Libbie Shufro was a sophomore at Hyde Park High School in 1963. We filmed her marching in the ’63 Boycott on the South Side, singing and cheering with a group of her classmates. As a student, she gained the admiration of her peers, participating in many protests and demonstrations for school desegregation. Fellow Hyde Parker Barbara Engel remembers her as “an activist and a great dancer and one of my heroes.”
Libbie now lives in Boston, where she directed the Massachusetts Cultural Alliance and Boston Center for the Art. Today, she is the principal of AdLib Consulting where she works with a variety of different organizations to creates social-issue driven arts and education programs. We contacted her through her older brother Joel after she was identified in our footage:
This is my story about the ’63 Boycott.
It actually felt like my whole education at Hyde Park High School was “on strike.” It was a public high school populated by 3,800 students, where 2,000 was supposed to be the maximum. Hyde Park High originally was a college preparatory school that was considered “a model of integration,” but by the time I attended it, it had become a ghetto school that was a “tale of two cities,” with a five track educational system that ensured segregation by race and class. The Blackstone Rangers ruled the roost, and the day it was rumored that the Devil’s Disciples were showing up we all stayed home. Although I may not have acquired a traditional academic “skill set,” I received a terribly important education about institutional racism, which has catalyzed my lifetime of politics and social activism.
Libbie remembers the series of school boycotts that began with the 1963 Boycott:
When the ’63 Chicago Boycott was called, me and my schoolmates were on the frontlines to protest Superintendent Ben Wills and de facto segregated education. I attended the protest with my friends and my mom. A mass of people 200,000 strong congregated on Michigan Avenue, which we moved down en masse. When confronted by the police, we followed the intentional strategy of sitting down and going ‘limp’ in passive resistance. Which led to being arrested. In 1965, I was carried out by four policemen, one on each arm and leg, and thrown in the paddywagon.
Photo of Libbie being arrested in 1965, Chicago Daily News
When brought to the police station, we all chose not to give our own names but to use the collective name of “Ben Willis” to keep the focus on the issue. This created havoc and jammed their system, because as we were underage they couldn’t actually put us in jail, but they also couldn’t release us until we were each identified by our parents.
I remember being quite proud when the juvenile delinquent officer visited my parents at home the next week to check up on me and to let them know of the seriousness of my crime. I was proud when my parents made it very clear that they supported me in my efforts, and that there are times when the law should be broken in the pursuit of justice. Go Mom and Dad!
Libbie’s brother older Joel added to her account of the arrest:
The story goes, and my sister could tell it better than most, that my mother and sister were marching down the Outer Drive and the police stopped them. They sat down and the police started to arrest people. Just as they got to my mother, she said, “I can’t get arrested. I have company coming tonight,” and she jumped up, giving my sister permission to get arrested. After she was released, I remember a member of the police department coming to our house to tell us that my sister had been arrested and warning my parents about her behavior. I remember my parents telling the police officer that they were proud of their daughter and would support her if she were to do it again. The officer was a little flustered and taken aback.
The ’63 Boycott was a big event in a series of many school protests that was hand-in-hand supported by local and national civil rights leaders. Given what I read about the policies and status of Chicago Public Schools today, I don’t know what impact we actually had, but it felt totally important to let our voices be heard.
After graduating from Hyde Park, I attended the University of Wisconsin where I continued my education “on strike.” In these years, the protest was on the war in Vietnam, and the campus was truly a hot bed of activism. Students also held a sympathy boycott of classes for a week in support of the Teaching Associates (my brother Joel being one of them), who were not given fair working conditions.
With a BA in Latin American Studies and an MA in Education I went back to Chicago working as a teacher in bilingual education in the northern suburbs, where there was a concentration of migrant farmworkers. I taught a bilingual classroom that spanned 1st through 6th grade. My first day on the job, the teachers went on strike! I of course joined them, later bringing Teatro del Barrio, the Farmworkers Theater, for a residency in the school where I worked.
After several years as a teacher, curriculum developer and organizer for Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers movement, I went to Boston where I began to unfold a career that always had a core agenda of connecting arts, education and community development. My first job was as the Arts Coordinator of the Media/Arts Program at EdCO (Educational Collaborative of Greater Boston), where we taught the arts and media to diverse high schools students (in neutral territory) as a means to introduce them to the professional dimensions of arts and media while addressing the racism that erupted in 1975 over busing and the court-ordered desegregation of the Boston Public Schools.
The ‘63 Boycott was a very formative experience in rooting my lifelong belief in the “power of the people” to tap into their individual and collective potential to create positive community change. Arts, culture and education have been my tools of the trade.
Thank you for making this documentary to support those teachers, students and community members who are keeping the critical struggle for quality education alive in public school.
Libbie Shufro today