October 24, 2013

50 years later, activists reflect on CPS boycott

Local civil rights activists drew parallels between the problems currently facing the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the struggle to desegregate the school system during the 1960s, at a panel on Tuesday commemorating the 50th anniversary of Freedom Day. Freedom Day was a massive boycott of the CPS that protested school segregation.

The event, held at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park, started off with a pre-screening of an upcoming documentary, ’63 Boycott.

The film, produced by Chicago-based Kartemquin Films, focused on the infamous “Willis Wagons,” the main issue that sparked the boycott, which began on October 22, 1963.  When schools for African-Americans became overcrowded, rather than allow those students to attend Caucasian schools just a few blocks away, then–CPS superintendent Ben Willis spent $126,000 to set up trailers, or “Willis Wagons,” as extra classrooms.

“It’s like being detained. I knew that I didn’t belong in a parking lot,” said one interviewee in the documentary.

The boycott was hugely successful. Approximately 250,000 CPS students skipped school, and many schools on the South and West Sides were completely emptied.  10,000 protesters marched downtown to picket the Chicago Board of Education building.  The film showed footage of protesting students of all ages—even kindergarteners.

The controversial events forced Willis to resign from his post and catalyzed a movement through which institutional segregation in Chicago schools came to an end.

The documentary was followed by a panel discussion, featuring civil rights and education activists from the past and present.

According to panelist Jasson Perez, an activist with the Black Youth Project, the problems facing the education system today are just as serious as those in the ’60s. Perez cited the recent CPS school closings, strong police presence in predominantly African-American schools, and the presence of prison cells inside some school walls as serious problems within the school system.

Rosie Simpson, one of Freedom Day’s lead organizers, emphasized the need for parental involvement and grassroots participation in the modern education reform movement.  In 1963, Simpson, along with other parents, chained herself to a bulldozer to protest the use of trailer classrooms.

“You don’t have a movement with just the leaders doing their talks,” she said.