tv Education Reform in 1960s Chicago CSPAN March 3, 2019 9:45am-10:01am EST
history tv, all weekend, every weekend on c-span3. >> next, elizabeth todd breland talks about her book "a political education: black politics and education reform in chicago since the 1960s," she describes the overcrowding in african american neighborhood schools and share stories of parents and teachers who pushed for better conditions. american history tv recorded this 15 minute interview at the annual american historical association meeting in chicago. >> professor elizabeth todd breland, your book, "a political education: black politics and education reform in chicago since 1960," what is the premise behind the book and what did you learn? elizabeth: the premise behind the book, in the early 2000, so much of the conversation around education reform was dominated by nonprofit groups, philanthropists, big-city mayors, advocacy organizations,
and in my own research i was seeing that it wasn't scaring longeras obscuring the history of community-based organizing around educational improvement, articulate by black parents, community members, organizers and teachers. i wanted to tell that story and tell that history. steve: we are here in chicago. you teach at the university of illinois in chicago. what was it like here in the 60's jack out elizabeth: it was still the largest city in the nation. -- the second-largest city in the nation. it was a city with strong political leadership. the mayor was the head of the chicago democratic machine, but was also a power player in national politics. it helped to drive elections and decision-making in the national democratic party. it was also an extremely segregated city.
steve: what was the view of the mayor and how did he view african-americans? elizabeth: it's interesting because they were a significant constituency for him. they were marginalized inside the larger political structure and the democratic party apparatus. it was a conflicted relationship. additionally, as a northern democrat, mayor daley was verbally supportive of civil rights organizing that was happening in the south, to get rid of legal segregation. when i came to conditions here in chicago, he said there were less problems. steve: put this time period into context. you have the little rock nine in 1957. the civil rights movement was brewing. what was happening? but was it like in the country and here in the city? elizabeth: a turbulent time. civil rights activism have been growing, particularly around school issues. other attempts to desegregate schools in the south as well.
in chicago, there was a major movement to desegregate schools and that came to a head in 1963. if we think of 1953 nationally, there was a lot going on. that was the summer of the march on washington for jobs and freedom. most people know this for martin luther king's i have a dream speech. also in 1963, that fall, the bombing of a church in the south, the killing of young girls. there were a lot of major things happening. the children's march have an earlier that summer. in the south, children were host as they try to desegregate public accommodations. there was a lot of civil rights action going on nationally and in chicago. often, people think of discrimination, segregation, and the north as being last barrel it. -- less people and. that's it -- less virulent. that became increasingly apparent in the 60's that that wasn't the case. steve: what were racial
relations like in chicago? elizabeth: it was a segregated city. african-americans lived on the south side in concentrated quarters, in the area known as the black belt or bronze bell. also some communities on the west side. segregation was stark. inequality across those of racial lines was also quite stark in terms of housing, schooling, employment, a host of different parts of society. steve: we saw the issue of busing in a number of cities here in chicago and boston. place? that taking elizabeth: busing was one solution to try to desegregate schools. the idea was schooling patterns often aligned with housing patterns. and so, the way to desegregate schools, you would have to move people via busing. busing really never took off in
chicago. there were minimum programs that attempted to implement busing, but they were not particularly successful. they were always largely voluntary, so you didn't see the large clashes around busing like you saw in the 1970's in boston. but certainly, there was some discussion and debate and some violence around busing in the city. steve: it seems like the deeper root issues were not only where you lived, where you worked, the quality of your schools, the quality of your neighborhood. can you discuss that? elizabeth: as an example in chicago in 1963, one of the major issues people were organizing around was what they called willis wagons. they were portable classrooms named after the superintendent, benjamin willis, that were created outside of predominantly black schools to keep schools segregated. instead of allowing black students to attend at nearby white schools that had open seats, they built these portable classrooms. these became a major site of organizing. parents, a woman named rosie
simpson in the summer of 1963, the board of education suggested that rather than move her children to nearby white schools, they were going to create an all portable classroom for black students to keep them confined within the neighborhood. they launched a major neighborhood-based protest around this to prevent these wagons from being installed. rosie simpson and other parents laid down in front of them in the rain to prevent them from being installed in their neighborhood. this became the sort of one issue, the willis wagon, became a site that expanded into a massive protest in the fall of 1963 that was citywide. at this conference, i am screening a film later this afternoon called 63 boycott about this huge boycott of chicago public schools against benjamin willis and willis wagons where almost a quarter of a million students stayed home and protested in the streets against these discriminatory policies.
steve: were there charter schools? elizabeth: not during this time. charter schools emerged in the late 80's and started to grow in the 1990's. communities were proposing alternative forms of schooling. desegregation was one struggle happening. as you got further into the 60's, lots of communities, and black parents, and teachers were calling for community control of schools as well is another model. there was the development of independent black institutions in the 1960's and 1970's as an alternative to public schooling because parents, teachers, and community groups felt the public school system was inherently racist and couldn't provide a proper, adequate, and enriching education for black students. and so, i think, in some ways, you see a desire amongst black parents for lots of alternatives that they are willing to try to provide students with a quality education.
but charter schools did not emerge until much later. steve: trying to put this in context, we had the civil rights movement, the growing antiwar movement, the assassination of a president. how did this issue play into the narrative of what was happening in the 1960's? elizabeth: in chicago, after the assassination of martin luther king, black high school students were walking out of schools, organizing within their schools. there is another round of protests in 1968, coming on the heels of both the uprisings that happened after king's assassination and the summer of 1968 when the democratic national convention was in chicago, a major moment of conflict. that fall in october, black high school students walked out of schools organizing and rallying around this cry for community controlled schools. the idea of young people as leaders of the movement, students as leaders of the movement, was certainly prevalent in the city and
nationally as well. steve: you live here and teach you the subject at the university of illinois in chicago. is the black belt still there? can you still go to these neighborhoods and see what it was like in the 1960's? elizabeth: the neighborhoods have changed. chicago is still a segregated city. the ways it has been enforced has changed over time. the fact of segregation as a major organizing mechanism for all types of things in the city has not necessarily changed. today, many of the issues facing black students in the city are around school closings. the continued underfunding of black neighborhood schools. the continued inequitable funding and appropriation of schools serving some of the most vulnerable kids in the city. steve: what has surprised you the most in researching this topic? elizabeth: one of the things that surprised me the most was how little our current discourse
around education reform includes those who have been historically most impacted. in fact, those most impacted have, over time, created lots of different ideas on how we might change and improve education. those ideas have largely been marginalized. it is my hope that moving forward, we will be able to elevate the voices of parents, teachers, community members to push forward in these struggles. one of the things i uncovered in my research was this long history of black teacher activism and organizing on behalf not just of themselves as teachers but also around the issues their students were facing in schools. that has been something really exciting to see, particularly in light of the current strikes and other organizing efforts taking place with teachers in our current moment. steve: how did we get to that point? what are the lessons and how do you apply them? elizabeth: one of the things
that is poignant about the -- i am doing a session this about sunday his store is idling -- about history rising -- historising the strikes, in the short term in chicago, there was a massive teacher strike in 2012. the leader of that teacher strike was a woman named karen lewis, head of the chicago teachers union. she was a student protester in 1960. she walked out of her high school calling for more black administrators, more equitable funding for schools. and here she is, decades later, leading one of the largest unions in the country specifically making that tie between the communities most impacted and the concerns of teachers and saying that teachers' teaching conditions are students' learning conditions. that is one of the lessons you learn from the history of black teacher organizing. they were most successful and poignant when they were making those connections between the
concerns of students and communities and the concerns of teachers. i think today, we call that social movement unionism. you see some of the strikes and other teachers unions taking up that mantle. the idea of tying students concerns to teachers concerns has a long history. steve: the issue of racism in the 1960's, funding in 2019, is it better or worse? about the same? how would you assess it? elizabeth: i think it is hard to compare because the contexts are so different. the political economy of the moments are different. in the 1950's and 1960's, you could get a job without a high school diploma at times in the industrial economy or with a high school diploma. today, you often need more advanced forms of education, so i think it is hard to compare in a direct way. i can say, unquestionably, we still have a long way to go in making education truly equitable. there has been a large conversation about resegregation of schools more recently. particularly in the south, but
in a place like chicago, in some ways it is a bit of an anachronistic conversation because chicago schools were never actually desegregated, so that conversation continues to be important about what equitable education looks like. steve: do your students get it when you teach this? elizabeth: i think students come with their own educational experiences to the classroom. i teach at the university of illinois at chicago. we have a very diverse student body. some of whom are from the city, but also folks from out of state downstate, and out of the country. people come to education generally with their own educational experience as a base point. i think learning this history provides a new lens and new mode of analysis for them to understand the world in which they live today. steve: professor, thank you for telling the story. elizabeth: thank you so much for having me. >> interested in american
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