The Death and Life of Black Voice in the American Public School

In 2014, Citizen Stewart wrote about an event that deserves much attention. This morning, David Hardy pointed out that we are nearing the 50th anniversary of this event and well worthy of revisiting it and learning from one battle in our ongoing struggle.

If you want to find the apex of hope for true black voice in the American public school, it can be located in New York between 1967 and 1970.

The famous battle for community control of public schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville is a historic demarcation point. Before then it seemed eventual control of black education by black communities was possible. Afterward, less so. That struggle answered the question of how much black power would be tolerated to determine the structures of black schooling.

At issue were 8 schools in a small New York school district . They were emblematic of failed integration, labor, educational, and economic policies. Geographically, Ocean Hill-Brownsville was a purposefully constructed ghetto that for generations had been the lowest point of the American social and economic totem. Many immigrants started their American lives there before they worked their way into probationary white status and further down the train tracks.

Left behind were black and brown people who lacked the appropriate pigment for ascendancy through the common avenues of opportunity. They were people who were struggling, but not despairing. The cathartic black power movement was casting a vision for transcending the limits of racialized urban structures, and achieving political and social freedom through the reconceiving of major institutions – with education being an opportune target.

The New York elite were promoting integration with a strong moral tone. Still, they realized that integration of public schools was a faulty dream for many communities. In theory desegregating racially isolated schools and integrating white well-resourced schools was a fitting pursuit. In practice in was politically and socially unrealistic. Government and business leaders had to contend with the many obstacles to implementing integration strategies. In doing so they set the stage for rethinking school governance in ghetto districts, especially in places where the power of integration was more mythical than real. Philanthropic foundations and New Left radicals aligned themselves with black and brown community members to spur advocacy of community-control of schools as a source of social, political, and educational empowerment through authentic participatory democracy.

That was the context Charles Isaacs stepped into in 1968. He was a white first-year law student at the University of Chicago who was recruited to teach math at J.H.S. 271in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district. Much like today’s Teach For America corps members he was young, educated, white, progressive, and in for a challenge for which he was barely prepared.

J.H.S 271 was a school in the eye of a storm. It was an ornament for the legislative push for public school “decentralization,” and for advocacy of community control of public schools at the grassroots. A “demonstration project” had established the basis for community-controlled schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The community itself had taken things a step further by canvassing their neighbors, designing and executing an election, and electing their own representatives to form a governing board.

On Issacs’ first day, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) began striking. No one could have known the enormous consequences that would come from that strike and the ones that followed on its heels. No one could have known that it would change everything in American education politics.

The UFT saw community-control as a threat to their ownership of the teaching profession, and the jobs they coveted. But that wasn’t what caused their initial strike. They were fighting for the right of any teacher to suspend any student they “deemed disruptive.” School discipline was – and remained – an issue that teachers and their union contested in a way that would seem downright illiberal today.

The strike which gave birth to modern teacher unionism was in part for the right to grant arbitrary power to white teachers in non-white schools. It didn’t matter that teachers, district leaders, and community members knew the outcome of granting teachers the power to expel was impacting mostly black boys.

To many observers white teachers held culturally backwards views about matters of discipline. And many were arrogantly hostile to the idea of community control, fearing the community to be too incompetent to govern education for themselves.

On the other end of the tension community members were sick and tired of being sick and tired. They were emboldened by the revolutionary moment of the times. The wanted self-rule.

Black Power, White Teachers

Isaacs says the shot heard around New York came when the black community’s elected governing body made the decision to transfer 13 white UFT teachers and 6 supervisors out of the district. These teachers were presumed to be saboteurs opposed to community control. Though teachers were transferred in and out of districts without much fanfare, this occurrence provided lots of racialized opportunity to exploit. The UFT president, Al Shanker, cried “foul” on the transfers and said the teachers were being denied due process. He seized on the issue to rally white teachers and white labor organizations.

Out went the call for teachers in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district to walk out.

350 out of 500 did.

Without missing a beat, perhaps realizing a rare opportunity, the community governing board eagerly worked through the summer to replace the teachers who had abandoned their classrooms. They found teacher candidates, including Isaacs, expressing interest from across the country. Some attracted by the promise of a draft deferment. Others by the opportunity to act on their radical politics. Still others appreciated the possibility of really teaching and making a difference in a blighted urban setting where people of color were fighting for their right to be educated on their own terms.

The black and brown community had a heightened sense of self-determination and they were enjoying the power to claim responsibility for the educational apparatus that had failed them. This was a new and unpredictable power, which stoked fears and provided perfect kindling for the UFT to burn down the fragile construction of community-control, especially in a place where the community was not white.

Eventually, the UFT closed down the city schools, impacting over 1 million students. This was the proverbial nuclear option, and its use indicates how large a threat community control posed for UFT.

Through it all, J.H.S. 271 in Ocean Hill-Brownsville remained open for it’s 1,735 students (90% black, 10% Puerto Rican). Inside the school there was radical anticipation of something completely different among the teachers, students, and the makeshift processes they constructed together.

62 teachers worked in solidarity with their students. More than half were new. 43 of them would be in classrooms for first time. The UFT teachers had not been helpful in the transition. Isaacs noticed the UFT teachers took keys, roll books, and “made a mess of children’s records. It highlighted their brand of political teacher unionism, and how it can be divorced from professionalism or student centricity.

On that first morning students were called into an 8th grade assembly in the auditorium. Al Vann, president of the African American Teachers Association, flanked by a small contingent of black teachers standing tall in dashikis, had a message for them.

He said:

We are engaged in a fight for survival….the survival of the black race, or our race, of our people. We must make it as a race. And we cannot survive in this country without some very necessary skills. All kinds of skills so we can get good jobs to help serve our people. We need the skills we can learn right here at [public school] 271. Math, science, reading, typing. To survive and prosper as a race of people we need all these skills. Now, to get these skills for survival you must respect and listen to your teachers, all your teachers be they black or white. However, if they don’t respect you, if we find they can’t do the job, there’ll be some changes made. Now remember, give your teachers – and many of them are new – give them a chance. If you do find yourself in a dispute with a teacher and you’re in the right we’ll defend you. You can depend on that.

Strike One

Settlement of the first strike required reimposition of 310 teachers, including all 17 that had abandoned J.H.S. 271. The day these teachers returned there were 3,000 police officers, 150 of them in plain clothes. According to Isaacs there were also helicopters hovering and sharpshooters stationed on the roofs. Over 100 parents and community members were guarding the door because they didn’t want the teachers back. Police in riot gear charged community members to get the small group of teachers in the building. There was a short bloody skirmish. Officers arrested parents, including a pregnant woman who was dragged to the paddy wagon. The violence ended when Black Panthers lined up in a peaceful, but visible formation across the street.

Inside J.H.S. 271staff set up an elected steering committee to run their school. At first the rules for election to the committee were by majority vote. But black teachers wanted equal representation by race even though they made up a third of the teacher population. A member of the African American Teachers Association named Les Campbell made the argument “if the white majority of this faculty decides who will represent the black teachers in the midst of this struggle for community control and self-determination…271 will be taking a huge step backwards in the fight for social justice.” Isaacs says Campbell’s framing of the issue in those terms put it “in an international anti-colonial context.” For radicals at that time, white and black, that would resonate.

Campbell’s argument prevailed. The black caucus would elect three delegates and the white teachers would elect the rest. Setting up the steering committee this way created a rare peace. In Isaacs’ mind it created a trusting environment of honest interracial collaboration and co-leadership.

Strike Two

Sadly, the progressive educational environment created by radical educators, active parents, and enlivened students in J.H.S 271 would be short lived. Settlement of the second UFT strike brought uncooperative UFT teachers back to the district. This time there were 850 police escorting them with a barricade so tight it even prevented parents from taking their children into the school. Many of them took their kids home rather than enter them into a hostile learning environment.

Isaacs recalls the returning UFT teachers as being “generally obnoxious.” He says they made little effort to actually teach. Their UFT chairman stayed out of the classroom, spending his time writing up over 60 grievances he planned to file. One teacher clocked in and then left his class unattended for two hours. They did all they could to provoke the progressive teachers. It worked, somewhat. In a cathartic moment the progressives read a statement over the PA system urging revolution. Then they lead a march out of the building and into the streets. They were followed by students. Parents and community members join along the way. The crowd grew so large that it shut down several other schools in the area.

Strike Three

For the final strike, Shanker decided to go big. He took all the teachers out and held 1 million kids hostage to his demands. Sympathetic white New Yorkers who supported the black community’s yearning for the same parental and governance power that others enjoyed were bound to change their minds once their own children were inconvenienced.

This time Shanker’s conditions were clear. He wanted the black leaders of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration district fired. He wanted the elected community board disbanded. And he wanted the experiment with community control of public schools ended.

In what Isaacs calls a “brilliantly cynical strategic move,” Shanker appealed to the fears of whites and Jews by poising his battle as being the “vanguard of fighting black anti-semitism.” In a speech to an all-white audience in Houston Shaker claimed that white teachers were having their lives threatened if they didn’t leave their jobs. He said schools nationally were in danger of being taken over by black militants. If they were allowed to take over in New York, how long would it be before the same thing happened in other cities across America?

I.F. Stone, the famous investigative journalist wrote about his visit to :

To visit the black-controlled schools which have stirred such forebodings on both sides of hte controversy is like waking from a nightmare. I spent Friday, Octorber 25, in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district, observing classes and talking with teachers and princiapls in the JHS 271 and its intermediate school neighbor, IS 55, and the vist was therapeutic…I found black and white teachers, Jewish and gentile, working together not just peacefully but with zest and comradeship. The cleanliness and the neat clothing of the children reflected well on the homes from which they came. The classes were orderly…the hallway blackboard had “Black Is Beautiful” written not only in French and Spanish but in Greek, Hebrew, Punjabi, Swahili, Arabic and Esperanto.

He also addressed Shanker’s claims of fighting black anti-semitism:

The teachers’ union is moving closer to the benighted old-line A.F.L. craft unions. A formidable anti-black coalition is shaping up…The teachers’ union is exaggerating, amplifying and circulating any bit of anti-Semitic drivel it can pick up from any far-out black extremist, however unrepresentative, and using this to drive the Jewish community of New York into a panic. Albert Shanker and the teachers’ union are exploiting natural Jewish fears of anti-Semitism in order to win the community’s support for the strike and for its major objective, which is to prevent effective decentralization and community control of the school system.

And, about Shanker’s cry of “due process” for white teachers, Stone wrote:

The child, whether black or white, seems to be the forgotten bystander in the teachers’ striek. the union’s rallying cry is “due process,” i.e., for the teachers, and its concern is their tenure. Its alliance is not with the parents for better education but with the employing bureaucracy for the maintenance of their common privileges. The “due process” issue they have raised is a monumental bit of hyporcrisy. The best anaylsis of it may be found in the report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, The Burden of Blame. The unsatisfactory teachers were transferred, not discharged, and transfer normally are made without hearing or charges; the teachers prefer it that way to keep their records free from blemish.

The Death of Black Voice, the Birth of Teacher Unionism

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle for community control and democracy in education should be spoken of in the way historians speak of Gettysburg, or Stonewall, or Kent State. It is a story with haunting implications. It was a $7.8 billion strike against black communal power in education, and an affront to our 400 year petition for material freedom to self-govern. And, it gave celebrity and gainful power to teacher unionism. Unlike the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the results here were more like the end of reconstruction when hope for true liberty was diminished, and instead, a faux-freedom was offered as its consolation.

The UFT, Mayor, State Commissioner, Board of Regents, and all the figures of white power compromised with each on how to handle the negro problem, which sealed the defeat of the community control movement. UFT teachers came back and took over. The community elected governing board was stripped of power. The district was put into state receivership. Black teachers were suspended. The UFT teachers who went on illegal strikes were paid all lost wages.

Revisionist will band together in their discounting of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle for educational justice and social freedom. They will remember it as that time white people tried to let black people be independent and it just didn’t work out. A long line of apologists with names like Kahlenberg, Ravitch, and Shanker will litter the record with revisionist portraits that paint teacher unionists as white saints, and denounce black parents and community members as mere “militants.” They will raise the flag over the “great American school” and appraise it as an amazing producer of equity for all. Much like the glazed over zealous patriots of any flawed nation they will miss the beam in their own eye, yet amplify the speck in the black and brown eyes that were only looking for justice but only found yet another expression of impregnable, indomitable white power.

But we should not be fooled. There is no substitute for self-determination in the systems that have hold of our children’s intellectual development.

That is our hill to die on.

More resources:

“Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for Equity” by Jonna Perrillo
“The Strike That Changed New York” by Jerald Podair



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