Documentary chronicles 1963 march against Chicago Public Schools

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By Robert Felton

Columnist / Contributing Reporter

On Oct. 22, 1963, more than 200,000 Chicago-area residents staged a civil rights demonstration in protesting segregationist polices and practices of the Chicago Public Schools.

Many of those students who participated were from the West Side. Now, 50 years later, a Chicago-based film company plans to chronicle that protest in a new documentary, and the filmmakers are hoping to locate many of those marchers via an interactive website.

The documentary, '63 Boycott, is being produced by Kartemquin Films, the company behind such acclaimed documentaries as Hoop Dreams (1994) and last year's The Interrupters. The company launched a website,, this month to connect with participants of the historic march.

"The wonderful thing about the website is that it not only allows people who were there to share their stories, but they also get to see the significance of their actions on that day," says the film's director and producer Gordon Quinn, who's also overseeing the outreach project.

Quinn attended the '63 boycott while a student at the University of Chicago. He and classmate Gerry Temaner used camera equipment they had for another project to cover the protest, which the marchers called "Freedom Day."

The marchers were protesting the segregationist practices of then-CPS Superintendent Benjamin Willis. One practice involved placing aluminum mobile school units on playgrounds and parking lots to address overcrowding in black schools rather than simply integrate the school system. Those mobile classrooms were known as "Willis Wagons" by critics of the superintendent.

Willis and the school board at the time also refused to reconfigure school boundaries, as well as enroll black kids in white schools that could accommodate additional students. The boycott was among the activities employed by parents to fight those policies.

Some of the footage Quinn and Temaner captured will be included in the documentary, along with past and current interviews with some of the marchers — Quinn and Temaner co-founded Kartemquin Films.

The filmmakers would like a contact other marchers via the website. The 1963 boycott included people from all across the city. The website, which went live on April 1, is kind of an on-line museum for marchers to offer their testimonials. It's also meant to find subjects for the documentary, which will begin filming later this summer, according to Quinn.

Visitors of the site can view more than 500 photographs from the protest, courtesy of Kartemquin's extensive archive. The site is set up to allow visitors to point-n-click on a person in a picture, after which a pop-up box comes on screen where the visitor can leave information about the person and how to contact the individual. Visitors can also upload their own photographs from the march to the site.

This is the first time in Kartemquin Films' 47-year-history that the company is using interactive media to connect with subjects. Responses to the site so far, according to Quinn, have been very strong.

"Even after the film is completed, we want the website to stand as a historical record of a time when people stood up looking to make a difference in their community. It must never be forgotten," he said.

Also not lost on Quinn is the current state of CPS. The Chicago school district is planning to close 54 "underutilized" public schools throughout the city, including in Austin. Critics of the plan oppose it for several reasons, including the fear of kids having to cross gang territories to get to their new schools. Another complaint is that many of the schools are in mostly black neighborhoods.

"One of the backbones of a community is the school," Quinn said. "Unfortunately, many of the students who will be affected by these school closings are in largely African-American and underserved communities.

"In a lot of ways, when you look at where we were in 1963, you can clearly see the amount of progress we have made in the 50 years since," Quinn added. "At that time, Jim Crow was still the law of the land and segregation was still preventing many African-Americans from attending equal schools. However, while things are clearly better, some of the systemic problems in the community are still there — the lack of access to employment opportunities in black communities as one example."

Some studies done about the nation's schools underscore Quinn's point.

One done by the Civil Rights Project finds that, nationwide, the typical black student is enrolled at a school where nearly two out of every three classmates (64 percent) are low-income. That is nearly double for a typical white or Asian student (37 percent and 39 percent, respectively).

Quinn expects to begin filming the documentary in August. The half-hour feature is expected to be ready for viewing in time for the 50th anniversary of the boycott in October.


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