On Feb. 3, 1964, 464,000 New York City school children — almost half of the city’s student body — skipped school as part of a protest against segregation within their school system. Though segregation in New York was not codified like the Jim Crow laws in the South, a de facto segregation was evident in the city’s school system.
Picketers, made up of teachers, parents, students and activists, marched at 300 of the city’s 860 schools, The New York Times reported. The protest culminated in a march across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Board of Education building on Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn.
Directing the boycott was long-time civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who had been a chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and had helped organize the first Freedom Ride in 1947.
The lead organization behind the boycott was the City-Wide Committee for Integrated Schools, chaired by Milton Galamison, pastor of Siloam Presbyterian Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, with support from CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the Parents Workshop for Equality, and the Harlem Parents Committee.
In a letter to parents of New York City school children, Pastor Galamison wrote, “Despite the l954 Supreme Court decision, there are more segregated schools in New York City today than there were ten years ago. Segregated schools are inferior schools — North or South … We must have pictures of people of color in readers, the Negro’s contribution to history properly presented in textbooks, Negro principals, and a representative number of Negro teachers…”
During the boycott, hundreds of “Freedom Schools” were set up for the day at churches and other community spaces, where children were sent to learn about civil rights. A “Freedom School Lesson Guide” was put together by the Harlem Parents Committee and students learned about the history of slavery, talked about the meaning of freedom and sang songs such as the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Turnout for the Freedom Schools was strong, though long lines in front of movie theaters were also reported.
Many parents were worried about the outbreak of violence, but the school boycott proved to be a peaceful demonstration. It was a success in that the overwhelming participation exceeded expectations, but the boycott failed to urge the Board of Education to take any steps toward balancing and diversifying the schools’ populations.
Not long after the school boycott, landmark civil rights legislation was passed. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, which prohibited segregation of public places, provided for the integration of public schools and made employment discrimination illegal.
— Phoebe Neidl
Brooklyn Daily Eagle