Remembering Willis Wagons -- 50 years later, civil rights challenges remain

Remembering Willis Wagons -- 50 years later, civil rights challenges remain
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The nation has marked its I Have a Dream moment of history, but now the civil rights anniversary spotlight shines on Chicago, which saw one the largest civil rights demonstrations in its history exactly 50 years ago this week when a one-day boycott kept more than 200,000 students home from school. It was about something called Willis Wagons.

Schools in neighborhoods populated primarily by white students had generally better financing. They also had empty seats that students from poorer schools were anxious to fill. But under the neighborhood school policy of Superintendent of Schools Benjamin Willis, students could not transfer to these better-performing schools. To keep African-American kids in their local schools, Willis instead installed trailers (called Willis Wagons) to create more seats. As a result, students of different races were kept separate. And their educational opportunities remained far from equal.

Despite a number of marches and rallies during the early months of 1963, Willis would not change his policy. Chicago civil rights leaders decided that the only option left was to mount a one-day boycott to demand that the school board fire the superintendent. On Oct. 22, 1963, I recall joining several thousand others in a march that day that circled City Hall and then proceeded to the Board of Education. But Willis and the school board remained intransigent. The civil rights movement organized a second boycott in February, 1964, during which I taught at a Freedom School organized by several churches in Hyde Park to provide "inspirational" instruction for students who had participated in the boycott.

Though this second boycott was less successful, about 100,000 students still stayed away from school. The message was clear: with African American students continuing to pile up in overcrowded schools, the civil rights movement was going to persist in changing both the neighborhood school policy and its architect.

These two boycotts were controversial. I was struck by what I heard teachers say at community meetings. "We spend all our time trying to convince these kids about the importance of school and trying to develop habits of good attendance," said one. "Then the civil rights movement tells them to stay home from school." Another teacher agreed: "Kids should not be used in a power struggle. Let parents express themselves, but don't use children as pawns."

At the same time, the boycotts served to strengthen the ranks of the movement. As historians Alan Anderson and George Pickering wrote in 1987, "The events of 1963 had expanded Chicago's civil rights coalition, and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations had established non-violent, direct action as the norm of the movement and the standard of commitment. Church groups, labor groups, business and professional groups, new-style and old-style civil rights groups, had all made the transition."

After two years of protest, the leaders of the movement believed that a deal had been arranged in 1965 that would give Willis a graceful exit when his contract expired. He was instead reappointed for another term. The NAACP, which previously had remained in the background, proposed daily marches and a third boycott of the schools. But the latter was blocked when the city - with considerable public support -- won an injunction against it.

As the Chicago Teachers Union sponsors several events to mark the 1963 boycott, that 50-year-old challenge remains. Protest can be constructive and can push public officials to confront injustice, but at at the same time protest can inflame and create a backlash that narrows the range for constructive solutions. Looking at the balance sheet for 1963, the boycotts did serve to build a movement, but they did not get rid of Willis Wagons.

These lessons of the 1960s may seem far removed in time, but they speak to the very current issue of how to foster change in a civil society. Whether 50 years ago or today, those in authority must respond to injustice in a timely way. At the same time, those who represent those with grievances must learn how to use the levers of both power and protest with both restraint and wisdom.

We are all still in school.

Robert B McKersie is the author of A Decisive Decade: Inside the Chicago Civil Rights Movement During the 1960s, published by Southern Illinois University Press.
He is Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, MA.

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