Remembering Chicago's great school boycott of 1963

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63 Boycott
  • '63 Boycott
The city's all-powerful mayor was ignoring their pleas, so the public students of Chicago felt they had no choice but to walk out of school and march in protest.

That could be a headline ripped from today's pages, as students join parents and teachers to protest Mayor Emanuel's decision to close 54 public schools.

But in this case the protesting students were teenagers from 1963, and the mayor was Richard J. Daley.

They were protesting the segregation policy of cramming hundreds of students from city's then-burgeoning black population into rickety trailers rather than putting them in white schools with plenty of room.

Most of the protests were directed at school superintendent Benjamin Willis—the trailers were nicknamed Willis Wagons—but the power behind Willis was the first Mayor Daley.

In that regard nothing except the name has changed in 50 years. Today's CPS officials and board members are rubber stamps for Mayor Emanuel.

At least Mayor Richard J. Daley didn't try too hard to pretend that the Willis Wagons were in the best interests of children. Everyone knew he was aiming to appease white voters terrified or enraged by the thought of integration.

In contrast, Mayor Emanuel wants you to believe he's closing schools, firing teachers, jacking up class sizes, and farming out schools to his charter cronies for the sake of kids held hostage by "the status quo."

Though as you can see, screwing over kids has always been the status quo in Chicago.

In any event, the protests of 1963 have been on my mind since I've been chatting with Gordon Quinn, one of Chicago's great documentary filmmakers.

Back in 1963, Quinn was a 21-year-old junior at the University of Chicago who thought it might be fun and fruitful to follow the student marchers as they made their way out of school and into the Loop.

"There'd been a series of marches against Willis and his policies for several weeks," Quinn recalls. "But the organizers let us know that the one on October 22 was going to be a massive boycott, and we didn't want to miss it."

So along with two filmmaking buddies—Mike Shea and Jerry Temaner—Quinn filmed the demonstrations.

"We followed the kids as they marched into the Loop," says Quinn. "I was in this old Volkswagen bus—an old hippie bus. There were thousands of demonstrators. It was a great day."

For last few months Quinn and some of his colleagues at Kartemquin Films—Rachel Dickson, John Fecile, Matt Lauterbach, and Zak Piper—have been going through hours of footage from that day. They've also interviewed two leaders of the protest, Don Rose and Robert Lucas. (Unfortunately, they have no interviews with the late Al Raby, a teacher and civil rights activist who was one of the key organizers.)

Now Quinn wants the kids of '63—well into their 60s—to step out of the past and be interviewed. "The boycott is one of the great civil rights struggles in Chicago," says Quinn. "But it's never really got the attention it deserves."

So here's the deal, everybody . . .

Check out Quinn's website, 63boycott.com

There are hundreds of pictures of boycotters—some as young as 12 or 13. If you see someone you know, or see yourself, or don't see yourself but know you were there, you can share your story, upload photos, and/or e-mail or call to let Quinn know you'd like to be interviewed.

It's a worthwhile project for reasons other than nostalgia. Today's students should know they're part of a long tradition of protest.

If we keep at it long enough, something good may happen.

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