- Who We Are
- Where We Stand
- Our Rights
- Our Benefits
- Our Chapters
- ADAPT Community Network
- Administrative Education Officers and Analysts
- Adult Education
- Block Institute
- Education Officers & Education Analysts
- Family Child Care Providers
- Federation of Nurses
- Hearing Education Services
- Hearing Officers (per Session)
- Occupational / Physical Therapists
- Retired Teachers
- School Counselors
- School Nurses
- School Secretaries
- Social Workers & Psychologists
- Speech Improvement
- Supervisors of Nurses & Therapists
- Teachers Assigned
- Charter School Chapters
- Other DOE Chapters
- Other Non-DOE Chapters
- Get Involved
- Career Timeline
- CTLE / LearnUFT
- Classroom Resources
- Courses / Workshops
- English Language Learners
- Job Opportunities
- Positive Learning Collaborative
- Professional Development Resources
- Students with Disabilities
- Teacher Center
- Teacher Leadership
- Teacher's Choice
- Team High School
by Jack Schierenbeck | February 27, 1997 New York Teacher issue
Allies: Teachers, the UFT and the civil rights movement
In the fall of 1961 a column appeared in the UFT’s newspaper, The United Teacher, under the byline: Albert Gordon. The writer, a social studies teacher from Brooklyn’s Samuel Tilden HS, told of his arrest the previous summer and his month-long imprisonment in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
Gordon’s crime? As one of five Freedom Riders from New York, he had dared to use a “colored” waiting room in a Jackson, Miss., bus depot.
Locked away in a maximum-security wing awaiting bail, Gordon and 38 other Freedom Riders endured the stifling Delta summer heat, 24-hour-a-day glare of lights, constant noise, meager meals — he lost 17 pounds — and mind-bending boredom. Prisoners were not allowed paper, pencils or reading material other than the Bible.
Once Gordon was among a group of inmates sent to “the hole” for protesting prison conditions. “There we were,” he wrote, “three men to a 6-by-8-foot cell, and for three days we slept on cement, receiving no soap and water and only two meals a day.
“Why did I go on the Freedom Ride? Democracy and social justice can be realized only when each individual commits himself to risk his comfort and even life in the face of immoral laws … .”
Accompanying Gordon’s story, the newspaper ran a box appealing to union members to donate money to a special “UFT Freedom Rider Fund.” Gordon, the item read, was back in Mississippi “facing criminal charges.”
Al Gordon’s story, like countless others, has been lost in the historical shuffle. The role played by teachers, the UFT and its predecessor, the Teachers Guild, were all too easily forgotten or dismissed in the wake of the bitterly divisive 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville confrontation.
To be sure, not all teachers were hard-core supporters of the civil rights struggle. Some no doubt harbored racist feelings. Others were no better than indifferent to the plight of black Americans.
Nevertheless, the historical fact remains that city teachers, literally by the thousands, stood against intolerance. From Freedom Riders and Freedom Schools to boycotts and protests to the inconspicuous gallantry of everyday classroom instruction, city public school teachers and their union battled prejudice where they found it.
“That side of the story hasn’t really been told,” said Princeton historian Jerald Podair, who is just completing a six-year study of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Podair still finds it “incredible” that, in most quarters, including “professional colleagues of mine,” Albert Shanker and the UFT are “pictured as some garden variety racists, mentioned in the same breath with Bull Connor, Frank Rizzo and Louise Day Hicks. That’s been a myth propounded by the same forces who were fighting the union over Ocean Hill. Here were people who voted for Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, who walked side by side with blacks in civil rights protests and sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’
“The real picture is more complicated,” added Podair. “We need some sort of dispassionate analysis.”
We can’t promise dispassion. But here is at least some of that story.
Thanks to Sheriff ‘Bull’ Connor
By 1963 the civil rights movement was erupting throughout the South. Whether it was lunch-counter sit-ins, tenant organizing, voter registration, noisy street demonstrations or silent prayer vigils, the movement and the brutal backlash it stirred were now
the story. All across the old Confederate South, newspaper and magazine reporters graphically wrote of the horrors and the heroism they were witnessing. But it was the television camera which brought the war home into people’s living rooms.
Watching this ground war from her upper West Side apartment was Norma Becker, a thirtysomething public school teacher and the mother of two young children. The images sickened and enraged her.
“I was recruited into the civil rights movement by Sheriff ‘Bull’ Connor of Birmingham,” said Becker recently. “When I saw those television images of dogs having been cut loose on the children of Birmingham, something snapped. I had been sending donations to CORE and I had supported the Montgomery bus boycott. I would no longer just give money. I had to be personally involved.”
She got her chance some months after dynamite ripped apart a Baptist church in Birmingham, killing four young girls, and less than a month after Medgar Evers, the field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP, was gunned down in his driveway. Becker was among three dozen New York City teachers who boarded buses and went to teach in Farmville in Virginia.
The UFT’s Richard Parrish had recruited them to open eight “Freedom Schools” in the summer of 1963. In 1959 a number of Virginia counties had bolted shut their public schools rather than comply with an order to desegregate them. Instead they used state money to support private “whites-only” schools. Black children had nowhere to turn. Freedom Schools funded by the UFT and other Northern liberal organizations were a stopgap solution.
In makeshift quarters, church basements mostly, Becker and the others taught children in the day and adult literacy at night. But it wasn’t long before she got an enduring lesson in the power of nonviolence. Two young organizers from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had just recently come to town and, in no time, had trained the local black teenagers in nonviolence.
One Saturday there was a demonstration against the local supermarket where blacks shopped but weren’t allowed to work. Standing in the hamlet’s town square, Becker watched as the action unfolded. “There’s a difference seeing it on TV and seeing it in real life,” she said. “The atmosphere was so charged you could cut the tension with a knife. My heart was pounding. But those kids — those teenagers — carried the demonstration off like pros.”
Becker would reprise her role the following summer in Mississippi. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
By the mid-1960s the focus was beginning to shift as the civil rights movement “turned North.” Gone were the images of Bull Connor, high-pressure fire hoses, cattle prods and snarling police dogs. They were replaced by troubling questions about the plight of Negroes outside the South.
Combating Northern-style segregation
The South had no monopoly on racial division. Segregation in Northern cities, while not a matter of law, was a fact of life, as civil rights leader and longtime UFT ally Bayard Rustin was wont to point out. While New York City’s black population increased 250 percent from 1940 to 1960, whites fled the inner-city in droves. Racial fears played a part in the exodus, but throughout the 1950s cheap veteran’s home mortgages and Robert Moses’ highways also helped pave the way.
According to Podair’s Princeton history dissertation, Moses was obsessed with white middle-class flight. As head of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance and the city’s coordinator of construction, he created public-private partnerships to develop “co-op” housing to hold the middle class. Meanwhile the black poor were shunted to housing projects, further aggravating the separation of the races.
Adding insult to injury, black workers were shut out of jobs on those construction projects as craft unions passed jobs from (white) father to son. Even when income wasn’t the obstacle, banks refused to grant mortgages to blacks to buy property in white areas. At the time there were no laws forbidding discrimination in the sale and rental of housing.
As for schools, the tradition of children attending the local school meant that in increasingly segregated neighborhoods there weren’t enough whites or blacks living side by side to achieve anything like racial balance. Where whites and blacks did live in relative proximity, school district lines often looked suspiciously as if they’d been drawn to keep schools black or white.
At first the Board of Education ducked any responsibility for either the problem or remedy. Superintendent William Jansen, in fact, denied that city schools were segregated because, unlike the South, the separation of the races wasn’t intentional or enforced by law, but had to do with residential housing patterns.
But in August 1955, the Public Education Association amply documented that schools were not only segregated, but also second rate. Comparing white and minority elementary and junior high schools, the report found that in virtually every category — class size, age of buildings, maintenance and repair, the percentage of veteran teachers and per pupil expenditure — black schools were getting the short end of the stick. Capital expenditure per child in white schools was three times that of black schools!
Blacks, it was turning out, had moved from the colored part of town in the South only to find themselves trapped in a Northern ghetto. Or as an editorial in the Jan. 15, 1964 United Teacher put it, “No longer can the northerner point an accusing finger southward and thereby feel absolved.” For those holding firm to the dream of integration, finding a way around an increasingly racially divided city would be no easy task.
Looking to soothe the fears of its skittish white middle class, city fathers proved to be in no hurry to carry out the Supreme Court’s mandate to desegregate schools at “all deliberate speed.”
Speed was so deliberate, in fact, that a decade after the landmark 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education school desegregation ruling, more New York City public school children were attending de facto segregated schools than ever.
Groping for solutions, even half-solutions, the Board of Education would periodically offer up a combo salad of carrot and stick. There was, for example, the famous $1,000 “special assignment” bonus, designed to entice veteran teachers to “difficult” (read ghetto) schools. Then there was the time the board floated the idea of compulsory transfers which would put experienced teachers in “difficult” schools on a rotating basis. In 1960 there was the so-called “Open Enrollment” integration plan, which called for black children in overcrowded schools to be permitted to enroll in a select number of underutilized predominantly white schools. That was followed by the “Free-Choice Transfer Plan” under which any student in an overcrowded, predominantly black school could transfer to any white majority school where there was space. There were also a few half-hearted attempts at busing which, with rare exceptions, were met with fierce resistance from hostile white community groups.
Recruiting black teachers from South
Many of these plans didn’t sit all that well with black parents. For example, they thought “combat pay” was an “insult, implying their children are dangerous. [And] that teachers in these schools will be more like wardens,” according to Elliott Shapiro, a principal who was profiled in Nat Hentoff’s 1966 book “Our Children are Dying.” Not surprisingly, the Teachers Guild and later the UFT denounced such schemes as “superficial public relations” which evaded the “root causes” of too little money and too much neglect. Naturally, the union resented the implication that the schools’ problems were to be traced largely to the quality of classroom instruction, without regard to broader social conditions.
The Teachers Guild, numbering fewer than 2,000 members in the days before recognition as the teachers’ bargaining agent, did what it could to keep the issues of civil rights and school integration alive.
In 1954 the Guild had been the only AFT local in the country to file an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in the Brown case. Three years later, at its annual spring conference devoted to the theme of “Education faces the issues of Integration,” the Guild would honor the NAACP lawyer who litigated Brown, Thurgood Marshall, with the union’s prestigious Dewey Award. The year before, in 1956, it was largely the Guild’s doing that the parent AFT put an end to segregated Jim Crow locals, using the threat of expulsion.
Painfully aware of the need for more black teachers, the Guild, as early as the mid-’50s, pushed for a Board of Ed initiative to recruit black teachers from Deep South schools. The plan was resurrected in 1963 when the UFT recommended that “Teacher-to-Teacher” recruitment centers be opened up in places like Washington and Atlanta where black teachers could take exams and fill out the necessary paperwork without having to travel to New York.
It was the strong opposition of the UFT which forced the AFT to switch its 1963 national convention from Miami to New York City. Because the Deep South’s transportation and lodging were still segregated, black delegates would have faced hardship.
That December, James Baldwin was the featured speaker at the UFT Civil Rights Rally, climaxing a month-long series of workshops on integration. Also speaking was Gloria Rackley, a teacher from Orangeburg, S.C., who was fired for her desegregation efforts. The rally raised $1,290 which the UFT donated to the SNCC, the NAACP and CORE’s national office. Still, raising money and issues proved a lot easier than answering the vexing question of whether city schools could ever be integrated. Little Rock had proved it could be done at gunpoint. Was there a way to peacefully break down the walls of educational apartheid?
Faced with unwavering opposition to forced busing, in March 1963 the UFT proposed substantially upgrading and enriching ghetto schools where “low income, color and caste are now the controlling components.”
“Only by a crash program of huge dimensions can our school system be brought to life” said UFT President Charles Cogen. Dubbed a “Report for An Effective Program for Public Schools,” the plan was the result of more than a year of study by a committee composed of UFT members Shapiro, Louis Hay, Simon Beagle, Edward Gottlieb, Charles Miller, Etta Miller and Parrish.
“Effective Schools” called for smaller schools, a radical reduction in class size, the introduction of pre-K classes and the use of teams of psychologists, social workers and other specialists to help heal the scars of poverty and prejudice.
Driving the plan were two ideas. First, that “schools in the slum and segregated areas of the city ... cannot cope with the learning disadvantages these children bring to school with them as a result of the environmental handicaps under which they live.” Second, that whites would resist sending their children to inferior schools; the learning environment had to improve radically for all students.
Was this a retreat from or “substitute for school integration?” asked The United Teacher. “Absolutely not. In some areas of the city integration will be well-nigh impossible unless present schools are converted to Effective Schools.” To underscore their commitment to integration, the paper ran a four-page spread, “Special Report: NYC School Integration,” in which the UFT called for “school-by-school integration on a citywide basis.”
As it turned out, Calvin Gross, the board’s new president cum savior, was looking to make his mark. He gave the go ahead to More Effective Schools (MES) in May 1964 — board officials insisted on the addition of “More” since the union’s name carried the not-so-subtle implication that the rest of the system wasn’t working. MES was introduced in September 1965 with 10 schools; 11 more joined the next year. What happened to MES is a story for another time.
Meanwhile, Norma Becker was preparing for an even hotter destination in 1964 — Mississippi.
Together with Sandra Adickes, an East Harlem high school English teacher who had also taught in Prince Edward County, Becker had no trouble persuading the UFT to sponsor the Mississippi Freedom School Project.
Thanks to publicity in the union’s newspaper, the project caught fire with contributions from union members, school custodians and even students who raised money a nickel and a dime at a time. Tons of supplies went south: books — especially about black history — and everything from film projectors and typewriters to copy machines and record players.
To top it off, the union lent its name to the group so it could rent eight cars from Hertz for the summer — at a good discount.
All in all, 36 UFT teachers went to eight Mississippi cities in the summer of 1964. In early July, they arrived in Memphis for an orientation at a local college. Weighing heavily on their minds was the disappearance of three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — whose bodies were found a month later. They had been murdered after visiting the burned ruins of the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Miss.
After the orientation the group boarded a bus for Hattiesburg, Miss., with a scheduled lunch stop in, of all places, Philadelphia.
Sandra Adickes recorded her thoughts that day in a notebook. “It was the morning of the Fourth, but no American flags were displayed. We passed a billboard on the highway, an endorsement by President Kennedy for mental health; someone had hurled a can of black paint at the billboard, spattering it all over the late president’s head. We had a lunch stop at Philadelphia, which is so much the sleepy Southern town. I did not see a single Philadelphian but .... the sign in front of the bus station [said], ‘White waiting room only by order of the Police, Philadelphia, Miss.’ Riding in and riding out there were three questions [about the missing civil rights workers]: where and how and by whom.”
Adickes would spend the next six weeks at the Priest Creek Baptist Church teaching some 50 youngsters, mostly high school kids. For the first time in their lives the students got to read books such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Black Boy” and “Native Son,” written by the Mississippi-born Richard Wright. In the evening adults came and listened to recordings of the likes of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Margaret Walker and other Negro poets.
Toward the end of Adickes’ stay, the students came up with an idea that would show they’d learned their lessons well. Adickes went along with six of her students to the all-white Hattiesburg Public Library. They asked to be issued cards. Told no, they all sat down at desks and waited for the police to arrive. That didn’t take long, and the library was promptly closed to black and white alike.
Afterward, the group walked over to the local Kress store for lunch. There the waitress told Adickes that she had to serve “the colored” but not “the whites who come in with them.” The students told the waitress to forget the order and they all left. Not long after, Adickes was arrested for vagrancy and taken to jail.
Thanks to the help of a volunteer attorney from the National Lawyers Guild, a federal court would eventually dismiss Adickes’ case. Later, in a civil suit that went to the Supreme Court in 1970, Adickes won a cash judgment against Kress. She gave the money to good causes, including the orphaned children of a Hattiesburg grocer and civil rights leader who had been murdered when his store and home were bombed.
Back in New York, Adickes, Becker and company must have felt a sense of deja vu when they reported for work in September 1964. Only weeks before, in a portent of things to come, city cops and rioters had battled as Harlem erupted in a week-long explosion of rioting, burning and looting. The opening of schools brought only more tension. With the strong backing of the UFT’s leadership, the Board of Education was taking its first small steps toward school integration.
In the outer boroughs the board redrew district lines to create “border schools” that incorporated neighboring white and black areas. The board also began the “pairing” of adjoining black and white schools. Black and white students in each grade were placed together, some grades in one school, the remaining grades in the other. At one point or another all of the children from the “paired” schools would attend both schools.
The plan would encompass some 5,600 students from eight schools. Except for 383 students who were bused for a brief 10-minute ride, the schools were within walking distance, in some cases only a few blocks apart. As a sweetener, extra money was provided for reduced class size, reading specialists, school supplies and books along with building improvements.
Considering that the board had avoided the question of what to do about the vast majority of black children in the heart of the ghetto, the experiment did not appear earth shattering. Yet, as Podair points out in his dissertation, to the people of Jackson Heights, Queens — a middle-class neighborhood of modest private homes and Mitchell-Lama co-ops inhabited by Jewish and Italian civil servants, small businessmen and professionals — it was the end of the world. In the fall and winter of 1964-65 some white parents were so dead set against the board’s plans that they refused to send their children to a paired school, opting instead to open a private elementary school only six blocks away.
Prince Edward County, Va., it seemed, was only a short bus ride from New York City, after all.
Running the private academy and spearheading the opposition was a group calling itself Parents and Taxpayers (PAT). Claiming some 300,000 members and more than 100 chapters in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, PAT had threatened a schoolwide boycott the previous school year and was also busy gathering some 42,000 signatures to put an anti-busing referendum on the November 1964 election ballot — only to have an appeals court throw it out on a technicality.
As hard as PAT’s leadership sought to convey its opposition in terms of defending the “neighborhood school,” the racial overtones were in plain sight. “Color?” asked one opponent interviewed in a New York Times Magazine article of Sept. 20, 1964, quoted in Podair’s Princeton dissertation. “It wasn’t color holding them back. It was the kind of people they were. I worked with Negroes... They don’t work hard or help their children in school or care about their families or keep their homes clean.”
“[Another] was even more direct: ‘If I was God, what would I do to improve the lot of the Negro? I’d make everybody white.’ Others worried about what effect the increased visibility of blacks in the neighborhood would have on property values.
“Still others fretted over the educational consequences for their children. ‘I don’t know why the Negroes are behind, but they are, and I don’t want them hurting my child’s chances in school.’ Said another: ‘I don’t like (my son) with a lot of slow readers who will pull down his IQ... .’” Leading the UFT in this troubled time and undergoing his baptism of fire was its new president, Albert Shanker. (Charles Cogen had moved on to head the AFT.)
Shanker had helped organize sit-ins and demonstrations against segregation as a student at the University of Illinois. He’d joined pickets at Palisades Amusement Park, a popular New Jersey attraction that did not allow blacks to swim in its pools, and at Harlem’s Woolworth’s to protest discriminatory hiring practices in its nationwide chain of department stores.
Shanker acknowledges that he was drawn to civil rights because of his abiding sympathy for the underdog. Growing up in a white neighborhood, attending white schools, entering a profession which then was virtually all white, Shanker had little contact with black people. Race was an ethical abstraction, albeit a powerful one. That was until he met and befriended Rustin. A quarter century older than Shanker, Rustin would become his mentor, close friend and confidant until his death in 1987.
Rustin’s life reads like an epic novel. Pennsylvania Quaker … Raised by grandparents … High school football and track star … CCNY educated … Sang professionally with blues legends Josh White and Leadbelly … Gay with matinee-idol good looks … Marxist, broke with Party over civil rights … Helped organize A. Philip Randolph’s 1941 March on Washington … CORE’s first field secretary … Conscientious objector, jailed for 28 months during WWII … Took Freedom Ride in 1947, sentenced to chain gang … Traveled to India and worked with Gandhi ... Organized 1955 Montgomery bus boycott … Executive secretary of the War Resisters League … .
“My relationship with Bayard opened me up to a lot of ideas that I’d never been exposed to before,” Shanker said. “I could always count on him to give me an idea of what someone living on 125th Street thought about things.”
Indeed, anyone reading Rustin’s writings can see the germ of Shanker’s tough-minded analysis of the state of the races. Whether the subject is the perils of black separatism, the delusion of “community control” or the need to forge alliances with white liberals, Shanker’s ideas bear Rustin’s unmistakable intellectual prints.
No one will ever know what would have happened had Shanker not met Rustin. But at least for the early years of his presidency no issue more dominated the union’s agenda than civil rights.
For example, countering the white backlash groups like Parents and Taxpayers, the Shanker-led UFT supported a group of parents from Sheepshead Bay and Flatbush who were willingly busing their children into predominately black and Puerto Rican schools. Many of the parents belonged to EQUAL, an association promoting school integration. Its head, Ellen Lurie, was quoted in a November 1964 United Teacher story saying that parents are “less afraid of children having to bus than of children learning to hate.”
Out of South Africa
In 1965 Shanker drafted a letter to then-City Comptroller Abe Beame, asking that the city not invest any retirement money in Mississippi bonds until it changed its policy of racial discrimination. He also shot off a letter to David Rockefeller, president of the Chase Manhattan Bank informing him that the UFT’s executive board “has voted to withdraw our account and place it in a bank which does not do business in the Union of South Africa.” Quoting the union’s resolution, he wrote that the union acted “so that the vicious racial doctrine of apartheid as practiced in South Africa ‘be given no support, financial or otherwise.’ ”
In March 1965, news that blacks seeking voting rights in Selma, Ala., had been beaten by police, the state militia and local citizenry prompted an outraged UFT Delegate Assembly to adopt a resolution supporting voting rights there. “It is outrageous that citizens who peaceably assemble ... to register and vote should be brutally beaten as they were the other day” said UFT Secretary Jules Kolodny, pointing out that in four counties in Alabama’s “Black Belt,” only 319 Negroes out of a population of 75,000 had registered to vote.
On March 15, Shanker wrote to the union’s chapter leaders explaining that he had met with Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Young explained that because of mob intimidation and violence in rural areas, cars were desperately needed to transport blacks to register to vote. “We need contributions from teachers from every school RIGHT NOW,” he wrote.
Sure enough, on March 21, 1965, Shanker journeyed to Selma to turn over the keys and registration to a station wagon to Martin Luther King. It was the first of four such gifts — totalling some $40,000 — that the union as part of its “UFT Selma Drive” donated to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council for its Alabama voter registration drive. Shanker, along with Kolodny, Assistant Secretary Sid Harris and Vice President Abe Levine then joined the March on Montgomery.
Later that month King came to New York where Shanker presented him with a check for $10,000 from the teachers of New York at a reception run by the New York Central Labor Council.
In the spring of ’65 the UFT president took on the Board of Education for once again broaching the idea of the forced transfers of teachers to ease the problems of inner-city schools. He called it “a false issue designed to hoax the public into believing that inferior education is to be blamed on teachers rather than on large classes, dilapidated buildings, short-time instruction, inadequate textbooks and supplies, and failure to provide adequate services for children.”
The plan, Shanker said, “attempts to convince minority group parents that inferior education in ghetto schools is to be blamed on teachers … If the Board now finds it necessary to ‘spread’ talent, it is because it has been negligent in its responsibility to recruit it.”
At any rate, not everyone was pleased with the union’s social and political activism. In May 1965 a high school chapter leader and winner of a Trachtenberg Award openly scolded Shanker for his social and political activism. In a letter to the United Teacher that appeared right next to Shanker’s “President’s Column,” came the following friendly advice:
“I would like to send to headquarters some impressions from the front lines. A general should see if his army is with him or is he out in front with very little strength behind him … Many feel that you should be the president of the UFT and not try to solve all the problems of the world.”
The letter goes on to take issue with Shanker and the UFT’s leadership over such issues as spending money to further school integration and the grouping of grades 6-7-8 in junior highs a “direct appeasement” of racial extremists. “Many of us think the UFT has no place on any picket line. If you want to go — go only as a private individual.” If some in the union thought the leadership was doing too much, others felt that Shanker and the UFT had not done nearly enough in the fight for civil rights. One retired black junior high school teacher, who joined the Teachers Guild in 1953, characterized the union’s involvement as “window dressing.”
Now in her 70s, she recalls the young black men and women who were denied teaching jobs on the flimsy pretext of their “Southern” accents. She herself failed the oral exam.
“The Board of Examiners were the gatekeepers keeping colored folk out. If the union was so interested in having more black teachers, why didn’t it put up a fight?”
Others voiced similar sentiments that “self-styled liberals” in the North had proved they were better at attacking redneck racism than its Northern urban counterpart.
But fighting Northern-style racism was exactly what Shanker had in mind, when in 1966 he took himself and the union out on a limb over the issue of police misconduct and brutality in the black community.
People who know Shanker will tell you that one his cardinal rules is to avoid “splitters,” those outside, hot-button issues which could split the union. But Shanker’s trademark pragmatism was sorely tested when then-new Mayor John V. Lindsay named four outside civilian members to the Police Review Board creating the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Charged with looking into cases of police misconduct and recommending disciplinary action, the review board sent the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association into an uproar.
In an emotionally and racially charged campaign the PBA pictured the board as anti-police and succeeded in getting the issue placed before voters in a referendum. However, believing that many inner-city blacks were being subjected to police harassment, unnecessary force and outright brutality, the UFT was the only union which supported Lindsay’s board. It did so even though many of its own members wanted the union’s leadership to stay out of such non-educational matters. Though the union’s executive board overwhelmingly backed the stand 27-2, the Delegate Assembly, after a heated and often angry debate, voted to back the leadership by a much narrower margin, 486-375.
With police and most white ethnics on one side and civil rights groups and minorities on the other, the UFT fought hard to retain the civilian presence. UFT troops, in the person of George Altomare’s “network” of 100 activists, were pressed into action, this time distributing literature on street corners in favor of the CCRB.
PBA snubs teachers
As might be expected, the police didn’t take kindly to the publicity campaign, said Altomare. “We were getting a lot of dirty looks from the cops. They’d come up and ask us: ‘Why do you hate cops?’ Of course we’d tell them we had nothing against good cops only the ones that were guilty of mistreating blacks.”
Lindsay’s police review board went down to a crushing defeat that November. “Politically it was a mistake,” Shanker said recently. “For many years the PBA wouldn’t talk to us.” Besides, he added, in the bitter turmoil over Ocean Hill, “nobody on the other side [in the black community] ever remembered where we’d stood on that issue.”
In any case, by the end of 1966, Shanker was having serious misgivings over the direction of the civil rights movement. New, more militantly apocalyptic voices were now being heard.
In Oakland, Cal., Huey Newton and the Black Panthers had come up with their own answer to police harassment — guns. At SNCC, Stokely Carmichael had given longtime white civil rights organizers their walking papers, telling them the black struggle for freedom would be waged by blacks themselves. The talk now was of “Black Power” and a “Black Nation.”
1966 was the year many black activists turned their backs on the long-sought goal of integrated schools. Now lifelong integrationists like the black psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark — whose research on the devastating consequences of separate schooling on the fragile psyches of young black children, had weighed heavily in the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegration ruling — was saying that blacks needed to run their own schools.
Still, Shanker would not be deterred from his lifelong commitment to racial integration. In Harlem the UFT was helping to get a new intermediate school off the ground. Named after Arthur Schomburg, some in the local community took the christening as yet another bigoted slur, figuring this Schomburg fella was no doubt some wealthy German Jew. As it happened Schomburg was black who, despite never rising above a bank clerk, had spent his life amassing a stunning collection of black history.
Shanker and the UFT didn’t know it then but the struggle for IS 201 would be the beginning of the end — indeed the dress rehearsal for what was to come in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville showdown.
What is your favorite movie about a teacher?
Dead Poets Society
Stand and Deliver
Mr. Holland's Opus
Total votes: 292