Grady Jordan remembers the Chicago Public Schools back in the 1960s and its racist practices against black students — practices that led him and thousands of others to the streets in 1963 in protest.
October 22 marks the 50th anniversary of that historic boycott and march. Last Sunday, Oct. 20, Grady and other marchers commemorated that day with a panel discussion at Lawndale Community Church, 3827 S. Ogden. The event was hosted by the Chicago Teacher’s Union Black Caucus, which Grady, a former Chicago public schoolteacher, helped found.
An estimated 200,000 students, faculty and parents marched on “Freedom Day,” as the ’63 event was billed. Chicago public schools were segregated, which protestors wanted to draw attention to and end.
Jordan, 77, who was among the panelists last Sunday, said black people back then were on the bottom and are still on the bottom today. Things have not changed since, Jordan insists, but if they have changed, it’s been for the worse.
“What they need to realize is that you can not have schools without students,” he said. “I came to Chicago from Mississippi in 1961 and what is done in our community is done without thoughts to the black folks.”
The Chicago boycott is also the subject of a new documentary, ’63 Boycott, produced by Chicago-based Kartemquin Films, the company behind such acclaimed documentaries as Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Interrupters (2012).
Directed by Gordon Quinn, the film features interviews from those who marched, as well as recorded footage from that day previously unseen by the public. The film is set to debut next spring.
Former activist and marcher Lorne Love spoke at Sunday’s panel discussion from the audience. Love insisted that the boycott’s origins began long before 1963.
“We need to understand that there is a background to this discussion other than what is being said about the boycott. The boycott really started when the first slaves were put into ships and brought here,” she said.
Love recalled marchers protesting the infamous “Willis Wagons” named after the CPS superintendent at the time, Benjamin C. Willis. Willis upheld many of CPS’s segregationist practices, including refusing to relocate black students from their overcrowded schools to those enrolling white kids, where the classrooms were nearly empty. His solution: building mobile trailers for the black kids on the parking lots of their schools.
“They begin to build schools for these students who were as they called them, Willis Wagons,” Love said. “People came from all over and even chained themselves to prevent the bulldozers from creating these buildings.”
The 1963 boycott was one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in Chicago history. The recent school closings this year, affecting mostly black students from low-income neighborhoods, was not lost on those Sunday remembering the march.
“What is happening is our mayor is trying to privatize our schools and he does not trust the voice of our parents and teachers, but the rich,’ said Brandon Johnson, chair of the CTU Black Caucus. “But it is destructive and is going to lead to the same destruction as in 1963. We have to abide by the spirit of 1963. My kid’s school in our neighborhood got closed down. It makes me mad that my kids and my neighbors’ kids don’t have their schools, and that is due to failure of leadership.”
The documentary’s filmmakers are searching for other marchers and have set up a website (www.63boycott.com) for them to signup, share their stories and leave contact info.
Rachel Dickson, who worked on the documentary, said it’s important for this peace of absent history to be seen, as this proves that history repeats itself.
“This takes people to a place were they weren’t at. ’63 was largely forgotten. I didn’t know about the day before the project,” she said. “This did happen and it is not out of the question. The school closings are affecting our communities just like it did in the ’60s — it’s repeating itself.”
With the 50th anniversary and 52 school closings last summer, activists are proud that young people are taking action for their education without the use of violence.
“We are so lucky to have young people who are willing to fight and sacrifice everything for their rights,” said Fannie Rushing, a ’63 marcher. “It is wonderful to see those students [last] April marching. They weren’t killing anyone, but they fought for their school.”