Black Teachers’ Revolt of the 1960s

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizer Brandon Johnson, who is a black man, recently spoke about a conversation he had with veteran black educator Dr. Grady Jordan about racism in the schools today. Jordan told him, “Black teachers fought hard. This is a direct retaliation to what we built in the 60’s and 70’s. They’re trying to kill you, son. What are you going to do about it?”.

Black teachers did fight hard in Chicago, a city with a violent racial history that included a dangerously repressive political machine and screaming white supremacist mobs. Confronting Chicago’s educational apartheid policies also meant risking one’s career, no small thing, especially for those to whom that teaching position represented the first time a family member had graduated from college and emerged from Jim Crow enforced poverty.

Chicago’s educational apartheid has a history which includes the racial segregation of its schools, the allocation of resources on an unequal basis and second class treatment for teachers of color. It was Jim Crow North. But there was also resistance, a resistance which grew into a powerful social movement during the 1960’s.

It’s a story yet to be fully told in all of its complexity; the victories, the defeats, the compromises and the beautiful awakening of so many human minds. It’s the story of black teachers like Timuel Black, Mamie Till Mobley, Grady Jordan, Barbara Sizemore, Lester Davis, Bobby Wright, Mattie Hopkins, James McQuirter and others. It’s also the story of their white allies like Mary Herrick, John Kotsakis, Meyer Weinberg, Shirley Lens, Dick Kelly, Heather Booth, George Schmidt and many more.

The revolt transformed Chicago public education, improving the curriculum and bringing more democracy into school policymaking. It also hastened the “white flight” of many white parents who believed racial politics in Chicago was a zero sum game, that gains by blacks must inevitably come at their expense. It helped pave the way for the election of the progressive Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, a man who deeply believed in the power of multi-racial coalitions.

The revolt transformed the Chicago Teachers Union(CTU), a union whose leadership had been hostile to the 1960‘s civil rights movement and indifferent to the unique problems black teachers faced. The revolt began the evolution of the union into today’s progressive CTU, a union that has built a multi-racial working class alliance against educational apartheid, an astounding achievement in racially divided Chicago.

Educational apartheid and the background to revolt

A successful revolt requires more than courageous people with a vision for the future. It also requires the necessary social conditions.

Black people first came to Chicago in large numbers after World War I in what has been called “The Great Migration.” Post-WWI Chicago was a city where European working class immigrants (often subjected to ethnic discrimination) competed with and fought one another for power. Chicago’s elite preferred it this way. The last thing they wanted was a united working class, given Chicago’s radical labor history. But the increase in the black population caused an extreme hostile reaction from European ethnic groups as they coalesced into “white people”, a process explained in such books as Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White.

This violent reaction which included the deadly 1919 race riot came even though blacks were only 4% of the population by 1920. Efforts by civil rights and labor organizations to form multi-racial progressive coalitions met with limited success, not enough to turn back the tide of apartheid. Blacks remained in segregated enclaves and according to a Chicago NAACP official speaking in 1945, the public schools,”…were as much segregated as the schools in Savannah Georgia, or Vicksburg, Mississippi.”

Black parents and teachers complained bitterly of racist white teachers and administrators who verbally and physically abused black students. In a University of Chicago study done in the early 1950’s researcher Virginia Johnson reported that:

“White teachers called black students ‘niggers’, ‘pickaninnies’ and ‘trash’ to the faces. One teacher thought that black children were ‘more excitable’, another thought that black children seemed ‘harder to handle’ and had ‘low morals’, and another that ‘Negroes have an inclination to theft.’ ‘It’s terrible what some of our teachers say to the children,’ commented one teacher,‘Negroes have to suffer so much segregation as it is.’”

The post-World War II economic boom that saw an astonishing improvement in working class life was not equally shared. As detailed in the book When Affirmative Action was White, blacks were discriminated against by otherwise progressive legislation like Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act and the GI Bill of Rights, all of which favored whites. Segregated better equipped schools and massive employment discrimination also favored whites.

When Richard J. Daley was elected in 1955, he reorganized the Democratic machine and doubled down on racial segregation with the full support of the city’s economic elite. He used the largess from the post WWII economic boom to extend political patronage and social services, always on an unequal segregated basis. He bought the loyalty of many black politicians and ministers in the hopes they would be a counter-insurgency force against civil rights protests. In 1960, blacks were nearly 23% of the Chicago’s population, but still had not achieved economic equality with whites.

Daley’s school superintendent Benjamin Willis presided over the most segregated school system in the North. Under Willis, black students were confined to overcrowded under-equipped black schools while white schools had underpopulated better equipped facilities. Willis refused to allow black students to transfer to the underutilized white schools to desegregate the system and relieve overcrowding. Instead he added temporary classroom trailers to schools in black neighborhoods.

In a 1963 statement entitled “We Accuse!” whose title echoed the famous 1895 statement of  Émile Zola attacking French racism in the Dreyfus Case, the Chicago Defender wrote:

“WE ACCUSE Benjamin J. Willis, Supt. of Chicago Public Schools of perpetuating racial segregation in the public schools of America’s second largest city, Chicago Illinois through the use of mobile classrooms which have been derisively labeled “Willis Wagons”.

WE ACCUSE him of gerrymandering school districts for the primary purpose of “containing” Negro children in predominantly Negro schools
WE ACCUSE him of following an administrative policy which has caused almost one third of Chicago’s population — 925,000 Negroes — to lose confidence in him.

WE ACCUSE him of contemptuously ignoring valid and real complaints of both Negro and white parents who believe that his attitude fails to inspire confidence in the Board of Education…”

Willis steadfastly refused to even admit that Chicago’s schools were segregated saying in response to a civil rights suit:

“I know of no attendance area that has been gerrymandered, no construction site that has been selected, no double or overlapping shift program that has been instituted, no classrooms that have been allowed to remain vacant, no upper grade center, elementary, or high school branch that has been established for the purpose of creating and maintaining ‘Negro elementary schools’ or ‘white elementary schools’ in Chicago, as charged by the plaintiffs’ affidavit.”  — Benjamin J. Willis

The public lies of Ben Willis plus his infamous “Willis Wagons” became a national embarrassment for Chicago and a focus for civil rights protests that pro-Daley black politicians and ministers could not contain. Local civil rights leaders like Al Raby, a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, and Urban League head Bill Berry, were joined by Dr. Martin Luther King who together led a series of massive protests and boycotts against school segregation between 1964-1966. Black teachers were among the many thousands who joined this movement. Willis was finally forced out in 1966 and replaced by James Redmond, a racial moderate by comparison.

As the civil rights movement grew, the militance of black teachers grew and so did their opposition to racist colleagues. Timuel Black put it this way:

“We have too many educators who at 3:15 PM, get in their autos and drive to the suburbs. They have no real kinship to the community and naturally the people feel hostile toward them. Furthermore, many of them believe poor people are dumb and they don’t get ahead because they don’t want to get ahead.”

This is not to suggest that committed white teachers were unwelcome in Black Chicago. Mary Herrick, a white educator who worked for many years at DuSable High School had been Timuel Black’s teacher and was highly respected in the community. Another example were the white teachers at Jenner Elementary in the Cabrini-Green housing project who allied with black community members to help force out a racist principal.  Many white teachers fled predominantly black schools as soon as possible, but as Anna Anthony, a black elementary school teacher put it,”The people who decided to stay were very special in terms of wanting to work with the children.”

The general white resistance to school desegregation caused black leaders to rethink the whole issue of racial division. As the black power movement grew in strength, gaining control over the schools in black neighborhoods to improve facilities and curriculum competed with the traditional ideal of racial integration. In addition deadly riots had broken out across US cities including one on Chicago’s West Side in 1966. The militance of younger black activists was coming to the fore.

These realities helped drive a black teachers revolt that would eventually set the Chicago Teachers Union on a whole new course.

The Chicago Teachers Union and the black teachers revolt

Readers familiar with the anti-racist agenda of today’s CTU may be surprised to learn that the leadership and much of the membership were initially indifferent to and even hostile toward the civil rights movement. This was especially true under CTU president John Fewkes, who like segregationist Ben Willis, left office in 1966. He was replaced by John Desmond, who like his counterpart School Superintendent John Redmond, was a comparative racial moderate.

Fewkes was leader of the militant 1933 teacher protests which led to the founding of the CTU in 1937. But Fewkes was a conservative “plain and simple” trade unionist who had no interest in social justice issues and was openly hostile to racial equality. Former CTU board member Meyer Weinberg (a civil rights activist) said that other board members under Fewkes were,”… devotees of segregation to the bitter end.”

According to education historian John F. Lyons:

”Fewkes used every opportunity to deny that there was a deliberate policy of segregated schooling in Chicago, defended its neighborhood school policy, argued against transferring students, and remained silent on the issue of a segregated teaching force.”

Sadly, Fewkes reflected the majority of the CTU’s mostly white membership who when polled, expressed overwhelming support for the union’s opposition to civil rights. University of Chicago researcher Barry Shapiro reported that union members who did bring up school integration at the CTU House of Delegates were hooted down. This racism from within did not deter black teachers like Timuel Black who wanted to “make the teachers union a real union”, one that would improve teacher working conditions AND achieve quality education for all.

One of most immediate problems facing black teachers was Chicago teacher certification. The Board had introduced a new classification called Full-Time Basis Substitutes (FTB’s) to meet the demand caused by massive growth in the school population. FTB’s taught in classrooms next to “regular teachers”, but without the same pay, benefits and protections. By the early 1960’s FTB’s made up a quarter of the workforce. Not coincidently, they were 90% black.

Teachers in Chicago were required to pass a National Educational Testing Service administered written test, as well as an oral exam given by the Board of Examiners. The “oral” was a minefield of racism and favoritism where people flunked because of their southern accents, political views, “attitudes” or just for being black.

John F. Lyons interviewed several of the former FTB’s:

Mamie Till Mobley, who had become nationally known after her son, Emmitt Till was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 began teaching in the Chicago Public Schools in 1960; she believed she failed the oral exam because the Board of Examiners though she was on an ‘ego trip.’…Substitute teacher Tom Smith declared that the Board of Examiners limited the number of certified black teachers to stop ‘the horrid possibilities  of Negroes teaching in lily-white schools’

Teachers with advanced degrees and impressive resumes like Harold Charles, who had worked as an assistant biochemist while studying for his doctorate at University of Chicago, failed the oral.

In an ugly imitation of the power relationships in the Jim Crow South, teachers who got recommendations from white principals fared better. Grady Jordan had his white principal recommend him and thought the whole charade demonstrated a “plantation mentality” saying:

“My own ability or whatever meant nothing. Only when a good white man says ‘let the nigger in…I appreciated what he did because he didn’t have to do it, but he shouldn’t have had to do it.”
FTB’s could join the CTU as associate members but had limited voting rights. Fewkes had opposed granting FTB’s full union representation claiming it would damage the union’s “professional” reputation. A 1965 union referendum to allow full membership to FTB’s was decisively defeated by the largely white membership. The ugly racial implications of that were clear. When Desmond came in, the FTB’s were granted full voting rights but the union still refused to pursue the certification issue.

In 1967 James McQuirter along with Lonnie Hubbard and Tom Smith organized Concerned FTB’s which eventually grew to about 1300 members. They petitioned and protested at both Board of Education and CTU meetings for certification reform with only limited success.

The leadership of the Concerned FTB’s then decided to call for a 1968 strike without official union approval. 1968 was a year of global revolt and the FTB strike, made up mostly of black teachers, was very much a part of that upheaval.

It was the first teachers strike in Chicago history.

Longtime CTU activist George Schmidt described the strike this way:

“During those years, however, and especially in the explosive years of 1968 and 1969 (from the murder of Dr. King through the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, by my markers), CTU leadership was not responding quickly enough to the demands of Black teachers for justice.

As a result, the first CTU contract (1967, without a strike) did not solve the certification problem, and in January and February 1968, the first strike of Chicago Teachers — led by a group called “Concerned FTBs” — was a wildcat over the certification issue (there were others, but that was the main unifier). That strike, which impacted between 100 and 200 schools, mostly in the inner city, lasted between two days and two weeks, depending upon where you were watching. It was declared a wildcat by the CTU leadership (back then, John Desmond and John Fewkes and their cadre) and a major split loomed.”

Jim Daniels, a Concerned FTB organizer at Carver High School talked about his involvement in the video CTU Strikes 1969-1987:

“We had difficulty organizing because we didn’t have the support of too many certified teachers, We wanted certified teachers to support the picket lines. I supported the FTB strike because I thought a large part of the problem was racism. After the first day the union started to issue statements saying it was not a legitimate strike, that it was a wildcat strike and that certified teachers should not fear crossing the picket line.”

The strike at Carver collapsed after the second day, but continued elsewhere for a longer period. Although the issue was racism, the battle lines were not drawn strictly along racial lines. There were (mostly younger) white teachers who supported the FTB’s and black teachers (mostly older and more conservative) who opposed them. Although the strike did not result in an immediate victory, it was a stark reminder of what Lincoln said in another time of crisis, “ A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The CTU was becoming dangerously divided, a potentially fatal affliction for any union.

Because of the CTU’s racial intransigence, opposition groups grew from within the ranks. Bobby Wright organized the Black Teachers Caucus (BTC), a black-only teachers group deeply influenced by black nationalism. Grady Jordan described Wright as,”…fire and energy, thoroughly original, possessor of a monumental mind in a sea of lobotomized small thinkers.”

Originally the BTC was made up only of black males, but that changed when Mattie Hopkins, a CTU delegate and civil rights activist, insisted on membership. Hopkins was also involved with the Teacher Division of Operation Breadbasket, the civil rights group headed up by the young Jesse Jackson. Although not directly part of the union, the Teachers Division had 500 members including several other CTU delegates.

Taking a different approach than Wright, longtime black activist Timuel Black organized the Teachers Committee for Quality Education (TCQE). With several hundred members including white teachers, the TCQE still believed that integration should be a long term goal. In its day to day work TCQE worked for improvements in black schools and used court action to fight the racist treatment of FTB’s.

The Teachers Action Caucus(TAC), an opposition caucus dating back to the Fewkes era, changed course in 1968 under the leadership of John Kotasakis who was white and Lester Davis who was black. TAC had originally focused on economic issues, but now wanted the union to make educational quality improvements the #1 priority instead of higher salaries. TAC also supported the FTB’s in their struggle. TAC drew its support mostly from black teachers and the younger white teachers who worked in black schools.

White radicals coming off of the campus revolts of the 1960’s formed the Teachers for Radical Change in Education (TRCE). Among its leaders were Dick Kelly and Heather Booth. TRCE supported the student boycotts and parent protests that were going on all across Black Chicago. They urged that BTC, TCQE and TAC to unite in a common front and placed a priority on quality education over wage demands while they supporting the FTB’s.

The intense pressure coming from black students and parents at least partially explains the explosive growth among the union dissident formations. This pressure intensified after the assassination of Dr. King in April of 1968. Black students from schools hit hardest by racial conflict joined in the West Side riot that followed news of King’s murder.

Among the many school protests and boycotts that followed the assassination was the struggle at Farragut High School led by Harold Charles, head of the science department and a leader of Operation Breadbasket. Farragut was literally falling apart with its peeling plaster and broken windows. Many of the teaching staff had lost all hope and gangs reputedly controlled the hallways. Charles organized the Farragut Black Teachers Association with parent support and together they made a detailed list of necessary physical improvements in the building along with the introduction of a black studies curriculum and more black teachers, administrators and staff.

Charles led a 45 minute walkout of virtually the entire school to press for the demands. They won some of the reforms as a result. Later, as the Chicago Defender reported, there was another protest with 55 black teachers and 15 white teachers holding 2 all day teach-ins on black culture for the Farragut students. The principal then agreed to incorporate black studies into the curriculum. Charles was not a CTU member because he felt the union was hopelessly racist.

As the boycotts and protests spread throughout the city, School Superintendent Redmond tried both punishment and concessions to put down the revolt. Although Redmond had some success in quashing the city-wide boycotts, protests at individual schools continued.

The racial turmoil deepened the growing split between black and white teachers within the CTU. During the 1968-1969 contract negotiations the CTU leadership attempted to steer a middle ground between the anger of white conservative teachers and the demands of militant black teachers and their white allies.

When Desmond reached a tentative agreement with the Board in 1969, all the black teacher organizations, along with TAC, urged rejection because it did not include sufficient improvements to inner city schools or resolve the FTB certification issue. Amidst serious calls by black teachers to leave the CTU and form their own organization, the largely white membership approved an interim 6 month contract.  This agreement collapsed when funding from the state legislature in Springfield failed to materialize, even as more boycotts and sometimes violent protests spread through the Chicago schools. Mayor Daley sent 5000 National Guard troops into the West Side to put down violent unrest.

Faced with the collapse of the interim agreement and with school boycotts and protests springing up everywhere, the CTU voted to strike in May 1969. Black teachers faced a terrible dilemma, especially since all the black groups in the union called for teachers not to strike. Should they cross picket lines or not?

Grady Jordan announced that his,”…primary commitment was to the black community, not the union…I’m a member of the teachers union by choice. I’m a member of the black community by birth. I was born into it and I will die in it. So this was my first commitment.” The city’s largest black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, backed the black teachers who spoke out against the strike.

Other black teachers, torn over what to do, took up picket signs hoping that school improvements and a resolution of the FTB certification might result from striking. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, over half of the black teachers in Chicago crossed picket lines. Teacher support for the strike was weakest in the poorest black neighborhoods where community pressure was strongest. Many of those who did strike did so very reluctantly.

After some political horse trading between Mayor Daley and Illinois Governor Ogilvie, the money tap opened and the Board met most of the CTU demands. These included more teachers for the overcrowded segregated schools, full certification for FTB’s after 3 years service and a pay raise.

For the CTU leadership, the black teachers revolt was more than a wakeup call, it was a wailing civil defense siren. There were no sanctions against the picket-line crossers and more blacks were promoted into the union hierarchy. Future CTU president Jackie Vaughn, who had come on board as recording secretary earlier,  became CTU vice-president in 1972. The CTU began to heal its racial wounds and black teachers overwhelmingly supported the union in the 1971 strike.

By 1972 the number of black teachers in the Chicago Public Schools had increased by 37%. More blacks became principals and Board staffers. Mattie Hopkins of the BTC ended up on the School Board and Grady Jordan became a district superintendent. The school curriculum incorporated many of the reforms that been demanded by black teachers, parents and students.

Chicago remained a racially divided city, but now blacks were being incorporated into the Chicago Public Schools in ways never before seen.

The legacy

In 1971 Samuel Yette wrote a book entitled The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America. In it he encapsulated some of the fierce urgency that drove the black power movement of the 1960’s, that the very survival of black people was at stake. I’m guessing that many of Chicago’s black teacher activists read the book. In our present age of mass racist incarceration, mass racist unemployment, mass racist miseducation and ethnic cleansing through corporate backed racist gentrification and racist educational policy, the questions that Yette raised are still with us.

Today the Chicago Public Schools(CPS) are 91% students of color with black and latino students making up the majority. Many come from desperately poor neighborhoods with overwhelming social problems. Why is CPS deliberately depriving many of these school children the art, music, science, world languages and physical education they need to develop their full human potential? Why are many of these children being forced into soulless Orwellian classrooms with endless rote learning drills and unscientific standardized tests?

The Irish revolutionary Pádraic Pearse once called the British educational system imposed on colonial Ireland The Murder Machine, because its purpose was to murder the minds of the Irish people and make it impossible to even imagine resistance. If Pearce were to survey the corporate educational “reform” being imposed on Chicago, he would recognize it immediately.

Today the legacy of the 1960’s black teachers revolt lives on in the Chicago Teachers Union and its willingness to directly confront educational apartheid. But among the many challenges the union faces is that the number of black teachers in the CPS has fallen sharply since 1995 from 45% to about 19% of the teaching force. That statistic is a direct result of school closings and turnarounds engineered as part of corporate school “reform”. Latino teachers reportedly make up about 16%. I do not have statistics on whether the latino number has been rising or falling. I do know that charter operators and school turnaround companies prefer younger inexperienced white teachers who are cheaper and more easily manipulated.

Is the survival of teachers of color also at stake? What implications does have for overcoming educational apartheid in Chicago?

Dr. Grady Jordan warned us that the current attacks on Chicago public education are a direct retaliation for the gains made in the 1960’s and 1970’s by the black teachers revolt. I will leave you with his words,” What are you going to do about it?”

This blog post relies heavily on the research of John Lyons who interviewed many of the people mentioned here. His book “Teachers and Reform: Chicago Public Education, 1929-70” was constantly open as I wrote this. I am a retired Chicago teacher who worked mostly on the South and West Sides of the city. The FTB strike of 1968 was still being talked about in the 1970’s when I was a substitute teacher in CPS.

Sources Consulted

Teachers and Reform: Chicago Public Education, 1929-70 by John Lyons

School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago, 1880-2000 by Dorothy Shipps

The Chicago schools: a social and political history by Mary Josephine Herrick

“Fight School Segregation!”  (website) UIC Special Collections Exhibit curated by Jeff Helgeson

School Politics: Chicago Style by Paul E. Peterson

CTU Strikes 1969-1987: Voices from the Past, Preparing for the Future (video) by C.O.R.E.

STRIKEWATCH: The first Chicago strikes were ‘illegal. By George Schmidt

Mattie Hopkins: July 21, 1988 Chicago Tribune Obituary

‘Freedom Schools’ = Scab Schools (in Chicago at least) by George Schmidt

Dr. Bobby E. Wright on Proper Black Student Education by RBG Street Scholar

Bob Simpson is a former student and union activist at the University of Maryland. He is a retired history teacher now working part-time with Estelle Carol producing Carol Simpson Labor Cartoons. A member of the Gray Panthers, he views his semi-retirement as a wonderful opportunity to raise more hell than ever.