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Wayback Wednesday: School boycotts in New York City history

With Chicago schoolchildren in the midst of a three-day school boycott, I thought the GothamSchools time machine might take a jaunt through school boycotts in New York City’s history.

The biggest boycotts took place in 1964 to protest racial segregation in the city’s schools. After school officials produced an integration plan that rejected busing as an option and lacked a timeline for implementation, civil rights leaders called for a one-day school boycott. To organize the protest, black leaders tapped Bayard Rustin, fresh off organizing the March on Washington at which Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” address. On Feb. 3, 1964, 464,362 of the city’s 1 million schoolchildren stayed home, making the boycott “the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history,” Time Magazine reported at the time, noting that black leaders initially considered the protest “a whoopee success” while at the same time the president of the city’s Board of Education disparaged it as “a fizzle.”

A smaller boycott in March, which only some of the first boycott’s organizers supported, drew about a quarter of all students in favor of integration. About the same number of students also boycotted the start of school that fall — but they were spearheaded by Parents and Taxpayers, a group that opposed busing and the dissolution of neighborhood schools. Over the summer, the U.S. Supreme Court had released its landmark Brown v. Board of Education opinion, but because New York’s schools were segregated because of residential segregation, not an official city policy, the ruling barely registered in the ongoing boycott saga. Ultimately, not even the city’s limited integration plan ever went into effect.

The 1964 school boycotts were certainly the largest, but they weren’t the first, the last, or the most effective.

In 1905, Jewish families in Brownsville boycotted the final day of classes before the winter holidays to protest Christian religious observance in the public schools. In response, the city banned religious hymns and assignments from its schools.

And in 1965, in a harbinger of what would come at the end of that decade when communities demanded — and won — local control of schools, parents kept a Harlem school school closed by threatening to boycott over the selection of a white principal. Ultimately, the principal kept his job.

Parents have also kept children home as a way to respond to immediate local concerns. In 1985, more than 10,000 Queens parents kept their children home on the first day of school to protest the city allowing a student with AIDS to attend regular 2nd grade classes. In 1990, parents in the Bronx boycotted PS 161 when their pick for principal was passed over. And in 1992, students at Eastern District High School in Brooklyn stayed home for two days to demand smaller classes, bilingual guidance counselors, and safer conditions; they got their wishes, but the school closed in 1998.

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