Oct 21, 2011
The story of Chicago SNCC – and of Freedom Day, a massive boycott of Chicago schools demanding desegregation on October 22, 1963 – will be discussed Saturday at an event marking the opening of the Chicago SNCC archive.
Chicago SNCC veteran Sylvia Fischer will interview comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, and the SNCC Freedom Singers will perform as part of the program, Saturday, October 22 from 1 to 5 p.m. at the DuSable Museum, 760 E. 56th Place.
The archive, which includes oral histories along with posters, photographs, and correspondence, is housed in the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of the Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted. An exhibit featuring items from the collection and videos of oral histories runs at DuSable through December 23 (reservations for Saturday’s event are full).
Chicago Area Friends of SNCC was one of a number of groups in northern cities formed to support the work of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, which faced jailings, beatings and killings as it organized voter registration drives in the South. In addition to raising funds and marshalling public sentiment, Fischer and others often housed activists who came north for a break from the constant tension, she recalls. “It was a very busy home, with people coming and going,” she said.
The Chicago group went further than others, though, becoming involved in local struggles.
Following the March on Washington in August 1963, the group initiated a boycott of Chicago Public Schools that was backed by a broad coalition and joined by 250,000 students, demanding an end to segregations of Chicago schools.
As the city’s black population expanded into white neighborhoods, school boundaries were redrawn to keep black and white students separate, Fischer recalls. “You would have two schools side by side, one white and one black, and the white school would have empty classrooms and the black school would be overcrowded,” she said. The black schools “sometimes had to resort to double shifts, and then they brought in Willis Wagons,” trailers used for classes and named for the school superintended, Benjamin Willis, who resisted all efforts at desegregation.
The black schools had the newest teachers and the oldest textbooks, books that had been handed down from white schools, sometimes in inadequate numbers, she said. At the time the Chicago Urban League found that teachers in black schools earned 85 percent as much as teachers in white schools, and operating budgets for black schools were 66 percent of those for white schools.
The boycott and a demonstration by thousands of students and supporters in the Loop was a huge success. The outcome was somewhat limited, though: Willis was forced to resign, but school segregation continues to this day, Fischer said.
In 1980 a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice resulted in a court ordered desegregation plan, but by then many white familes had moved to the suburbs, and many others had moved their children to private and parochial schools. By the 1990s, two-thirds of Chicago’s white students were in private schools. Today the city has a majority black public school system and a majority white private school system.
The court order was lifted in 2009 over the objections of civil rights groups and students, who pointed to continuing inequities in Chicago schools. In a blow to school desegregation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007, in a 5-to-4 decision, that using race as a factor in public school admissions is unconstitutional.
Chicago SNCC’s story is relevant “as an example of the kinds of things that can be done,” Fischer said. “It’s a model for young people in search of answers. They have to come up with their own answers, but there is some guidance from what’s been done in the past.”
She and her colleagues have spoken in several high schools – some of them with entirely African American student bodies, she notes – and she’s concerned that “there is just no history being taught, there is no African American history being taught. Whatever they know is what they get from television.”