The idea that racial justice and economic justice must go hand in hand, and that without both, the force of each is greatly diminished, is still one of the most radical ideas that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped popularize in the 1960s.
“Our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” King told striking sanitation workers in 1968. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
During the civil rights struggles of King’s era, education was a key battleground. A series of titanic struggles against Jim Crow schools in the South eventually led to the prohibition of “separate but equal” schools, and Black children began attending school alongside their white peers.
While national outrage focused on the South, however, the segregation of Northern cities like Chicago was just as pernicious. For example, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a 1961 report with a section on Chicago schools that read, “The [CPS] administration has made no effort to aid in integration; indeed, to the extent that it has recognized the existence of the problem, its policies probably have impeded rather than promoted integration.”
In 1963, anger at the indifference of Chicago’s political establishment to the demands of Black students and teachers boiled over. During the summer, there was a rising arc of militancy in opposition to the “Willis Wagons”—mobile classrooms named for Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Benjamin Willis that were installed next to school buildings overflowing with Black students, even though predominantly white schools had ample room.
In the fall, Willis was still setting up his wagons, so organizers called for a massive CPS boycott on October 22, hoping that perhaps 75,000 students would stay home and that 10,000 would go to a downtown rally. When the day finally arrived, every school across the South and West Sides was eerily quiet. By late afternoon, thousands were pouring into the streets outside of CPS headquarters. The boycott had succeeded beyond organizers’ wildest dreams. More than 224,000 Black students stayed home that day, and more than 120,000 filled the streets around the Board of Ed, according to the Chicago Defender.
“We are petitioning for the rewriting of school books so that the Negro is included,” read materials handed out by student advocates of Negro history that day. “Then and only then will whites be able to shed their feeling of false superiority.”
The overcrowding of Chicago schools in the city’s rapidly growing Black neighborhoods continued throughout the 1960s, as did resistance—boycotts, marches, and protests of all shapes and sizes—to CPS’ racist refusal to provide adequate resources to these schools.
In the South, though the defeat of the segregationists was a major victory, the legacy of desegregation was more mixed, in particular because many Black teachers and schools found this a profoundly disempowering experience. While the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ended the “separate but equal” mantra of the segregationists, some 40,000 Black teachers lost their jobs by 1972.
During the second half of the 20th century, public-sector employment provided many Black workers with a route out of poverty and into good-paying jobs. Because of the high rate of unionization in the public sector, this also translated to a measure of political power.
The massive expansion of the public school system meant that even while the absolute numbers of Black teachers increased for several decades, the percentage of Black teachers actually fell. And, particularly in urban areas like Chicago, the decline in recent years has been so rapid that the absolute number and the percentage of Black teachers are both falling.
The trend has been driven in part by the rise of the corporate education reformers who have waged war on the existing public schools, including teachers and their unions, in the name of a new civil rights movement.
According to the privatizers’ narrative, public schools have failed Black students, so the “school choice” movement must step in to “save” them by means of school closures, charter schools and “accountability mechanisms,” such as standardized tests, to measure both student and teacher achievement and pave a data-driven path to academic success.
But the privatizers also had another slightly less pure motive: in the words of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, public schooling is a “$500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”
The movement began slowly in the early 1990s but picked up steam, so that by 2010 the documentary Waiting for Superman could portray Geoffrey Canada—the Black founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone—as a rock star of the charter school movement and savior of New York’s disadvantaged Black youth.
“For Canada and corporate reformers like him, the legacy of the civil rights movement has been carefully detached from its historic roots in trade unionism,” writes educator and activist Brian Jones in a chapter of the book What’s Race Got To Do With It? How Current School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequality (second edition forthcoming in 2020).
“This rhetorical combination—antiunion on the one hand and anti-poverty and anti-racist on the other—is profoundly misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Unions in general and public sector unions in particular have been central to wealth accumulation and social mobility for Afro Americans. Every move to attack unions and to privatize the public sector is deleterious to Afro American prosperity. In this way, the anti-racism of corporate education reformers paradoxically serves White supremacy and institutional racism.”
In the course of 50 years, the explanation for the appalling conditions of schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides had shifted—from blaming segregation and inadequate resources to blaming the students and teachers consigned to attend or work in segregated schools.
CPS ignored what the CTU and its community allies had long argued: Chicago’s schools weren’t failing Black children. CPS had failed the city’s Black schools. The real problem facing Black schools was a lack of equity that acknowledges students who come from marginalized neighborhoods contending with disinvestment need additional supports to succeed—and their schools need adequate staffing, such as counselors, social workers, nurses, librarians and restorative justice practitioners.
Today, CPS policies like Student-Based Budgeting (SBB) and the School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP) uphold racial injustice by forcing dwindling budgets and standardized tests that claim to be “color-blind” on struggling schools. The CTU has launched campaigns against SBB and SQRP, while continuing to fight to realize the contract gains won during an 11-day strike in October and strikes at five charter schools, the first charter strikes in the nation.
The aim is nothing less than to secure the resources that CPS has for decades denied Chicago’s Black students and teachers and to reverse the decline of Black teachers in the system of public education.
Black History Month is an ideal moment to reflect on the experience of past struggles for justice so that we may build even more powerful movements in the present and future. And we can start by remembering Dr. King’s prophetic call to fuse the struggles for racial and economic justice.
Eric Ruder is a project manager in the CTU Communications Department.