Student Protests: Then and Now


From my small corner of the internet, I wanted to add something to the discussion of student protests, especially as it relates to school integration. So, here’s a short post that uses a perhaps obscure history to echo what others have said about Parkland students: keep on kicking ass- America is made better by your courage and clarity.

Many, of course, are familiar with the 1963 Children’s Crusade against segregation in public institutions in Birmingham. A recent Washington Post story compared those events to Parkland, noting: “History shows that kids, with their innocence, honesty and moral urgency, can shame adults into discovering their conscience.” The same is true of protests related to segregation in schools, specifically; however, I fear this history is not as well known. So, while there’s a lot to say about this issue, I want to use this post to just highlight a few prominent examples.

The first is about a school in Farmville, Virginia that was one of the five court cases that eventually become bundled under Brown. Here’s some interesting background from an Atlantic story about the school (which is now a museum):

  • Led by 16 year-old Barbara Johns, black students staged a walkout at Robert Russa Moton High School. A common issue at many segregated black schools, Moton was appallingly overcrowded. The Atlantic article notes: “It had been built for 180 students and they had more than 450. Classes were held in farm buildings and chicken houses” and that “Students had to hold umbrellas when it rained because the roof leaked so badly.” Johns’ organizing efforts are commemorated in a statue in Farmville that reads “it seemed like reaching for the moon.”
  • Although Moton was just one of five schools in Brown, it actually accounted for 75% of the plaintiffs across all the schools, and it was the only one that began with student protest.
  • Another familiar theme: after Brown, the struggle continued. In fact, as part of “massive resistance” to school integration in Virginia, Prince Edward County (home to Farmville) actually closed schools for five years – from 1959-1964. White students went to private schools, and “black students were left largely to fend for themselves, cobbling together educations in church basements and home-school settings.” It took a Supreme Court decision (Griffin vs. School Board of Prince Edward County) to force the schools to reopen.
  • During the time that schools were closed, some students were taken in by host families from out of state, as far as Iowa in this case, to continue their education.

The second example comes from Chicago, nearly a decade after Brown. A few key points about this case:

  • Again, overcrowding was a major issue. Instead of integrating schools, Superintendent Benjamin Willis installed mobile classrooms at black schools, which came to be known as “Willis Wagons.” Common in many overcrowded schools, students in some majority black schools attended school in two half-day shifts.  
  • In addition, black students were still prevented from enrolling in white schools. From a recent Ed Week article (of all places): “Sandra Murray, an African-American woman, recalls her mother successfully enrolling her in a mostly white elementary school around that time. But when it came to high school, the white principal did not want her to enroll, and Murray was steered toward a vocational school, which meant “I was going to be a secretary. And this was crushing.””
  • Known as “Freedom Day,” about 224,000 students boycotted school on October 22, 1963 – virtually all black students and some white students. This led to some changes in explicitly segregationist practices at CPS.
    • This study uses the protests as background to exploring contemporary segregation in Chicago. And, check out “63 Boycott” – it’s a short (30-min) documentary that covers the events from that day. The trailer is below.
  • About four months later, on February 25, 1965, students held “Freedom Day II.” This time, about 175,000 students participated in the boycott, which included a march to city hall. As noted in the article cited above, “Freedom Day II really showed the school board the power of the protest movement, and that it was not going to stop.”
  • Dr. King cited the student protests as part of the reason that he moved his family to Chicago in 1966 to launch the SCLC’s Chicago Freedom Movement.

Then, as now, the students were up against a lot – they took on intensely divisive cultural issues that have always felt impossible to change. They put an honorable notion of freedom (to access high quality education, to not fear gun violence at school) against a distorted, one-sided version. There was concrete policy change, to be sure. Even if it was frustratingly slow and contested, it was important and it made lives better. But, even more than that, there was the example they set- of finding a simple, humane core within the mess of injustice that adults have created.

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