Brown at 66: Looking past COVID with Milton Galamison

I’ve been aching to write something about the virus, quarantine and racial justice in education. It’s been tough, though. It’s tough to find a unique way into an issue that has clearly important, yet well-covered headlines- stories about things like racial disparities in access to online learning or about how school closures have raised even more attention to the vital things that schools do beyond teaching math and reading. I’m sure readers are familiar with other examples. I’m happy to read and share these stories, but I’m not sure how or if I can add to them. 

It’s been tough for another, much more personal and hopeful reason: My son was born into this complicated world about one month ago, giving our lives a calm/joyful center amidst the swirling chaos around us. (To be sure, that center isn’t always calm.) His birth has sustained a feeling of hope in me during a time where that’s been hard to find. 

Despite their differences, quarantine and our new baby have inspired a lot of reflection about my purpose in doing this work and about the kind of educational system I’d like to see in the future. Yet, of course, neither provide any real time to write about it; so, this post is just an initial step in that direction. I’ve found myself wanting to rediscover/renew my reasons for working towards real school integration. At the same time and maybe for the same reasons, I’ve found myself enamored with the integration advocacy of Rev. Milton A. Galamison

If you don’t know that name, you’re certainly not alone. Despite playing a major role in 1960’s era NYC school integration organizing, there appears to be little explicit mention of his legacy in the contemporary integration movement. In addition to the literal power of his voice and arguments for integration, there’s this additional layer of his disappearance from educational justice history that adds an intriguing mystery to his appeal. I write more about that below, but, first, here are a few key points from his biography, as pulled from “Justice, Justice” by Daniel Perlstein:

Source: Wikipedia

Background to that:

  • Galamison was a Reverend at the Siloam Presbetyrian Church in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he hosted Brooklyn NAACP rallies for resources in nearly all Black schools in the late 1950’s.  
  • In 1958, he became the NAACP Brooklyn Branch President, though he resigned a year later due to “conflict with NAACP moderates” who pushed for a more gradual approach to NYC school desegregation.
  • In 1959, he co-founded the Parents’ Workshop for Equality in New York City Schools, along with Annie Stein, a long-time civil rights organizer. The Parents’ Workshop was progressive in more ways than one. In addition to “[trumpting] the academic, social and political benefits of integration,” it was unique in civil rights organizations of that era in “[encouraging] women to take on leadership roles” and “[endowing] motherhood with a radical civic purpose.”
  • In 1963, he became President of the Citywide Committee for Integrated Schools, which included the NAACP, Congress for Racial Equality, and Harlem Parents’ Committee along with Galamison’s Parents’ Workshop. In fact, he’s pictured in that role in a very recent NYT article, though, fittingly, the caption does not identify him by name.
  • When the city’s Board of Education failed to develop an integration plan and timetable for a December 1963 deadline, Galamison began working with Bayard Rustin to plan the Freedom Day boycott. 
  • He led subsequent boycotts in March 1964 and the Spring of 1965, but, at that point, the force of the movement had become blunted by opposition from white liberals. 
  • If you listened to the School Colors podcast, you might remember that disillusionment with integration led civil rights advocates to push instead for community control. (And, if you haven’t listened to School Colors, you really should.) Galamison was elected President of the Peoples’ Board of Education after its famous 3-day sit-in at the city Board of Education.
  • In June 1968, Galamison was appointed to the city’s Board of Education, where he served for just one year before losing a reelection bid in 1969. He remained a pastor at Siloam until he passed in 1988.

So, that’s a lot, during an intensely pivotal time for NYC school segregation. Yet, it’s hard to find much writing about Galamison. In addition to the chapter in “Justice, Justice,” Clarence Taylor published a biography in 1997, and there are excerpts in other books and on random websites. He’s also included in this great Civics for All comic book series designed for Middle School students (see pg. 9).

Audio is even harder to come by, which is a particular shame given his unique skill as a messenger for holistic, culturally-affirming school integration. So far, I’ve been able to track down about 3 hours of recordings across 2 main sources- a March 1964 speech at the New School for Social Research and an interview with poet Robert Penn Warren in June 1964. In the last few weeks, usually while holding a sleeping baby, I’ve listened to both. Here are some highlights, organized roughly by theme:

I’ll start with one of my favorites. You can listen to Galamison deliver this line in a short clip at the embedded tweet, and I highly recommend that you do that.

“Those who contend that the neighborhood school policy must be perpetuated because it is tradition are arguing that things must always be this way because things have always been this way. It is custom starving truth and blind bigotry beating with its staff the little child who might have led us along a better way.”

On the purpose of integration

  • “We also need an integrated school system to protect white children from the arrogances & the racial supremacy feelings that they are inclined to feel.” 
  • “With segregated education, both White and Negro children are crippled emotionally, mentally, and irreparably. Segregated education both undermines our democratic way of life at present and impairs the possibility for democratic living in the future.”

Galamison never talks about integration in that one-dimensional, one-directional way that implies it is merely a way of saving students of color from “bad” schools. Instead, he emphasizes educational opportunities for students of color alongside social benefits for all students, guided by a vision of schools as preparation for democratic citizenship. He pushed aggressively for two-way transfer policies in NYC, for example. All of this is nearly a decade before Thurgood Marshall summed up a similar sentiment in his Milliken dissent, famously saying that “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”

On integration vs. assimilation

  • “Integration, on the other hand, may not mean assimilation and loss of identity and this is what I think negro people are trying to make clear. That negro people don’t want to feel that they have to completely lose their identity to the degree that there is a cultural difference or a color difference.”
  • “If complete assimilation means losing our identity, then this we will never do as a people.”

On this, his advocacy echoes that of Black educators who took an additive approach to integration, seeing it as building on the culturally affirming pedagogical practices that were common in majority Black schools. Vanessa Siddle Walker recently discussed this on a fantastic panel hosted by the National Coalition on School Diversity

On white liberals and political activism

  • “The Northern White has, at last, been forced to look at himself. He does not like what he sees. And in spite of rationalizations about de facto segregation as over against de jure, and countless rehearsed responses to explain away his guilt, the Northern White stands in our city today condemned by his own conscience.”
  • “I happen to be one of the people who feels that this struggle will not and cannot be won without the active participation of white people.”
  • “White people who get in the struggle must bring their cooperation but… they must not try to take over… or fall back on these same old patterns of missionary-ism.”

Integrated Schools is a leader in discussing the moral imperative on white people to work towards integration without becoming colonizers in communities of color. Galamison very clearly saw the importance of this work from all the way back in 1963. Similarly, his challenges to and critiques of white liberals hold up rather strongly today. 

So, at first, I thought- how could someone with this record be forgotten? Someone who literally moved hundreds of thousands of people on a frigidly cold day to protest segregation, who promoted a multi-dimensional vision of school integration that included consideration of white student integration into communities of color and who pushed white liberals to live their stated values. Then, I realized- of course, this is exactly why he’s been forgotten, or more accurately, pushed to the margins of history.

One-dimensional views of desegregation have always served segregationists. Oversimplified narratives of “bad” schools allowed, and very much continue to allow, white families to avoid any sense of complicity in school segregation or any urgency to do something real – to put “skin in the game” – to make things better. As Galamison argued more than a half-century ago (!), holistic integration requires holistic participation, which, though tough, ultimately benefits all in the form of a more harmonious multicultural democracy. Good heavens, we need it.

Each anniversary of Brown is an opportunity to reflect on progress and challenges in the struggle for school integration and to think about how to most effectively move forward. The same is true this year, though it comes with an added weight that no one expected: the depth of inequity exposed by the coronavirus and widespread recognition (for better or worse) of the need to revise what was considered “normal” before the virus. 

I don’t think we can go forward toward a racially just future without the giants who made the arguments and charted the moral grounds long before us. To give one major example, Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC, youth organizing groups in NYC, planned a 2020 version of the Freedom Day boycott, aiming for more than a half-million students, that would have been held today if not for the virus. As this effort illustrates, contemporary advocacy has more gravity when connected to the leaders and events from an earlier era, which, I fear, is exactly why we’ve been severed from this past. (See also: Barbara Johns, a student activist who, at age 16, led a strike that became one of the cases bundled under the Brown decision.)

We need to bring it back, especially now. As a sort of COVID-inspired passion project, I’m going to continue looking for writing about Galamison and especially any audio. I’ve gotten a few good leads from people on twitter. If readers have any suggestions, please feel free to use comments or to DM me. I’m also particularly curious to hear from any readers in NYC- writing from Boston, it’s hard for me to know if Galamison’s legacy is more vibrant in his home city. I’d love to hear any thoughts/feedback on that. Will write any updates in a future post.

One thought on “Brown at 66: Looking past COVID with Milton Galamison

  1. Pingback: COVID-19 Resources « The National Coalition on School Diversity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s