Schools are the foundations of communities


Recently, I had the honor of receiving Chicago’s inaugural “Champion of Freedom” award in recognition of social justice and civil rights activism. In presenting the award, Mayor Emanuel discussed his personal commitment to social justice and quality education for all. As grateful as I was to receive this honor, I am extraordinarily concerned about the future of public education in this city. I find it perplexing to see the administration dealing a blow to our city’s public schools, which have played such a vital and historic role in the fight for equal opportunity in Chicago’s communities of color.

I am one of the thousands of alumni of Chicago Public Schools — of Edmund Burke Elementary and DuSable High School. For decades, I taught in Chicago high schools — at Farragut, Hyde Park and DuSable. As a teacher, I feel a duty to remember our history — and to remind others.

This year we mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, in July of 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his prophetic “I Have A Dream” speech.

More than 3,000 Chicagoans boarded trains and buses to be at the Lincoln Memorial for that great gathering. What does this have to do with the school closings?

When those thousands of freedom-minded Chicagoans came home from the March, we organized the great Chicago School Boycott, known as “Freedom Day,” October 22 of 1963. I was one of the organizers of that event.

Half a century gone now, I recall that the public schools on the south and west sides of the city were all but empty during the boycott. The purpose of shutting down the schools was to make a point. The fight for educational equity was part of the great social movement for full equal rights in all domains—public accommodations, voting rights, housing, lending, job equality. The schools were on the front lines then, as they are again today.

The organizers of the boycott called on parents to keep their children out of school, and to assemble downtown for a march to the school board headquarters. It turned out to be the largest protest march ever held in downtown Chicago up to that time. Tens of thousands marched. Whole families. Labor unions, church groups and contingents from neighborhood organizations across the South and West sides flooded into the Loop.

We wanted an end to segregated schools, to under-resourced schools, to substandard physical facilities. We wanted the curriculum to include the teaching of our history, the recognition of the rainbow of languages and cultures of the children of our city. We wanted the system to hire more teachers and administrators of color. We wanted justice.

Nearly half the children in the system stayed out of school that day. The school boycott of 1963 resulted eventually in the removal of the segregationist superintendent Benjamin Willis, and marked the beginning of many new policies and standards for promoting racial and ethnic equity and justice in our public schools.

I mention this story not to recommend a school boycott at this time, but merely to illustrate how integral our public schools were in the civil rights movement, both locally and nationwide, and to ensure that both the mayor and Dr. Byrd-Bennett are familiar with this history of struggle for public education. Indeed quite a few of the schools targeted for closing — for example, Crispus Attucks, Mahalia Jackson, Overton and so many others — are named for African-American heroes and role models. These schools were among the fruits of the fight for equitable education in our community. They cannot be dismissed casually as “underutilized.” We fought for them. We won them. And they deserve our investment in their improvement, to fulfill the promise for which so many marched and labored.

We look today at a list of schools to be closed; disproportionately — indeed, over 90 percent – schools serving Black and Brown children. As they did 50 years ago, the vast majority of these children live in poverty. These children are the progeny of those who came North in search of jobs and education, fleeing the racist South during the Second Great Migration in the period immediately before and after World War II.

These children face disadvantages which the schools alone cannot solve. But the schools and the educators who work day to day with our children are the most stable, steadfast and trusted resource in our neediest communities. The schools are the point of access not only for academic learning, but for recreation, nutrition and even health and social services. These neighborhood schools often serve three or more generations of the same family, with parents and grandparents serving as volunteers as their parents did before them. The neighborhood schools are public spaces which also serve as centers for community organizing, for gatherings and performances, and for enfranchisement; for example, as the most fully public polling places in every election.

It’s just common sense. People want a village. Families desire schools where their children are known, understood and cared for. They want schools that are accessible without having to run a gauntlet through hazardous gang territories. In many of the schools which are closing, children will be losing unique scientific cultural programs and activities — instrumental music lessons, work with professional artists, dancers and playwrights, engineers, astronomers and paleontologists — activities typically far beyond the financial reach of low-income families. Their children receive one-on-one support, even when school budgets are pinched and well-loved teachers are laid off.

No matter how difficult the circumstances of life, the neighborhood school plays a central role in the community. This is what is now being threatened — not just the school, buts its community. Why else would some 20,000 parents, children and neighbors come out to the many hearings which took place over the past 2 months?

They came out because they love their public schools, even with their problems. The repeated chant at these hearings has been, “Whose schools? Our schools!”

I am old enough to know the story. Once these public assets are given away to private charter school operators, or sold off to condominium developers, that is public space we can’t get back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. We need only refer to the parking-meter debacle to understand how poor a decision it is to give up control of public assets and public space. The notion that this will somehow be a money-saver (or a money-maker) for the school system is at best an illusion. Is it possible that the real mission of the proposed school closings is to clear out the schools and hand them over to private operators? It appears today that our public schools — the institutions which have transmitted democratic values to our young — are being transferred from the less fortunate to the more fortunate.

The education of children depends upon a long-term partnership of families, teachers and communities. When neighborhoods undergo significant change, the repercussions are felt in the classrooms. When the city began to shut down the public housing projects starting in 2000, the schools surrounding the former projects declined in population. The promised “replacement housing” did not arise, the former CHA residents were dispersed and much of the land was turned over to private developers. Quite naturally, the schools lost students. To turn around now and argue that these schools are “under- utilized” is the height of calumny.

The public’s voice is crystal clear: Improve the schools; don’t ignore the outcry from our communities. Don’t write off children. Don’t destabilize neighborhoods.

We can’t improve these schools without at the same time making the streets and communities safer. We are losing jobs, when we should be about creating jobs. The recovery of our schools is tied to our economic recovery as a city. Indeed, our schools need and deserve a better deal.

This month of April, we remember the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. This anniversary always gets me thinking about what Dr. King would say if he could talk with us today. I wonder what he would say and do today about the massive school closings in Chicago. I imagine he would be both incredulous and displeased at this setback. And he would ask us, “Brothers and sisters, what are we going to do about this?” Good question. If I were to offer a few words of advice to Mayor Emanuel today, it would be to heed the concerns voiced by many elected officials, and of pastors, teachers, parents and community leaders:

Take a step back. Take a full year to seriously study, and figure out what, if any, benefits may result, before closing any schools. If in fact there are truly a few schools that are beyond redemption and need to be closed, how will the children be protected and their educations truly elevated? If there are any buildings so dilapidated that they can’t be repaired, let’s take the time to plan thoughtfully for the children and to show respect and concern as well for the hundreds of Chicagoans who have labored within. What’s the mad rush to close all these schools, all the while issuing dozens of new charters for private operators to open schools, often in the same neighborhoods?

The great school boycott of 1963 was part and parcel of the civil rights struggle. It yielded gains in its time. I am proud to see the resurgence of a broad and multiracial movement for equal justice in education, with its current focus on halting the school closings. It is not too late to reverse these bad decisions which, if implemented, would further reduce the futures of thousands of children of color. It’s not too late, Mr. Mayor, to turn to the tradition of building, not destroying.
Author and historian Timuel D. Black is Professor Emeritus, City Colleges of Chicago.

Editor’s note: Read more about Timuel Black’s role in the March on Washington at——-20–1-byDA—Timuel+Black-all

Read more about Hyde Park’s role in the school boycott at——-20–1—-school+boycott-all and——-20–1—-school+boycott-all and——-20–1—-school+boycott-all (photo on lower right hand side)