This week in history: Brown v. Board of Education fight continues in Chicago 9 years after landmark ruling

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court released its decision on Brown vs. Board of Education, declaring the “separate but equal” segregation policy unconstitutional. In Chicago, activists kept fighting even after the decision.

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Empty DuSable High School classroom during Freedom Day protests in Chicago

The landmark 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision outlawed segregation in public schools, but in Chicago, segregationist policies remained. In October 1963, civil rights activists staged a massive boycott of the Chicago Public Schools to protest residential segregation policies, which kept Black children in underfunded and overcrowded schools. At DuSable High School in Kenwood, this schoolroom, photographed on Oct. 22, 1963, sat empty.

Photo by Henry Herr Gill/Chicago Sun-Times.

As published in the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times:

On May 17, 1954, the Chicago Daily News, which hit newsstands in the afternoon, published a second edition of the day’s paper, declaring in big, bold type at the top of the page: “High court outlaws school segregation.”

The U.S. Supreme Court released its decision on the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka case, which “declared unanimously that race segregation in the public schools is unconstitutional, and so eventually must end,” a front-page Associated Press report said.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in his opinion that “to separate children solely because of race generates feeling in their hearts and minds which may never be undone.”  

“We conclude,” he said, “that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate education facilities are inherently unequal.”

Though the decision outlawed segregation in public schools, the court “withheld a formal order putting its history-making decision into effect” and scheduled further arguments to decide how the ruling should be carried out, the report said.

As a result, desegregation came slowly (some would argue not at all) to Chicago. Even nine years later, civil rights activists in the city continued to fight Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Benjamin Willis’ residential segregation policies, which kept Black students in small, overcrowded schools where supplies and books remained limited.

In October 1963, activists went “to the mattresses” against Willis and arranged a massive boycott of the school system. On Oct. 22, 176 schools, mostly on the South and West sides, stood empty as 224,770 students stayed home as part of the Freedom Day boycott, according to a Chicago Sun-Times report published the following day.

“Civil rights organizations supporting the boycott immediately termed it ‘effective,’” reporter Ronald Berquist wrote. “They viewed it as the largest demonstration of its kind in the country.”

According to Willis, 51.4% of students in grades one through eight skipped classes, while in high schools, between 38.4% and 49% of the students missed school, although the superintendent refused to clarify how many students participated in the protest versus those who missed school for other reasons.

But Freedom Day called for students to do more than just skip school. That afternoon, the second phase of the demonstration unfolded as over 8,000 protesters marched down LaSalle Street to City Hall and the Board of Education building, Berquist reported.

“The parade slowed traffic almost to a standstill on LaSalle and Lake, where a speaker’s stand was set up,” he wrote. “The presence of the marchers — both white and [Black] and of all ages — slowed traffic generally throughout the Loop.”

The protest garnered national attention, but Willis refused to leave office, although he did step down in 1966 just a few months before his term ended. That same year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. moved his family to Chicago and launched the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s Chicago Freedom Movement. He cited the Freedom Day boycott as his inspiration for the movement.

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