WNYC: School Segregation In The North — Then & Now

Kudos to education reporter Yasmeen Khan and the education team at WNYC (NYC public radio) for Demand for School Integration Leads to Massive 1964 Boycott — In New York City, which finds a refreshing new way to tell a very old but very important story and helps remind us that widely-accepted ideas like “neighborhood school” and “local control” have more complicated histories than we may know.

On the air, digitally and via social media, Khan tells us the story of how, exactly 52 years ago, nearly 500,000 NYC schoolkids staged a one-day protest against segregation of the schools — one of the largest such protests in American history — and how it led to almost no major changes in the system:

“The school boycott was the largest civil rights protest in U.S. history… Yet, little came of the boycott, and the activists’ demands resonate still.”

The piece is full of great voices, and the digital versions of the story include some amazing posters and images. So far, there’s been the original seven minute broadcast piece (above), a digital version, an appearance on the Brian Lehrer show, and a local NBC news segment. The story hasn’t appeared on NPR nationally – yet (it should be).

This isn’t the first time that Khan’s work has appeared here. Over the summer, you may recall, she had a piece about a student who was transitioning from male to female in a Brooklyn school. Since then, Khan has been all over the place, covering among other things the school integration fight in Brooklyn (see below):

On the phone yesterday, Khan said that she and the education team at WNYC were trying to learn more about the roots of the current segregated system when they came across the 1964 protest. It had been mentioned in education history books written by Diane Ravitch and Richard Kahlehnberg, for example, and was part of an exhibit at the Museum of the City on activism.

But as Khan put it, “most people have never heard of this thing.”

One reason may be that there were so many protests during this period. Another may be that it didn’t come to much. Last and perhaps most intriguingly, the American narrative about segregated schools has largely focused on the South, rather than on Northern cities like NYC, Chicago, and Detroit.

As Khan’s story explains: It didn’t happen in the South; it happened in New York City, where the mostly white elected officials and Board of Education members said they believed in integrated education.” 

Some of the ideas presented in the piece are pretty familiar at this point. As we’ve heard in the past, the idea of desegregating the schools was met with strong opposition from many white parents:

“Galamison and other civil rights activists said the plan was not comprehensive enough. Many white parents on the other hand, even those who extolled integration efforts in theory, thought the plan went too far.”

But there are other parts of the story that, along with the protest itself, might be new to many listeners.

For example, we’re also told that the concept of “neighborhood schools” – a value that’s pretty orthodox in today’s education debate – was touted in part as a way to argue against school integration:

“The only time the protests emerged and the only time they started using the language of ‘neighborhood schools’ was when there was a possibility of African-American or Puerto Rican students entering schools that had formerly been predominantly white,” says a researcher in Khan’s piece.

“The principal of the neighborhood school was there before efforts to integrate schools, but it wasn’t considered truly sacrosanct until people had to confront efforts to desegregate,” said Khan via phone. “What was new to me were white parents.. using the neighborhood school concept as an argument against desegregation efforts.”

Asked about the segment, historian Ravitch emailed that it seemed like an accurate description of the period in NYC education history during which the city school system became majority-minority. “The white parents in the outer boroughs, especially Queens, were very strongly opposed to any busing for integration,” according to Ravitch.

Another interesting idea that comes up in the WNYC piece is that the notion of local control was thought of as an intermediary step towards school integration, not as a goal unto itself.

Galamison and other activists pushed for local control when they realized they “weren’t getting anywhere with integrating the schools,” according to Khan.

This matches up with what Ravitch says happened: “The “community control” movement followed upon the failure of the integration movement.” She noted that local control was also pushed by the Black Power movement, which was at the time on the rise.”Here we are 60 plus years later with neither integration nor community control.”

Khan tried to find people who remembered the protest, but didn’t find anyone with a specific memory of the event – perhaps “because it was one of many protests and demonstrations at that time.”

Asked about her favorite part of reporting the story, Kahn said she loved geeking out looking through the archives for the story. “I went through boxes and boxes of files at the municipal archives here in NYC to look through documents from the time of the city’s Commission on Integration. It was amazing to hold old reports, hand written notes and western union telegrams in my hands. Hearing the way people spoke — with such eloquence.”

 “One of my favorite bits of tape was the ABC newscaster talking about the white women’s protest, and all the mothers “leaving their vacuums and kitchen sinks” to protest. Besides the fact that it was entertaining to hear that dated phrasing, I was just so struck by how some things have changed dramatically (in this particular context, women’s work and how we talk about women), but other things have stagnated. Like school segregation.”

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Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.