Stories and memories of the '63 Boycott from participants themselves.
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’63 Boycott World Premiere

On October 22nd, 2017, the 54th anniversary of the great Chicago School boycott, we premiered ’63 Boycott to a sold-out audience at Chicago International Film Festival. Six of the film subjects came up after the screening to share their thoughts on the film and reflections on the importance of seeing this story told.

The day before, more than 200 people had packed into the pews of Rainbow Push Headquarters to see the film the day before its official festival premiere. The remaining four living subjects of the film who had need been present on Sunday, were at the Saturday screening. They came onto stage after the screening, along with Jitu Brown of the Journey for Justice national coalition, and moderator Jay Travis, to speak about the segregation and inequality that led to the boycott, and the similar issues plaguing public education today. A video of the panel is available here.

While the premiere weekend is over, distribution of the film is just in the beginning stages. We are currently fundraising to develop a curriculum, and robust outreach strategy. If you would like to be involved, or would like to screen the film, please contact us.

Dianne Dickson and father, Joseph S. Dickson in Kenwood

Dianne Dickson’s father, Joseph S. Dickson, moved his family to Chicago the summer of 1963. Their family moved so that Mr. Dickson could become the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kenwood. As the family settled in, they immediately became aware of the racial segregation and inequality plaguing the city. Experts at the time estimated that the condition of the black population in the 1960’s in Chicago was analogous to that of whites in the Great Depression twenty five  years earlier (EducationPublicTrust_3099).

Arriving to Chicago at the height of resistance to Mayor Daley and Superintendent Benjamin Willis, Joseph S. Dickson could not stand idle. In “Why We March: Race And Schools in Another Perspective,” an essay on the corruption of Chicago’s education system and the resistance coming to fruition, Mr. Dickson wrote: “it needs to be said that despite the legal victories in the courts, and despite the moral victories in the lunch counters and on the buses… the actual benefits have touched relatively few black folks, particularly in northern metropolises.”

Dianne sent us a stack of archival materials from her father’s collection, some of which have been used in our film. Information included in the boxes spanned from Civil Rights violations, newspaper snippets, and letters to the Chicago Board of Education from the Kenwood-Shoesmith PTA (Parent Teachers Association), which Joseph Dickson was the President of at the time.   

A few highlights from their documents:   

In 1962, the United States Civil Rights Commission said that Chicago Public Schools were “an example of rank de facto segregation in the northern metropolises.”

According to the US Civil Rights Commission, roughly 90% of black elementary students and 63% of black high school students attended over 90% black schools.  All while Willis was allocating significant funding (Chicago was one of the metropolitan cities that spent the most on education) on projects that weren’t helping black students.

In “Why We March: Race And Schools in Another Perspective”, Dickson measures the dropout rate at 35% in black neighborhoods. Which means 1 in 3 black students were not receiving high school diplomas in 1965.

As a result, Chicago organizers, parents, and students demanded Mayor Daley to follow suite and the resignation of superintendent Benjamin Willis.

My Mother’s Fight for Education Rights: The Story of Jean Birkenstein Washington


Robin picketing and holding a poster his mother, Jean Birkenstein Washington, designed

Robin picketing and holding a poster his mother, Jean Birkenstein Washington, designed

Growing up in the early 1960s, Robin Washington — now a daily newspaper editor and columnist and a producer — participated in sit-ins and marches around Chicago even as a toddler. He was born into a family of Civil Rights activists whose stories he continues to tell. Most notably, Robin has kept meticulous documents chronicling the story and legacy of his mother, Jean.

Jean Birkenstein Washington was a high school teacher who was an activist with Chicago CORE and the NAACP in the late 50’s and early 60’s. As a teacher, she worked at Marshall High School and later Roosevelt High School. While she was teaching at Marshall, her story made it to the weekly magazine Jet, which reported that “word spread around Marshall High School that [Jean] helped CORE stage

Robin: “a CORE handbook in 1963 that has [Jean’s] artwork all over it (and was likely produced on her mimeograph)”

Robin: “a CORE handbook in 1963 that has [Jean’s] artwork all over it (and was likely produced on her mimeograph)”

pro-Negro picketing at the Republican Convention and the Board of Education.” Indeed, Jean co-led the July 1963 sit-in at the Board of Education. When she and other protesters were forcibly removed from the building, others joined in to support them by picketing outside the building. In fact, the 1963 CORE Handbook is illustrated with her artwork!

Some of the picketers who joined Jean outside the Board of Education were Marshall High School students. Hoping to find ways to encourage other students to join the picket lines, Jean invited these students to her home and began to form a relationship with them. These students turned out to be members of two teenage gangs, the Egyptian Cobras and the Vice Lords.

Jean became a friend to these boys through their gatherings at her home. As Jet reported, “Gang members confided in her”; she helped them to find legal aid and answered their calls when their parents wouldn’t. When one Vice Lord was arrested and jailed for purse-snatching, she visited him 5 times and loaned him $10.

Jean would later appear at the Board of Education again, not as a protester, but to plead for these two teenage gangs. Though her testimony was dismissed, Jet reported on the argument she made there: “When a Vice Lord or Egyptian Cobra or member of any other gang or individual Negro teen-ager commits robbery or assault or rape or murder, do not be appalled. Go to the mirror and look, and then go to your clean beds and try to sleep.”

A copy of the “Integrated Education” publication by Teachers for Integrated Schools

A copy of the “Integrated Education” publication by Teachers for Integrated Schools

Jean played a role in the success of many different groups. She was a co-founder of Teachers for Integrated Schools, a group run out of her own home which was founded in 1961. TFIS had over 300 members at its peak. They published their own journal, “Integrated Education,” the purpose of which was to connect with civil rights groups in Chicago and with teachers across the nation.

In her role as a member of Teachers for Integrated Schools, she helped to form the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), along with many other Chicago groups fighting for racial equality and justice, especially in the schools — groups whose activism helped to bring Martin Luther King, Jr’s. Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Chicago. Despite her constant activity within civil rights organizations, her son Robin notes that “as a teacher, she was in danger of being fired, so she kept as low a profile as possible, even though she was a leader of the movement.” Yet paradoxically, she was devoted to creating a high profile for the organizations she was a part of.

Fear of losing her job was not the only reason that Jean avoided the limelight. She and her

A cover of “Integrated Education”

A cover of “Integrated Education”

colleagues would hold multiple positions in the different organizations that made up the CCCO, resulting in an apparently large group that was actually an amalgamation of different arrangements of the same small group of people. Robin wrote that this was “a trick that she and others – mostly the women, who ran the movement behind the scenes – did to make themselves look more formidable than they really were. Jean would, for instance, be Housing Chairman of CORE and Education Chairman of NAACP. Conversely, Faith Rich […] assumed the opposite roles. Likewise, they would sometimes use their maiden names and other times their married names. A joke for those who knew what they were doing was that the CCCO was really a coalition of several groups of the same people. But the authorities didn’t know that.”

Jean’s story is still known today because of recollections like these from Robin Washington. His collection of old documents and photos keeps Jean’s story alive. If you have stories from the movement to desegregate education in 1963, share them with us here and we’ll publish them.

Post written by Kartemquin Films intern Mimi Wilcox.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 1963 Chicago School Boycott

While Martin Luther King, Jr. did not arrive to Chicago to organize until 1966, almost three years after the Great Chicago School Boycott, we know he met with some of the key organizers of the boycott in Chicago and was very influenced by the work that they had done prior to his arrival.

Rosie simpson and MLK copy

Boycott parent organizer Rosie Simpson meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago









On July 10, 1966, at a Chicago Freedom Movement Rally, King said in his speech:

We are tired of inferior, segregated, and overcrowded schools which are incapable of preparing our young people for leadership and security in this technological age.

In 1966, a young student named Paulette called into WVON to talk about the day when she and her friend Bobby Johnson boycotted school to protest segregation and inequality in schools. Later, her private school friends, asked her what she accomplished, and she started to doubt herself.  This is Martin Luther King’s response to her, where he details why what Chicago did in 1963, and in the subsequent boycotts, was so important:

To listen to 4-minute clip that includes Paulette’s lengthy question, you can here.


Medill Elementary School Search

While for most people, it’s really hard to remember much about fifty years ago, some people have a gift. Recently, Derrick Brown was on our website and identified at least eleven students he knew from his neighborhood growing up, all of whom attended Medill Elementary on the near west side and participated in the 1963 boycott of Chicago Public Schools.  v03_frontDerrick identified Curtis Morgan, his brother Maurice Morgan, Carolyn Stewart, Berenice Hatchett, Ceola Hatchett, Irish Hatchett, Linda Townsend, Gwen Anderson Jones, Evelyn Chapelle Spike, Arnold Lecey and his little brother Loaf of Bread Head Lecey.  If you know how to locate any of these people, or have memories of any of these people, or others, please let us know. There may be more identifiable students from Medill, and other schools we don’t know about. Check here to look. For an official lists of schools that participated in the boycott, check School by School Boycott Participation.

Here is the video of the Medill kids singing:

In 2009, Medill Elementary School closed due to low enrollment. All that remains is a facebook page. The building later opened up again as Chicago Academy for Advanced Technology High School, a contract school.


Thoughts from Boycott 1963: Sandra A. Murray

“I can remember a bit about the boycott but it has been a long time. My mother, Muggie Murray, was the driving force for us marching and she pushed us to be concerned about our education and to strive to do our own personal best. That is my younger sister Charlette Murray marching with my mother and me. Sandra Murray

Recently, when going to meet with the chairman of my department here in the school of medicine, I took with me a photo of my mother, sister and me marching. I had the picture, to remind me of the woman, Muggie, who taught me, by example, to stand up for what was correct, to not fear the opposition and to ignore the odds. I thought to myself as I spoke with the chairman, I have stood, marched and confronted while walking in the shadow of my mother and look at the results (product of the Chicago Public School system, first woman of color to obtain tenure and to achieve full professor rank in the University of Pitt School of Medicine). I think the conversation would have gone very differently if I had not been reminded of my past and been ready to bring out my marching shoes, once again. I thank you and your project members for reminding me of marching with Muggie and Charlette on that warm day in Chicago.

I wanted to boycott school and march but was also worried about my perfect attendance record (I wanted recognition at the graduation for perfect attendance). My missing a day would not be a problem but there were students in the class who were going to penalized for missing another day of class (I remember another student telling me that the Home Room teacher called his parent on Freedom day). There was a feeling that their would be retaliation for some for not attending school on the day of the march.

My parents were upset with the unequal treatment of colored (the term would change later) children by the education and medical system of not only Chicago but of the country. There was no question that my mother would march and that we (my sister Charlette and I) would be with her. My father would go to work but he was talking the boycott up to those who would listen. He was on his “soapbox.”

I was young but already knew that the books going to the Black students were old and used (many times written in and pages missing) while those going to the white students were new. I knew that at some schools the class size was small and that students got individual attention while at other schools resources were limited, classes were crowded and advice or individual help was hard to come by and not always good.

When I started high school, I was in the College Prep path. I wanted to be a research scientist. I therefore went to the school counselor/adviser and asked permission to take Latin (someone told me Latin was needed if you were going into science). The adviser became very upset and said ” I am tired of you people coming in here with your high ideas, after all you are colored and a girl…”. This ended with her taking me out of the College Prep path and putting me in to Basic Business Training path, where I would train to become a secretary. I was hurt by her comments but more hurt because I was no longer college bound and was instead learning to type (note: this would come in handy when the computers hit big some 40 years later), file and oh well – I never learned shorthand. I would be in the basic business training path for a year before I could sneak back into College Prep. Perhaps, I would have thought her (and other such) comments correct. Perhaps, I would have completed high school in the basic business training path. Perhaps, I would have not struggled but instead gone the path of least resistance… But hearing my father’s discussions of rights, boycotting, resisting, and marching with Muggie (my mother), to join the ocean of individuals all united in the belief that education was important and that kids, who looked like me, deserved to receive the same opportunities as all others, made an impact.

Boycott Day
I think we met in front of St Matthew’s Methodist Church on Oak and Orleans on the Northside of Chicago the day of the march. It was warm. We had dressed up for the march, my mother in a wool suit (not necessarily the best marching outfit). I had put on my pearls (fake of course) and my sister’s braids were freshly done.

The walk from St Matthew’s toward downtown was fun. I was yelling “Ben Willis must go” at the top of my voice. There were workers coming out of places we were walking by waving and cheering us on (especially the cooks who stood and watched). I remember going by Moody Bible on LaSalle St. and many people standing and watching.

I saw people from the neighborhood who I knew and I smiled and waved between chanting, “Ben Willis must go/ 2,4,6, 8 we don’t want…”. I was in an upbeat mood. I was safe and happy marching in my mother’s shadow.

However, once we approached downtown, the meaning of the march and boycott and the need for change became focused and clear. The mood of the crowd turned more serious. The tall downtown buildings made the sounds of the crowd echo, thunder-like voice sounds that vibrated the body. In Downtown Chicago, surrounded by the power of people, united in a Freedom Day, felt good. This ocean of people were right (children should receive the best education possible). Boycotting school was right. It brought attention to the problems of a segregated society and the advisers, both those of the past and those today, who counsel based on skin color and gender are wrong.”




Sandra A. Murray, PhD
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

1962 Burnside Sit-In Finally Gets a Memorial

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A new mosaic mural at Burnside Scholastic Academy commemorates a pivotal moment in the movement to desegregate Chicago’s schools.

Throughout the month of January 1962, students and parents held a sit-in at Burnside School to protest de facto segregation in Chicago Public Schools.  The school board had redrawn district lines to relieve overcrowding, transferring many students at predominantly African American Burnside School.  However, instead of integrating nearby Perry School, a predominantly white school, black students were sent to distant Gillespie Upper Grade Center, drastically increasing their morning commute.  Tony Burroughs, who was 12 when he participated in the sit-in, recalls that Gillespie was seventeen blocks away from his house, while Perry was a mere four blocks from Burnside.

Starting on January 2, students and parents, filled the main hallway of the school.  Around 17 students and 29 parents at Burnside participated.  Sixteen parents and civil rights workers were arrested on January 16 and another ten were arrested on January 17th.  The charges against all defendants were dropped.  A court injunction was denied and eventually the students transferred to Gillespie.

The protest was modeled on similar lunch counter sit-in demonstrations in the South, and was organized primarily by the mothers of Burnside’s PTA, led by Alma Coggs.  After the first day of the protest, ministers and local civil rights workers, mostly from The Woodlawn Organization, were inspired to join the PTA moms.  Protests started breaking out at schools across the city.

In effect, the 1962 Burnside Sit-In established the loose coalition whose greatest success would be the massive school boycotts of ’63 and ’64.  A combination of civil rights organizations, parents, and educators with the support of ministers worked together to form the organizing bodies of these demonstrations.  The sit-in also affirmed that the community by-and-large would openly support the movement against segregation.


8th grader Amiya Smith speaks at the dedication.

Last Thursday, a memorial to the 1962 Burnside Sit-In was dedicated in the very hallway where it took place at Burnside Scholastic Academy.  Tony Burroughs, noted genealogist and author, who participated in the sit-in with his parents when he was 12, said the memorial was a tribute to the parents who taught their children to stand up for change.  “This wall means that the mothers can finally get the respect and recognition they deserve,” Mr. Burroughs told the attendees, a few of whom had also participated in the sit-in.

Anne Smith looks at a picture of her sister, Alma Coggs, head of Burnside’s PTA at the time of the protest.

The mosaic mural was designed by artist Carolyn Elaine, who enlisted the help of Burnside students to complete it.  Two 8th graders, Amiya Smith and Deon Myles, also spoke at the dedication.   Principal Kelly Thigpen is incorporating this history into the school’s culture; the first five days of school for all Burnside students will now include a lesson about the 1962 Sit-In and a trip to the mural.  There are also seats in the hallway dedicated to each participant in the sit-in featuring pictures, news clippings and captions.  These chairs will become reading hubs for students.


Mr. Burroughs, whose efforts to have this event memorialized have been tireless, was beaming as he showed patrons around the exhibit.  “The sit-in has been buried for 50 years,” he said,  “But now, from these walls, Burnside students will never forget their history.”


See the rest of our photos after the jump.

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Educational apartheid in Chicago and the black teachers revolt of the 1960s

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We just discovered this excellent and exhaustive article exploring the revolt of Chicago’s African American teachers in 1960s.  From Daily Kos’s Bob Simpson:

The revolt transformed Chicago public education, improving the curriculum and bringing more democracy into school policymaking. It also hastened the “white flight” of many white parents who believed racial politics in Chicago was a zero sum game, that gains by blacks must inevitably come at their expense. It helped pave the way for the election of the progressive Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, a man who deeply believed in the power of multi-racial coalitions.

Read the whole article.

Help Us Identify People In Englewood Protest

In early August of 1963, a protest took place at 73rd street and Lowe in Englewood at a site where the Chicago Board of Education was installing “Willis Wagons,” which were aluminum trailer classrooms used to perpetuate de facto school segregation.  The trailers were ordered to be placed on the playgrounds and parking lots of many African American schools as a permanent solution to overcrowding by CPS Superintendent Benjamin Willis.

The site was by train tracks.  Protestors picketed and covered the area with garbage.  Police and protestors clashed, resulting in many people being thrown in paddy wagons.  Comedian/activist Dick Gregory, Lillian Gregory and organizer Rosie Simpson took part in the protest.  Other protestors ID’d in a news articles below are William Yancey, Sibylle Bearskin, and Janet Haywood.

We have footage of the protest that took place in early August, 1963 at 73rd and Lowe.  Watch it below.  If you participated in that protest, please contact us through the site or at  If you know anybody who took part or recognize anyone in the video, encourage them to contact us.


Below are some photos and articles from the Chicago Daily News concerning the protest:

A History of Willis Wagons


In the early 1960s, “aluminum mobile school units” – in other words, trailers – were placed on the playgrounds and parking lots of African American schools as a permanent solution to overcrowding. The trailers, ordered by CPS Superintendent Benjamin Willis, were used to maintain de facto segregation in the schools. Sylvia Fischer, a 3rd grade teacher from Shoesmith Elementary and one of the organizers of the 1963 CPS Boycott, told us last year: “A school could be side by side, one would be white and one would be black, one would be comfortable in terms of the number of children in that school, and the other would be overcrowded to the point where sometimes the children were on double shift.”

Bob Lucas, another organizer of the Boycott and leader of Kenwood Oaklawn Community Organization, spoke with us several years ago: “When a black school that was close to a white school became overcrowded, rather than permitting the black kids to cross a block and go to the white schools, the Willis Wagons were put up on the campuses of the black schools in order to contain them.”


One of the key demands of the Boycott was that these trailers be removed. On August 6th, 1963, prior to the Boycott, a protest was organized by community leader and CPS parent Rosie Simpson on a site in Englewood at 73rd and Lowe where a school was being constructed entirely out of Willis Wagons. That’s right; no school, just trailers. We will be posting newly discovered original footage of that protest next week.

The trailers were eventually removed, although there are some reports of a few hanging around the Chicago Public school system as late as the 1990s.

Here’s an article by Paul West about Willis Wagons from the Chicago Tribune on August 3, 1963: