The New York City Teachers’ Strike of 1968, also referred to as the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis, caused a major split between Blacks and Jews in the city that still has ramifications today.
The strike came as a result of the decentralization of schools in New York City, an experimental plan endorsed by then-mayor John Lindsay in 1967. The plan gave three districts “community control” over their schools with local boards.
Black community leaders, dismayed by the lack of integration, wanted to promote classrooms that addressed the needs of the growing Black student base. Two teachers’ unions were in the middle: the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) which was then primarily made up of Jews, and the African-American Teachers Association (ATA).
The UFT enacted a program to help the bolster the performance of Black schools but the ATA was resistant to this and demanded community control. The unions clashed along race lines, with the UFT blasting ATA members for promoting Black pride and other such displays.
On the advice of the Ford Foundation’s Bundy Panel, Mayor Lindsay went forth with decentralization, though middle-class whites didn’t support the idea of Black-controlled schools and the messages they would promote.
The new board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood began to diversify its administrative base, which wasn’t received well. On May 9, 13 teachers and six administrators were informed that their employment with Junior High School 271 was ending. In all, 83 workers were asked to leave the district.
Albert Shanker, the UFT’s president, fought against decentralization and argued that the fired teachers weren’t given due process. He ordered the white teachers to reenter schools, which sparked a standoff between Black activists.
The first of the three strikes began in late May, but in the strikes began in earnest. A majority of the city’s 58,000 teachers walked out that month, vowing only to return if the teachers who were ousted in Ocean Hill-Brownsville were reinstated.
New York City schools shut down for 36 days, affecting over 1 million students. Surprisingly, Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools remained open and test scores improved. The UFT claimed anti-Semitism was the reason the community controlled schools made their decisions, which was negated when the district hired Jewish teachers who lived in the area.
The NAACP supported the strike, and the group lost favor with many of Brooklyn’s Black leaders.
The situation ended on November 17 when the state’s education commissioner took over the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district, transferred three of its principals, and reinstated the fired teachers.
White liberals who supported the union and were once seen as allies by Black activists found themselves on opposing sides. According to some historians, this rift between Blacks and Jews in New York is still healing.