Skip to main content
Full Menu

Allies: The UFT and the civil rights movement

Originally published in New York Teacher, February 18th, 2010

by Susan Amlung

In 1996, New York Teacher reporter Jack Schierenbeck, a gifted writer and labor scholar, undertook to write a series of articles detailing the history of the UFT. The result, “Class Struggles: The UFT Story,” was a vivid and insightful retelling of the union’s origins and early growth. Circumstances caused the series to end prematurely. The narrative below is largely drawn from his last published installment, which appeared in the New York Teacher of Feb. 27, 1997.

Last month, the UFT released a report detailing how some New York City charter schools constitute what is essentially a separate and unequal public school system. This is an issue that should greatly trouble everyone who cares about the education of our children — all our children — and it is an injustice that the UFT is fighting hard to correct.

We have been down similar roads before. Fifty years ago, New York City schools faced the ugly specter of racial division. Some neighborhoods — and subsequently their schools — became increasingly segregated as whites fled the inner cities. A 1955 report documented the stark disparities between schools in different neighborhoods. From class size to building conditions to per-pupil expenditures, minority students were being severely shortchanged.

“Groping for solutions, even half solutions, the Board of Education would periodically offer up a combo salad of carrot and stick,” wrote Schierenbeck in 1997. Those solutions included extra pay, compulsory teacher transfers, open enrollment and a few attempts at busing, most of which were met with fierce resistance.

Schierenbeck went on to write, “The Teachers Guild [had done] 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 brief in the Brown case. Three years later . . . the Guild would honor the NAACP lawyer who litigated Brown, Thurgood Marshall, with the union’s prestigious Dewey award. 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.”

Seeing the need for a diverse teaching force, the Teachers Guild in the mid 1950s pushed the Board of Education to recruit from the South, a plan the UFT revived in 1963 when it recommended the creation of “Teacher to Teacher” recruitment centers in cities such as Atlanta and Washington so candidates could complete paperwork without traveling to New York.

That summer, writes Schierenbeck, “three dozen New York City teachers boarded buses and went to teach in Farmville, Va. The UFT’s [assistant treasurer] Richard Parrish had recruited them to open eight ‘Freedom Schools’ [established when] a number of Virginia counties had bolted shut their public schools rather than comply with an order to desegregate them. … Freedom Schools, funded by the UFT and other Northern liberal organizations, were a stopgap solution. [The teachers] would reprise their roles the following summer in Mississippi.”

Along the way, the UFT was also raising money, which it donated to prominent civil rights groups like the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Better recruiting and raising money, however, would only go so far. Faced with almost universal opposition to forced busing, the UFT proposed substantially upgrading inner-city schools, both to improve the educational outcomes for students in those schools and also to improve integration by attracting families from outside of their districts. At its core, “Effective Schools,” later renamed “More Effective Schools,” was about lowering class sizes, introducing pre-kindergarten and adding staff specialists to work with the students and the community to help “heal the scars of poverty and prejudice. (An attempt to eliminate the MES program would later provoke a UFT strike.)

“By opening day in 1964, however, tensions were only rising,” writes Schierenbeck. “With the strong backing of the UFT leadership, the Board of Education was taking its first small steps toward school integration. . . [But] some white parents were so dead set against the board’s plans that they refused to send their children to a paired [predominantly black] 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. …

“Leading the UFT in this troubled time and undergoing his baptism of fire was its new president, Albert Shanker. At least for the early years of his presidency, no issue more dominated the union’s agenda than civil rights. Throughout his career, Shanker would not be deterred from his lifelong commitment to racial integration.”

On the national front, Shanker and the UFT continued to work and march with civil rights leaders to help strengthen the movement. UFT members raised money to buy station wagons to transport black voters to the polls in Selma, Ala. Shanker, along with Charles Cogen, the first UFT president, and other union officers personally delivered the keys to Martin Luther King Jr. and joined his March on Montgomery to protest the beating of civil rights volunteers.

The UFT was a prominent voice in other causes as well, including: Cesar Chavez’s boycotts against California growers in support of migrant workers, the founding of the A. Philip Randolph Institute to join the labor and civil rights movements and the introduction of a multicultural curriculum in city schools.

Concluded Schierenbeck, “The roles played by teachers, the UFT and its predecessor were all too easily forgotten or dismissed in the wake of the racially divisive 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville confrontation. … Nevertheless, the historical fact remains that city teachers, literally by the thousands, stood against intolerance. From Freedom Riders 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.”

Related content tag