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 stagepro-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.”
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
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.