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Education Activists Gather to Remember '63 School Boycott

By Sam Cholke | October 23, 2013 7:09am
 Former and current education activists gathered at the DuSable Museum of African American History to see a documentary on the 1963 school boycotts.
63 School Boycott
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HYDE PARK — Parents who kept their kids home in 1963 to protest the horrible conditions in black students' schools gathered with contemporary education activists to watch a documentary 50 years in the making.

“You would think after 50 years we would have gotten it done,” said Gordon Quinn, who started filming as a student at the University of Chicago when parents kept 250,000 students home from public schools to protest the conditions at schools.

The 20-minute rough cut of Quinn’s “’63 Boycott” outlines the frustration of parents, whose students were taught using second-hand books in trailers erected in school parking lots to relieve overcrowded classrooms.

“It was not about black children being able to sit next to white children in the classroom, it was about equal access to opportunities,” University of Illinois at Chicago history professor Elizabeth Todd-Breland said to a cheer from the packed auditorium at the DuSable Museum of African American History.

The boycott and a second in 1964 prompted the resignation of Chicago Public Schools Supt. Benjamin Willis.

Contemporary education activists praised the bravery of parents in ’63, who chained themselves to trailer classrooms and were subject to fierce criticism that they did not care about children.

Jitu Brown, an organizer from the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which staged protests and marches during the recent round of school closures, said activists are increasingly being pushed to more extreme measures as hearings with officials have proven ineffective.

“We’re not going to any more sham hearings, we’re not playing that game anymore,” Brown said, adding that the group is pushing hard for a school board elected by the public and not appointed by the mayor.

He said protesters today do not face the threats of police brutality that activists in ’63 did.

“It was very dangerous because the police were very repressive,” said Dolores Landry, whose husband, Lawrence Landry, was a lead organizer for the ’63 boycott.

Landry said she and her husband were monitored by police and the FBI and were forced to leave Chicago for Washington, D.C., in 1968. She said in D.C., she and her husband had to join the Republican Party to get work on government contracts because the Democrats shunned them.

She said she would do it all over again if she could and had no regrets.

Clips of the documentary are available online at 63boycott.kartemquin.com, and the filmmakers are looking for help identifying people in photographs of the boycotts.