On October 22, 1963, more than 250,000 students boycotted the Chicago Public Schools to protest racial segregation. Many marched through the city calling for the resignation of School Superintendent Benjamin Willis, who placed trailers, dubbed ‘Willis Wagons,’ on playgrounds and parking lots of overcrowded black schools rather than let them enroll in nearby white schools. Blending unseen 16mm footage of the march shot by Kartemquin founder Gordon Quinn with the participants’ reflections today,’63 Boycott connects the forgotten story of one of the largest northern civil rights demonstrations to contemporary issues around race, education, school closings, and youth activism.
In 1963 Jerry Temaner, Stan Karter, and I were students at the University of Chicago. We would later form Kartemquin Films in 1966. When we were tipped off that a large-scale civil rights demonstration against Chicago public school segregation was brewing, we knew we had to film it. We had rented a sync sound camera to film Madame Pandit from UNESCO for the University of Chicago. After the gig, we kept the camera and some leftover film and formed a team of filmmaker volunteers, including Mike Shea, to cover the Boycott.
After getting the film back from the lab I cut a 10-minute silent piece that I’d play with audio on a ¼” tape of some of the chants. Albert Raby was continuing to organize for the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) and he would invite me to the meetings, where I’d play the piece by simultaneously projecting the film and playing the tape recording of the chants.
50 years later, as the anniversary of the demonstration grew close, I started working to complete our short for educational use. Originally I had intended the film to feature the student Boycotters and explore the impact of the event on the course of their lives. However, while working on the piece, over 50 schools in Chicago were closed––primarily in Black neighborhoods. It was hard not to see the parallels between the present day fight for educational equity and the Boycott that took place more than 50 years prior. Thus, we made the decision to incorporate the contemporary conflict around Chicago’s public schools––which remain largely segregated and unequal––into the story of the 1963 Boycott, and its relevance today.
— Gordon Quinn (Director/Executive Producer)
In 2013, I started working on my own a short film about the school closings in Chicago, shooting the protests and stories about families affected. I was also an intern with Kartemquin at the time, and had started making screen grabs of the archival footage for the ’63 Boycott website, so we could ID and interview people who appeared in the footage. I was shocked that as a Chicago Public School student, I had never heard of the boycott before. As I was drawn more and more into the folds of the project, locating the protestors from the ’60s and researching the boycott itself, we saw more and more parallels between my own project and this one, so we decided it made sense to incorporate footage from my own film into the story about the boycott. While it’s taken us a few years to finish, I think this forgotten history will resonate with many people today.
— Rachel Dickson (Producer)