:

 

“We’ve been talking today about children being black. We believe they need it. People say we’re emphasizing it, but we’re not. A person doesn’t [say] you’re over emphasizing if you tell him he’s a good guy”.

Liberation School teacher [8]

 

Among the teachers at the Liberation School was Kozol, whose class on Martin Luther King, Jr. was free and exploratory, unlike his experiences at Gibson. The anecdote from the Globe article that stands out is of a student who had already learned about Martin Luther King, whom Kozol allowed individualized study: “[studying] a clock in another part of the room” [8].

 

Ultimately, the protest prompted mayor Kevin White to set up a six-person committee to investigate school reforms, a body that would have little actual influence over the stubborn School Committee. The story of Jonathan Kozol and the Liberation School exemplifies how activism worked in Boston schools. Actions tended to center around tangible instances of injustice, like Kozol’s dismissal, in order to bring broader issues to light. While these demonstrations garner attention, they usually aren't translated immediately into policy changes.

 

Another good example of this comes in 1968, when black students at English High in Dorchester formed an Afro-American Club and demanded to be allowed to wear African dashikis to school. While the administration allowed the change in dress code, the city’s School Department refused to allow the creation of an all-black club. Black students walked out in a move that quickly snowballed into city-wide protests calling for community control, referred to by the Harvard Crimson at the time as “near riots.” With the School Committee asking to call in the national guard, Mayor White again interceded and promised to investigate community grievances with the school system [9].

A Mighty ROAR

 

The history of modern social movements in Boston is predominantly the story of communities of color (and the lowest-income white communities) grappling with the institutions that create and reinforce oppression. Just as Roxbury’s Black United Front was at odds with the School Committee in the 60s, students today are building power across the boundaries of school and neighborhood to bring unified messages to city administration. While individual walk-outs might not have been able to force systemic overhaul, there is no disputing the power that student organizing has had. In the case of English High’s 1968 protest over dashikis, Boston students won the ability to vote on their own schools’ dress codes [9].

 

In instance after instance of community unrest, the city responded with minimally impactful concessions to appease protesters – until 1974. At that point, the two-year long lawsuit brought by the Boston NAACP against the School Committee culminated in Judge Arthur Garrity’s decision that “the school committee had intentionally brought about and maintained segregated schools” in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act [10]. His mandate to desegregate the schools through a program of busing would usher Boston into a new era of upheaval.

 

The greatest challenge to peaceful integration was the fierce resistance of white communities to busing in black students. One group that organized white women around opposition to busing was called Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR). ROAR is particularly notable because it was founded by Louise Day Hicks, the woman who led the Boston School Committee in refusing to implement the Racial Imbalance Act (1965) and denying that de facto segregation existed in the school system [1]. ROAR became a strong voice against busing and against integration, ironically adopting many of the Civil Rights Movement’s tactics in hopes of keeping black and brown students out of their neighborhoods.

 

Their key method of resistance was the same tool black students had used to protest segregation the previous decade: they didn’t go to school. Only 124 out of the 1,300 students enrolled at South Boston High School attended the first day of school in 1974 – and fifty-six of those students had been bused in from Roxbury. At Roxbury High, less than one in ten enrolled white students showed up to school, but the forty-four who did were met with a much calmer scene than the stones and racial slurs hurled at black students being bused into Southie [1].

 

While the busing crisis brought racial fissures in Boston to national attention, a federal appeals court ruled in 1987 that desegregation had been successful enough to turn things back over to the School Committee [11]. In 2013, the last vestiges of forced busing were replaced by an algorithm an MIT doctoral student designed to give students school assignments closer to their homes [12].

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Louise Day Hicks and other members of Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR) at an antibusing rally in a photo dated May 2, 1973. From GALE.

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This button promoting ROAR depicts a lion clutching a school bus and the text "STOP FORCED BUSING." From Digital Commonwealth.

Forging a future for Boston Public Schools

 

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BPS students gather in Boston Common for the walkout over budget cuts on March 7, 2016. From CBS Boston.

bpswalkoutdemands

List of demands from the December 5 walkout. From @rae_bae_bae.

Since then, the major protests over public school administration have concerned budget cuts, allocation for charter schools, and school closures. BPS students organized walkouts in March and May of 2016 to protest proposed budget cuts. A video promoting the BPS walkout on May 17, 2016 proclaims,

 

“We are walking out for our schools! to prevent schools from closing. to prevent more budget cuts. to prevent them from making schools segregated.”

[13]

 

The students organizing these walkouts through social media have come a long way from the technological limitations of the 1960s (a Boston.com article cites a 3 a.m. group chat to finalize plans for the walkout the next day [3]. The social media campaign also utilized the hashtag “#WhyTheWalkout,” for BPS students to share their reason for participating.

 

These protests were effective in mobilizing thousands of students, and in getting Mayor Marty Walsh to commit to adding $5 million to the BPS budget [14]. They also built momentum to defeat Question 2, which would have raised the cap on the number of new charter schools allowed in Massachusetts each year. Students, parents, and teachers led a campaign against the proposal, with a ground game that benefitted from the publicity of the recent walkouts [15].

 

Student organizing is also moving outside the realm of education policy. After the election of Donald Trump, Boston high school students organized a walkout of a few hundred students to deliver to Governor Charlie Baker their list of demands, which covers a broad range of issues from public education to the Dakota Access Pipeline [16].

 

The activist inclination of today’s students should not come as a surprise given the history of Boston’s students standing up for their rights. However, the fact that student organizing is so strong means there are serious problems that still need fixing. One thing that should be clear is how direct a role student activism plays in shaping and directing the Boston Public Schools.

 

Promotional video for the May 18 walkout. From Youtube.

“There’s this stereotype that young kids don’t know what we’re doing and should let adults handle things because it’s their fight more than ours. But we’re the ones in school. This fight is ours.’’

BPS student & walkout organizer [3]

 


Works Cited

 

[1] Nutter, Kathleen Banks. "'Militant mothers': Boston, busing, and the bicentennial of 1976." Historical Journal of Massachusetts, vol. 38, no. 2, 2010, p. 52+. Academic OneFile, libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.dop=AONE&sw=w&u=mlin_b_northest&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA308434624&it=r&asid=cb3618cb4a9a75398508215b517514a1. Accessed 20 Nov. 2016.

[2] Dwyer, Dialynn. "When Boston Students Called for Freedom." Boston.com. Boston Globe, 18 June 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

[3] Pohle, Allison. "How a Group of Boston Teenagers Organized a Massive District-wide Protest." Boston.com. The Boston Globe, 11 Mar. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

[4] FACT SHEET: FREEDOM STAYOUT DAY IN THE BOSTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Brookline Committee for Civil Rights, 1964. Print. Digital Repository Service. Northeastern University.

[5] "Frozen In Time, Remembering The Students Who Changed A Teacher's Life." NprEd. National Public Radio, 30 June 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

[6] Kozol, Jonathan. "Where Ghetto Schools Fail." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, Oct. 1967. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

[7] Statement of Jonathan KozolDigital Repository Service. Northeastern University, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

[8] Van Dyne, Larry. "'Liberation School' Strong on Spontaneity." The Boston Globe 13 Sept. 1968: n. pag. Digital Repository Service. Northeastern University. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

[9] Blumenthal, David. "THE SCHOOL CRISIS: An Interpretive Report." The Harvard Crimson [Cambridge] 7 Oct. 1968: n. pag. The Harvard Crimson. Web.

[10] Handy, Delores. "40 Years Later, Boston Looks Back On Busing Crisis." WBUR. NPR, 30 Mar. 2012. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

[11] "Boston Schools Desegregated, Court Declares." Chicago Tribune (United Press International), 29 Sept. 1987. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

[12] Seelye, Katharine Q. "Boston Schools Drop Last Remnant of Forced Busing." The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

[13] WALKOUT for the Boston Public Schools, May 17th, 2016. May 15, 2016. Youtube. Web. Dec. 15, 2016.

[14] Pohle, Allison. "It’s Been Quite the Year for Boston Public Schools." Boston.com. The Boston Globe, 17 June 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

[15] Mahoney, Ella, and Carlos Rojas Álvarez. "Public Education Can Win." Jacobin. Jacobin, 1 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

[16] @rae_bae_bae. “Student walkout demands #BPSwalkout #boston [Photo].” Dec. 5, 2016. Tweet.