Documentary Recalls a 1963 Boycott of Segregated Chicago Public Schools

By Mark Walsh — October 25, 2017 4 min read
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On one hand, a half hour is probably the right length for a documentary about a one-day event—a 1963 boycott of the Chicago Public Schools by many of the system’s black students and some of their allies to protest de facto racial segregation and a superintendent they viewed as a foe.

On the other hand, I would have been happy to had more of “’63 Boycott,” a film by Rachel Dickson, Tracye A. Matthews, and Gordon Quinn that was shown Sunday, the anniversary of the Oct. 22, 1963 protest, at the Chicago International Film Festival.

Quinn, a longtime Chicago documentarian, directed the new film and was an executive producer of “Hoop Dreams,” the three-hour-plus 1994 documentary that followed two young playground basketball prodigies as they made their way through high school basketball in an elite suburban private school (and with one having to transfer to his neighborhood public high school in the city).

“‘63 Boycott” opens by drawing visual parallels between the boycott of the Chicago schools in 1963 and demonstrations against the 2013 closure of more than 50 schools in the city. In both, students, teachers, parents, civil rights leaders, marching bands, and others took to the streets to protest the state of public education in Chicago.

But the film quickly turns its focus to the 1963 boycott. The basic issue was the reality that schools in Northern cities such as Chicago were deeply segregated by race, not as a matter of state law as in the South but because of factors such as housing patterns and school board practices.

(Here is the official trailer, while at the bottom is a slightly longer clip featuring more footage from 1963.)

At the time, Chicago had a public school enrollment of more than 900,000. (It is now about 371,000.) According to a racial breakdown released only after the protests of 1963, 50.8 percent of students were black, 46.2 percent were white, and 3 percent were other races.

The film lays out the case that segregation in schools was largely caused by the segregation of Chicago’s neighborhoods, with African-Americans living on the South and West sides of the city. But Chicago school administrators would let spaces in predominantly white schools go unfilled by black students, while overcrowding in black schools abounded.

“Segregation in Chicago was not an accidental matter,” Don Rose, a prominent political activist in the city who was the press spokesman for the boycott in 1963, tells the filmmakers.

Then-Chicago schools Superintendent Benjamin J. Willis is painted as the chief villain. He favored placing mobile classrooms on the grounds of black schools to handle overcrowding. These became known and despised in the black community as “Willis Wagons.”

Sandra Murray, an African-American woman, recalls her mother successfully enrolling her in a mostly white elementary school around that time. But when it came to high school, the white principal did not want her to enroll, and Murray was steered toward a vocational school, which meant “I was going to be a secretary. And this was crushing.”

Murray had hopes of becoming not a secretary but a research scientist. (Slight spoiler alert: The Chicago system could not keep her down.)

Activists in Chicago were inspired by the lunch counter sit-ins in the South as they planned the one-day boycott, which they dubbed “Freedom Day.” National figures such as the comedian and activist Dick Gregory and James Foreman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee participated. Students and their allies marched from the neighborhoods into the Loop, the city’s central business district. Some 250,000 students participated, organizers said at the time.

A list of demands was presented to the Chicago Board of Education, including the removal of Willis as superintendent, the racial count of student enrollment, and, perhaps most naively, “a basic policy of integration.”

The film acknowledges that the boycott largely failed to win any major demands. The Willis Wagons remained in place. So did Willis, until his retirement in 1966.

And Chicago largely did not ever face significant desegregation remedies such as large-scale busing for racial diversity. White enrollment in the city system declined precipitously as white families moved to the suburbs or enrolled students in the city’s extensive parochial school system. White enrollment in Chicago Public Schools is just 10 percent today, according to district figures.

While the 1963 boycott did not achieve its specific demands, it is clear from the recollections of multiple participants that it sparked something, including a desire to achieve personal educational goals, a long-term interest in community activism and school improvement, and an awareness of injustices that weren’t just happening in another part of the country.

A few more half-hour documentaries could be made about the next chapters for the Chicago Public Schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.