Little Known Black History Fact: Chicago Public School Boycott

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The Chicago Public School Boycott of 1963, also known as “Freedom Day,” took place 55 years ago today. The protest involved some 200,000 students and tens of thousands of city residents united in solidarity, but it would take almost twenty  years before the city acknowledged desegregation measures.

Despite the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision “Brown V. Board of Education,” Chicago maintained segregated schools well into the ’60’s. Segregation was the norm when Black southerners migrated north and schools were overcrowded as a result. Black schools in the city were so full, students had to take classes in hallways and some didn’t even get a full day of instruction.

CPS superintendent Benjamin Willis implemented what were known as “Willis Wagons” – mobile classrooms for Black students in the overflowing classrooms while white schools had far superior tools and equipment in place.

In response, Freedom Day was born and led by the organizing efforts of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations. Schoolteacher and activist Albert Raby, who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in desegregation efforts, spearheaded the movement.

While Freedom Day generated a lot of media attention, it did not achieve the goal of changing policy.

The protest did inspire other such protests, including another walkout in Chicago and a public school boycott in New York City that dwarfed the 1963 protest. Experts noted that starting in 1970, “white flight” began to occur with families pulling their student out of the CPS system and moving to the outer suburbs.

The white student body in Chicago shrunk by as much as 75 percent, according to some reports.

In 1980, a court-mandated desegregation plan was officially implemented but it was more symbolic than anything else. Chicago’s outer suburbs remain predominately white. Experts say that Chicago is the most segregated public school system in the nation.

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