In the fall of 1968, New York City teachers went on strike three times, in reaction to an experiment in community control of schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn. The third strike was the longest, and the ugliest. The movement for community control tapped into a powerful desire among Black and brown people across New York City to educate their own. But the backlash was ferocious. The confrontation at Ocean Hill-Brownsville fractured the connection between teachers and families, between the labor movement and the civil rights movement, between Black and Jewish New Yorkers. Some of these wounds have never really healed. But as the strike dragged on for seven weeks, schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville were open for business. And for many students there, the experience was life-changing.
In the fall of 1968, New York City teachers went on strike three times, in reaction to an experiment in community control of schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn. The third strike was the longest, and the ugliest.
The movement for community control tapped into a powerful desire among Black and brown people across New York City to educate their own. But the backlash was ferocious. The confrontation at Ocean Hill-Brownsville fractured the connection between teachers and families, between the labor movement and the civil rights movement, between Black and Jewish New Yorkers. Some of these wounds have never really healed.
But as the strike dragged on for seven weeks, schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville were open for business. And for many students there, the experience was life-changing.
Producers / Hosts: Mark Winston Griffith and Max Freedman
Editing & Sound Design: Elyse Blennerhassett
Production Associate: Jaya Sundaresh
Music: avery r. young, Chris Zabriskie, Blue Dot Sessions
Featured in this episode: Dolores Torres, Rhody McCoy, Al Shanker, Father John Powis, Leslie Campbell, Lisa Donlan, Charlie Isaacs, Sandra Feldman, Cleaster Cotton, Veronica Gee, Monifa Edwards, Sufia De Silva, Steve Brier, Paul Chandler, Rev. C. Herbert Oliver, Neilson Griffith, Jay Eskin, John Lindsay, Al Vann, Natasha Capers, Dr. Lester Young.
School Colors is a production of Brooklyn Deep, the citizen journalism project of the Brooklyn Movement Center. Made possible by support from the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
MAX FREEDMAN: The longest teachers’ strike in American history took place in New York City in the fall of 1968.
MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH: What had happened was, the Board of Education created an experiment in community control of schools.
DOLORES TORRES: The plan for community control was get people on the local school board that represented these kids and would represent us.
MARK: There were three demonstration districts, and one of these was in a majority Black neighborhood in Brooklyn called Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
MAX: When the local board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville tried to transfer out 19 teachers who they said were interfering with the experiment…
RHODY MCCOY: They never intended for this pilot program to have any meaning.
MAX: …the teachers’ union pulled all of its members out of the district in protest.
MARK: When Ocean Hill-Brownsville wouldn’t take these union teachers back…
AL SHANKER: “I can’t force those teachers to go back there because otherwise the city will burn down. They will burn the city down.”
MARK: …the union went on strike citywide: first for two days, then for two weeks.
MAX: Every time the Mayor reached an agreement with the union, that agreement fell apart. So when the union went on strike a third time, they escalated their demand. Now they said they would shut down every school in the city until the city agreed to shut down the experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville for good.
MARK: So on the first day of Strike Number 3 -- October 14, 1968 -- the leaders of Ocean HIll-Brownsville decided to show the city that they were not going to go away quietly.
FATHER JOHN POWIS: So we met in front of City Hall, never thinking that these many people from all over the city would, would convene with us.
MAX: Father John Powis is a white Catholic priest who sat on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville governing board.
FATHER POWIS: But there were literally thousands and thousands of people, all in front of City Hall.
MARK: Among those thousands and thousands of people, there were representatives of Black organizations across the ideological spectrum that almost never agreed on anything: from the NAACP to the Black Panthers to local churches.
FATHER POWIS: And it was about 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon and all of a sudden, almost spontaneously, we decided that we were going to simply march across the Brooklyn Bridge.
MAX: The Brooklyn Bridge has three lanes of traffic going in both directions. But above the main road of the bridge, there’s a narrow pedestrian walkway. I’ve been to a number of rallies down at City Hall, and usually, if you want to march across the bridge from there, no matter how many people are in your party, the police will squeeze you through that narrow walkway, like a funnel. It keeps commuters happy - especially at rush hour - and has the side benefit of sapping your energy and momentum.
MARK: At first, this demonstration in support of community control seemed like it would be no different.
FATHER POWIS: Right in front of us was maybe 50 police, all the helmets and the sticks, the usual.
MARK: There was a tense standoff between the cops and the demonstrators. But then, Father Powis watched as the city’s Human Rights Commissioner went up to the police and argued with them.
MAX: He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but then to everyone’s surprise, the cops just… moved out of the way.
FATHER POWIS: And all of a sudden we were allowed to go right up the main road of the bridge.
MARK: Tens of thousands of people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, followed overhead by helicopters going live to the evening news.
LESLIE CAMPBELL: This march showed that Ocean Hill-Brownsville was not just an instance of confrontation, that it was in fact a city-wide symbol.
MARK: Leslie Campbell was a social studies teacher at Junior High School 271 in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
LES CAMPBELL: And it was a memorable sight to see so many people, a broad cross-section of people in the educational ah, struggle. All locked arm-in-arm, and it showed a tremendous amount of unity, it showed that we were not going to be denied around this issue of changing the New York City public school system.
FATHER POWIS: We marched across the Brooklyn Bridge and our, our destination was really going to be the Board of Education. But we never even stopped.
FATHER POWIS: We started right down Fulton Street, miles, a long walk from the bottom of the Brooklyn Bridge to Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
MARK: That’s about 4 and a half miles.
FATHER POWIS: And we marched right through Bed-Stuy and, ah, people on every corner were cheering, shouting. People in their windows, ah, ah, shaking bells and all kinds of things. It was a, it was a real party night.
MARK: The movement for community control of schools tapped into something powerful. Black and Puerto Rican parents all over the city were sick of waiting for the powers that be to get their act together. They knew they could educate their own, and they weren’t going to take no for an answer.
MAX: But the movement against community control of schools tapped into something, too. As the face of the city was changing, a lot of white New Yorkers feared that any amount of power gained by Black and brown people was a threat to their own.
MARK: This is “School Colors,” a podcast from Brooklyn Deep about how race, class, and power shape American cities and schools.
MARK: In some ways, Ocean Hill-Brownsville is like a Rosetta Stone for understanding the New York City school system today. So why is it that fifty years later, most people don’t know this history, even here in Central Brooklyn? And why is it that many of those who do know about Ocean Hill-Brownsville are afraid to talk about it?
MAX: Let me give you an example: I was recently talking to Lisa Donlan, a fixture on the educational scene here, and I told her we were working on this story. And her reaction was something like, “Ocean Hill-Brownsville whoo!” Then she told me about this time when she met a young education staffer in the office of our current Mayor:
LISA DONLAN: So we're talking I said well something came up about Ocean Hill-Brownsville. She goes “What is that.” And I was like “Wait. You are doing education in New York City and you don't know what Ocean Hill-Brownsville is?” I was like “What??? Do not talk to another person until you've done like some research and you understand where New York education is coming from.”
MAX: But then, I asked Lisa for her take on Ocean Hill-Brownsville. And that was a bridge too far.
LISA DONLAN: Oh I’m not gonna I’m not gonna do that.
MARK: So in one breath, she says that everyone should know about this, it’s that important - but then doesn’t want to comment on it? I know Lisa to be someone who doesn’t usually mince words, so that’s pretty telling.
MAX: Well I think it’s emblematic. Ocean Hill-Brownsville opened up some deep wounds that have never really healed. For that reason, this story has sometimes been read as a cautionary tale.
MARK: But it’s also been a source of inspiration. In this episode, we’ll get into all of it: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
RHODY MCCOY: Everybody in that community began to play a role in the schools. The school became the focal point of the community.
CLEASTER COTTON: Our teachers they said this is who you are. And we're like what.
SUFIA DE SILVA: It wasn't about hating another culture or race. It was about learning to love your own.
CHARLIE ISAACS: It was a campaign of fear.
STEVE BRIER: It was a brilliant strategy and it worked.
WILLIAM BOOTH: Have we come to that point of a race war.
IRVING LEVINE: Is there something that you would characterize as black fascism rising.
AL SHANKER: Is this a district that's going to run on the basis of prejudice and discrimination?
RHODY MCCOY: Jewish people would ask me, ah, "Why are we trying to put them in the ovens?"
VERONICA GEE: Why do y'all have to have guns. Why do we need dogs. We're children. This is America!
MARK: This is Mark Winston Griffith.
MAX: And Max Freedman.
MARK: Welcome back to “School Colors.”
MAX: Over the course of the fall of 1968, New York City teachers would be on strike for a total of 36 days. 36 school days: that’s actually about seven weeks in total.
MARK: Damn. As a parent, the idea of having to figure out what to do with my kids for seven weeks -- I wouldn’t be sitting here right now, I’d be at home with my kids.
MAX: Right, now times that by a million. Literally. There were more than a million students in New York City public schools, and the teachers’ strike was hugely disruptive for them and their families.
MARK: But in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, schools were open for business. Eight schools - six elementary schools, two middle schools - stayed open throughout the strike, staffed by 300 replacement teachers hired over the summer. But most of the city’s attention focused on one school: Junior High School 271. Every day, the street in front of 271 was a circus: union teachers picketing, activists protesting the picketers, police keeping the picketers and the protesters apart, and reporters weaving in and out.
MARK: Charlie Isaacs was a twenty-three year old math teacher at 271. He was no stranger to strikes - in fact, he had organized a student strike in college.
CHARLIE ISAACS: I had never crossed a picket line before or since.
MARK: So it was a sign of how the teachers’ strike was scrambling leftist politics that Charlie found himself, day after day, doing just that.
CHARLIE ISAACS: Well this wasn’t a strike against management, this was a strike against the community, against the kids. And they were nasty. They called people all kinds of names, they called me out by name, I don’t even know how they knew who I was. They pretty quickly made it very easy to go past those picket lines.
MAX: Sandra Feldman remembers the nasty name-calling going in the other direction - from people like Charlie, people on the side of community control, at the union. She was sent by the union to personally escort striking teachers to picket in front of 271 every day.
SANDRA FELDMAN: Teachers were frightened. They were on the picket lines and they would get yelled at and called names and it was a very, very painful, it was agonizing for the teachers. A lot of the teachers especially who had taught in, in that school district for many years and who were committed to the kids.
MARK: If it was agonizing for the teachers, it was traumatizing for the kids.
CLEASTER COTTON: For me the scene was a war zone.
MARK: Cleaster Cotton was the student body president at 271, and lived across the street.
CLEASTER COTTON: There were so many people. There were thousands of police. There were snipers with guns on the roofs. Sometimes there were helicopters. There were police on horses. There were police with canine units with mean dogs. The reporters with the fedora hats and the little pads with the pencils. The photographers with the light bulbs when they flash it.
MAX: Veronica Gee lived on the corner, above everybody’s favorite sandwich shop. An ideal perch for the police to watch over the scene outside 271.
VERONICA GEE: They was on the roof!
MAX: The police were on her roof.
VERONICA GEE: They'd climb through the window and they'd be up on on on the rooftop there. Looking. I saw that. People didn't like us for some reason. You know and it was very painful. To see that you're making all of this commotion over children having a proper education. You know like. You don’t you don’t do this over there. If they had fired six black teachers from a white school it would have been no problem. You understand me. Would have been no strike no nothing. But for us. It was a problem. And then they say it’s all in our minds what we go through as as people of colors. And it's like come on. It was fucked up.It was a fucked up feeling. We're children. Why do y'all have to have guns. Why do we need dogs. You know. I saw those those things that went on down south. It's horrifying. This is America.
CLEASTER COTTON: And what made me feel safe was seeing my teachers on the stairs of 271 facing all of the reporters all of the police all of the dogs the horses the guns everything and making sure that we got through. That was a beautiful feeling.
CHARLIE ISAACS: So we were under kind of a state of siege.
MAX: Math teacher Charlie Isaacs.
CHARLIE ISAACS: And the way I described it as being in the eye of the calm eye of the raging storm that had taken over the entire city. But it brought about a kind of solidarity among the teachers the students and the parents.
MARK: One of those teachers, the one who made Cleaster Cotton feel the most safe, standing there at the top of the stairs of 271 every morning, was six-foot-eight Leslie Campbell.
LES CAMPBELL: I used to walk through the streets of Ocean Hill at that time, and it was so beautiful. Parents used to come up and tell me to come in their house and have some fish, or have some chicken, or have some coffee, or have a cold drink. These were parents who were pouring out their heart to people who they felt were doing something to educate their children.
MAX: Here’s Rhody McCoy, superintendent for the Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration district.
RHODY MCCOY: Everybody in that community began to play a role in the schools. The school became the focal point of the community.
MARK: The janitors’ union was also on strike, so volunteers from the community had to shovel coal to keep the boilers running, take out the garbage, run the cafeteria - everything. One particular group of young men would patrol the community every day.
RHODY MCCOY: They'd pick up all of the young people who were late coming to school or trying to play the hook, and kept the drugs out, and came into the schools and talked to the youngsters about staying in school, the value of education.
MAX: McCoy saw to it that parents were trained to work in the classroom, which had a profound impact on them and their kids.
RHODY MCCOY: They began to see and understand that they had something to contribute, that they were just as capable of teaching their youngsters as the teachers were and with some guidance and some help from the professionals, bingo, they could do it. And so they got involved in all dimensions of teaching, the research, the program evaluations, the teacher evaluations. And now these youngsters who had previously seen 90 percent of the teachers White are now looking at their parents or the parents of their friends who were teaching. And this new role model was just fantastic.
FATHER POWIS: During the strike every time I went into the schools, particularly 271 or IS 55 I saw something that I thought was so spectacular that I still thought that we were going to win this thing.
MAX: Father John Powis from the Governing Board.
FATHER POWIS: Something was happening in those schools. I mean, here you had mostly new teachers. But you had schools that were completely orderly, where classes were going on. and, and people were coming in from the State Office of Education, from the mayor's office, from the Board of Education, and they were seeing this and they were saying like, you know, “Who's so stupid as to destroy this?"
MARK: What happened in the classrooms of Ocean Hill-Brownsville received far less attention at the time than what was happening in the streets. But for students like Monifa Edwards, the classroom was life-changing.
MONIFA EDWARDS: The education we got when the experiment was truly on - when I say the best education I received in my life.
MAX: Veronica Gee lived on the corner across the street from 271, but she was not enrolled there at the start of the fall.
VERONICA GEE: I was on the outside of 271 when all of that chaos was going on. And yet I wanted to go to that school.
MAX: A lot of parents at the school were keeping their kids home because they were afraid of the police presence out there. But Veronica Gee wanted to go there so badly she transferred into 271 during the strikes.
VERONICA GEE: And once I got in there and I saw that they had black teachers. Like lots of them not just one but like like like it looked like it was about 10 or 12 of them it was like it was a black school.
MAX: She had never had even one Black teacher before.
VERONICA GEE: I knew that there were highly educated black people in the world but not in Brownsville. OK? Not where I was in my mind. They were in the better places in the world.
MAX: I asked her what it meant to her to have Black teachers for the first time.
VERONICA GEE: I can’t even describe what it meant. Except that. It made me feel like somebody was on my side.
MARK: But this is not how the education in Ocean Hill-Brownsville was portrayed to the general public. The union fixated on Leslie Campbell in particular as the symbol of everything they said was going desperately wrong in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
MARK: We found a piece of union propaganda with the title, “Preaching Violence Instead of Teaching Children in Ocean Hill-Brownsville: An Observation of an Actual ‘Lesson’ in Junior High School 271.” Supposedly, this was transcribed from Les Campbell’s social studies class.
MAX: It’s written like a play - so we took this piece of propaganda and we asked some actors to read it.
MARK: By actors, you mean my kids.
MAX: And my friend Jon, as Leslie Campbell.
MR. CAMPBELL: Now, class. Ask Timmy questions about our Afro-American heritage and black power.
PUPIL 1: We have leaders like Martin Luther King, and he tells us to be peaceful, and then we have leaders like Malcolm X and Rap Brown and they tell us to use violence. Who is right?
MR. CAMPBELL: Timmy, tell him what you learned.
TIMMY: Well, I think Martin Luther King is not so good. Whitey don’t want to give us anything, so we got to fight for it.
PUPIL 2: Why do we have to fight? Why can’t we just demonstrate peacefully like Dr. King?
MR. CAMPBELL: Whitey doesn’t listen. The only thing he understands is when we get up and start throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails.
PUPIL 3: What is black power?
MR. CAMPBELL: Black power is control by Afro-Americans of three things: The first is political power, the second is economic power, and the third part is social. We have 12 percent of the people. There are 100 senators. How many are black? One, and he is an Uncle Tom. Now, Timmy, would you like an Afro-American state?
TIMMY: Well, I don’t know. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.
MR. CAMPBELL: Think! Our own state for black people.
TIMMY: Yeah, I think that would be good.
MAX: When I interviewed Charlie Isaacs, who became close friends with Les Campbell, the REAL Les Campbell, when they taught together at 271, I showed him this piece of propaganda.
CHARLIE ISAACS: This is totally fabricated. But he did teach black pride. That black people actually do have a history. This was very new at the time in the New York City schools.
MARK: Campbell taught an intro class that became sort of legendary.
CHARLIE ISAACS: The essence of the class was, he had a map of the world.
MARK: Monifa Edwards had Charlie for math and Les Campbell for social studies.
MONIFA EDWARDS: First he asked us to show on the map - where’s Italy. What are these people called. Italian American and --
CHARLIE ISAACS: If they come from Germany. Point to that. German American.
MONIFA EDWARDS: Okay, here’s France. What would these people be called?
CHARLIE ISAACS: He went through a series of those and then he opened his arms and said can anybody show me on this map where Negroland is.
MONIFA EDWARDS: “Okay, show me where Negroland is?” Because we were all identifying as being Negro.
CHARLIE ISAACS: And the kids just laughed. Where are we from. Africa. So what should we be called. African-American.
MONIFA EDWARDS: So the revelation that we came from Africa. If you called me African when I was a Negro - fightin words. Africa was just like the continent of Tarzan and Cheetah and white Cleopatra, and don’t call me African because I will stomp you, kill you… My great grandmother - I told her you know you’re African-American. “I ain’t no African.” Before she passed away she totally embraced it, but. So imagine the brainwashing.
MARK: It may be hard to fully appreciate this now, in 2019, but in the mid and late sixties American popular culture had not yet fully embraced, at least with any pride, the idea that Black Americans were African descendants. In fact, when Campbell changed the name of the organization he had co-founded from the Negro Teachers Association to the Afro-American Teachers Association, and then eventually the African-American Teachers Association, it cost them members. So even in 1968, a time of Black political awakening, Les Campbell, with his African dashikis and his “Negroland” lessons, was controversial.
LES CAMPBELL: Some of the parents did, in fact, find me too radical. I know one particular parent, Elaine Rooke, who was the PTA president at Junior High School 271, me and her had a number of confrontations as she found my style, ah, too Black, too political, ah, too militant. I remember her son, Anthony, she used to tell him to stay away from Mr. Campbell because he'll get you in trouble.
MARK: But what Les Campbell and his group of ‘revolutionaries’ were doing in the classroom has never been forgotten by his students: Cleaster Cotton, Monifa Edwards, and Sufia De Silva.
CLEASTER COTTON: Our teachers they said this is who you are. And we're like what. This is who you are. Boom. This is who you're connected to. Boom. And our our life forces just got so strong you couldn't keep us away from books. But books that show our true heritage our true you know tradition culture identity that connected us with something larger than ourselves.
MONIFA EDWARDS: It was all real, it wasn’t like they were then saying “Oh, now we are the greatest people in...” You know. But it just rounded it out. Where I had heard all of the European history. Now wow. I guess you can’t even fathom it because until you realize that you’ve been written out of history, you don’t realize how much more you have to be written in.
SUFIA DE SILVA: You know a lot of people at that time thought that maybe they were teaching like hatred for whites but it was never anything like that. It wasn't about hating another culture or race. It was about learning to love your own. To to be able to do the things that somebody who had not maybe been enslaved would have been doing in their own you know place of origin.
MONIFA EDWARDS: But I see that also seems to be a threat. Whenever a class is being taught African history, somehow it’s deemed that they’re learning to hate another group.’
MAX: In this case, it was deemed that students like Monifa Edwards were learning to hate one group in particular. After the break.
MARK: Thanks for listening to School Colors. I know we’ve given you a lot to think about in these first few episodes. So if you’re in New York and you want to join the conversation, we’re going to host a series of discussion groups at the Brooklyn Movement Center. The first is coming up on Thursday night, October 17th, starting at 6:30, and there will be childcare. Tell us you’re coming by writing to contact at brooklyndeep dot org. If you can’t make it in person, remember you can always share your thoughts with us on social media. Tag @BklynDeep.
STEVE BRIER: If you ask a lot of New Yorkers of a certain age, my generation for example, people in their 70s,
MAX: Historian Steve Brier.
STEVE BRIER: what they remember about the UFT strike in 1968, you will often get an answer like, “isn’t that the strike where that was all that black anti semitism?” That’s how they remember the strike, as opposed to for all the other reasons that it needs to be remembered.
NARRATOR: Black anti-Semitism.
TEACHER: Black anti-Semitism.
TEACHER: Black anti-Semitism.
REV. WILLIAM H. JONES: Black anti-Semitism.
NARRATOR: Negro bias against the Jew.
IRVING LEVINE: Is it true that the school decentralization fight in New York City is really a fight between Black power and Jewish power.
INTERVIEWER: Reverend Oliver, what about the business of anti-Semitism?
WILLIAM BOOTH: What has happened to Jewish Negro relations.
RHODY MCCOY: Jewish people would ask me, ah, "Why are we trying to put them in the ovens?"
MAX: So was there “all that Black anti-Semitism”? Was this a fight between Black power and Jewish power? And if not, why is Ocean Hill-Brownsville remembered that way?
PAUL CHANDLER: It wasn't anti Jew. It was anti miseducation.
MARK: Paul Chandler was a local community activist, one of those young men Rhody McCoy was talking about, who would go around the neighborhood picking up kids who were trying to “play the hook.”
PAUL CHANDLER: The carriers of the virus that was destroying our children were teachers. Now. Majority of them were Jewish. That's how it fell.
MARK: And not just in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The majority of the teachers across the city were Jewish.
PAUL CHANDLER: But it wasn't “Oh because they're Jews they're doing this.” I don't think that was even the question. I think the miseducation came that was part of the, the system.
MARK: Besides, Paul says most people in Ocean Hill-Brownsville weren’t thinking about who was Jewish and who wasn’t, among the general wash of white people in power. They were just worried about their kids.
PAUL CHANDLER: That’s what I’m saying to you. No one ever walked up to say are you Jewish or you're Italian or you're Irish. You get my point.
MAX: Another significant point: out of all the young teachers who came to Ocean Hill-Brownsville to replace those who were on strike, 70% of them were white, and half of these were Jewish. Like Charlie Isaacs.
CHARLIE ISAACS: Most people I think in New York City maybe in the country believed that Junior High School 271 was headquarters for black anti-Semitism. And the reality was exactly the opposite. I never experienced even one reference to it. Not an insult not an attack not anything. It just wasn't part of the fabric of the place.
MAX: Even UFT president Al Shanker admitted, twenty years after the fact, that anti-Semitism had not been a major factor in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
AL SHANKER: Anti-Semitism was not, and it certainly had nothing to do with starting the strike. And it had nothing to do with keeping the strike going. And it had nothing to do with the settlement. It had an awful lot to do with how people came to see the strike in public terms.
MARK: It’s unbelievable to hear him say that. Because if any one person is responsible for how people came to see the strike in public terms, it’s Al Shanker.
MAX: Now there were Jewish teachers in the union who said they had been verbally harassed with anti-Semitic comments, both on the picket lines and when they had tried to go back to school between Strikes Two and Three.
SY POLSKY: This man was standing next to me yesterday evening at Livingston Street and he and his followers were launching one anti-Semitic diatribe after another and I can cite chapter and verse of some of the things they said. I think it was utterly revolting that this should be permitted to happen in our city.
REPORTER: Now uh. What positions do the people making those statements hold. What is their.
SY POLSKY: These people were sympathetic to the governing board at Ocean Hill.
REPORTER: Were they black.
SY POLSKY: Yes they were.
REPORTER: Can you give me the gist of their comments.
SY POLSKY: Heil Hitler.
MARK: And Shanker could also point to problematic editorials published by the Afro-American Teachers Association and some other groups.
AL SHANKER: Now of course, Ocean Hill-Brownsville was not responsible for what was put out by these groups, except that usually if you have somebody supporting you who makes racist remarks, you should repudiate them.
STEVE BRIER: Were there instances in the black community of anti-Semitism. Yes.
MAX: Historian Steve Brier.
STEVE BRIER: Was there anti-Semitism in New York City in a bunch of communities. Absolutely. Did it disappear even in our own time. No, although it's diminished compared to what it was like in the 1960s when I would say the worst perpetrators of anti-Semitism were the WASP elite who kept Jews out of places like Columbia and the and the and the private clubs that dot the Upper East Side. That was you want to talk about anti-Semitism. Focus on that.
MARK: Shanker did not focus on that.
AL SHANKER: Will those Black people who are prominent in this particular community, ah, is this a district that's going to run on the basis of prejudice and discrimination? Is this part of how the governing board operates?
STEVE BRIER: Shanker took every minor instance of anti-Semitic you know attitudes and ginned them up to be something much larger than they were.
MAX: Most notoriously with the use of one incendiary leaflet.
CHARLIE ISAACS: The union claimed that this leaflet had been placed in teacher’s mailboxes to threaten them. I never met a teacher or heard of a teacher including from those who were on strike who ever actually saw one of these original leaflets.
MAX: In fact, the first time Charlie ever saw it was when he got a package in the mail from the UFT with a handwritten note saying, “Please distribute to your Jewish colleagues.” The anonymous leaflet talked about “The So-Called Liberal Jewish Friend” with his “Tricky, Deceitful Maneuvers.” “The Middle East Murderers of Colored People.” “The Money Changers” and “Bloodsucking Exploiters” who were “Responsible For The Serious Educational Retardation Of Our Black Children.”
MAX: To this day, nobody knows exactly where the original leaflet came from. But half a million copies were reproduced on mimeograph machines at UFT headquarters and distributed around the city. To me it feels like this is like the nuclear option. Why did they take it?
MARK: Here’s Leslie Campbell with the cynical answer.
LES CAMPBELL: At the end of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the teachers' union looked bad. They looked like the aggressors. They looked like the United States Army looked in Vietnam, you see. So they needed to change their image, and one of the ways that they sought to change their image was to bring up this issue of anti-semitism, and say that, "This was the reason why they were against the district, because, ah, the changes that we were demanding were anti-Semitic."
MARK: The less cynical answer is that Shanker and his union members really believed that Black anti-Semitism was a threat. And these two answers are not mutually exclusive.
MAX: Either way, Steve Brier says that leaflet did a lot of damage,
STEVE BRIER: I mean that was a conscious effort to manipulate to create a dog whistle that’s…you know. If if there was sympathy for the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community control movement he did whatever he could to destroy that sympathy and it and it worked. It was a brilliant strategy and it worked.
AL SHANKER: The best way for people to make a decision when you've got a conflict like that is to put it all out there and let people make up their minds. And we were in a very tough fight and that's what we did. We put it all out there.
MARK: Say what you will about Shanker’s tactics, they were certainly effective. He changed the conversation. Instead of talking about systemic racism in the school system, or even about workers’ rights, everybody was talking about Black anti-Semitism.
MAX: In October, when Mayor Lindsay went to speak at the Jewish Center of Midwood, the audience wouldn’t even let him speak: he was heckled until he gave up and escaped out the back door, where 5,000 protesters -- including members of a newly formed paramilitary group called the Jewish Defense League -- were waiting to kick and throw things at his car as he drove away.
MARK: Jewish teachers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville tried to fight back: they published a letter in the New York Times saying they had never witnessed any anti-Semitism on the job.
MAX: But it didn’t seem to make any difference. I asked Charlie Isaacs why so many Jewish New Yorkers were so ready to believe the union’s side of the story.
CHARLIE ISAACS: It was a campaign of fear. The union claimed that the lives of these Jewish teachers had been threatened. They claimed that if community control was allowed to exist that black governing boards would fire all the Jewish teachers and replace them with black teachers, and Jews just wouldn’t wouldn’t be safe.
MAX: I mean, on some level, I get it. Think about it: it’s 1968. We’re not even one full generation removed from the Holocaust. Jewish safety is not an abstract idea. Jewish trauma is real, and Shanker played right into it. But at the same time, as a Jewish person, I gotta say, this really makes me mad. Because it keeps happening. Over and over again, we see white Jews using Jewish trauma to shut down and take the focus away from Black and brown people who are fighting for their rights. And honestly, the more we talk about this, the more I feel like we’re doing the same thing. Taking the focus away from the real story should be here.
MAX: And going back to 1968, it wasn’t only Jews who were riled up by the union’s campaign of fear. The rest of what’s sometimes called the “white ethnic” middle class -- primarily Irish and Italian Catholics -- flocked to the side of the union, too. And most of them didn’t do that out of any particular concern for the safety of Jews, or love for the UFT. It was because the union’s antagonists were primarily Black.
MARK: And as New York’s white ethnic middle class consolidated in opposition to the prospect of Black and Puerto Rican power, all sorts of really ugly sentiments were set loose. Before Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a lot of people might have felt like they had to keep their prejudices under wraps. But all that started to fall away. And it felt like the whole idea of New York as a liberal, pluralistic city was coming apart at the seams.
WILLIAM BOOTH: Have we come to that point of a race war.
JULIUS LESTER: Well. I still say it's not certain. I'm more pessimistic about it now than I was. Particularly around the New York school strike situation.
ROY METCALF: The New York teachers strike seems to me the worst disaster my native city has experienced in my lifetime.
IRVING LEVINE: Is there something that you would characterize as black fascism rising.
MILTON HIMMELFARB: Fascism is one word. Irrationalism. Totalitarianism. Hatred!
TEACHER: You are a white pig a faggot a racist. You are an enemy of my people.
REPORTER: Who supposedly said that.
TEACHER: Teachers in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section.
HASKELL LAZARE: Basically we are confronted with two people or two groups of people trying to occupy the same space at the same time. It can't be done. Somebody’s got to move over.
TEACHER: It's Black power vs. white power now.
REPORTER: You mean that's what it's boiled down to.
TEACHER: That's what they want it to be. They say they want the black power and they want to rule. So then now the white have to rule also.
MARK: Remember, this is the fall of 1968. In the middle of the third teachers’ strike, Richard Nixon is elected president. The politics of white racist backlash are in full swing.
MAX: Some people in New York talked about wanting Al Shanker to run for mayor because they believed he was standing up for the White Man.
MARK: But despite all of this, the vast majority of public attention focused on quote-unquote “Black racists” or “Black extremists.”
REV. C. HERBERT OLIVER: We were not extremists.
MARK: Reverend C. Herbert Oliver, chairman of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Governing Board.
REV. OLIVER: There were extremists in the community who wished to, ah, to take control of things but we stayed to the issue of education. There was a time when representatives from the Republic of New Africa, ah, came and requested a meeting with the Governing Board. And they wanted us to separate from the United States and declare Ocean Hill-Brownsville an independent state and to apply to the United Nations for membership. And our response was immediate, that we were not elected to set up a new nation. We were elected only to run the schools.
MARK: Of course, the diversity of ideology and attitude among Black people in New York City was totally missed by the white press at the time. Sure, there were folks like Sonny Carson from Brooklyn CORE who grabbed headlines by making vague threats against the union, even though he had nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of the district. There were also Black leaders who sided with the union -- and took a lot of shit for it, too -- like legendary labor organizer Bayard Rustin.
MAX: But most Black teachers across the city believed in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. And many of them fought to keep their school buildings open during the strike. At P.S. 21 in Bed-Stuy, parents and teachers slept in the school overnight to stop the custodians from locking them out.
MARK: And in Williamsburg, Brooklyn a young teacher named Neil Griffith tried to open his school so the kids would have someplace to go.
NEILSON GRIFFITH: You had seven staff members against 40 something. And I was one of the seven. Because the seven that went out were the seven black folks. The seven who in effect said to their colleagues, “Fuck you. And don't get in my way cause I'm going into that building.” They hated us and we hated them right back.
MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH: That is you hated that the teachers who ended up going on strike.
NEILSON GRIFFITH: Yeah because they were. They were the ones calling us funny names as we walked past their line.
MARK: Neil Griffith is my uncle, my father’s brother. I had grown up knowing about my family’s involvement in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, but I had never actually talked to anyone about it in depth until I went to visit my Uncle Neilson.
MAX: I had never heard of Ocean Hill-Brownsville at all until just a few years ago. But when I started looking into it, I found out I also had family involved: my mother’s first cousin, Jay Eskin.
JAY ESKIN: It was very tense. Very tense.
MAX: Jay was born in Brownsville, and even though he moved away, he worked at the same elementary school in Brownsville for 33 years. So he was right there when all this was going down. And unambiguously on the side of his union.
JAY ESKIN: It was a very difficult time. We wanted to do the right thing by the kids. But this was important.
MAX: Jay would walk the picket lines every morning, sometimes at his own school, sometimes at 271, sometimes at City Hall. But in the afternoons, in the spirit of doing the right thing by the kids:
JAY ESKIN: We started a Freedom School in the butcher's coop.
MAX: The Butcher’s Coop is an affordable housing complex in Brownsville built originally for members of the butcher’s union.
MARK: Okay, Max, I know he’s your cousin and all, but we have to pause and acknowledge the irony in all this. Here is a group of white teachers, standing on a picket line to prevent black students from participating in an experiment in which Black educators are trying to create a curriculum of liberation. And then you have these same white teachers who, after they leave the picket line, go to Brownsville and teach black students in a quote unquote “freedom” school? …Wow.
MAX: Well, there was a historic association between at least parts of the labor movement and the civil rights movement. Al Shanker had organized New York City teachers to go down to the March on Washington. Shanker’s deputy, Sandra Feldman, took part in the Freedom Rides. A number of union teachers saw themselves in that mold. And Shanker was very successful in painting community control as a fundamentally illiberal project. “They want to hire and fire people based on race! And they’re teaching hate!”
MARK: Yeah, but Max, we see this all the time, right? At the point Black people start talking about fighting for what THEY consider liberation, on their OWN terms, in ways that DON’T include white people in leadership, white liberals get real uncomfortable, real quick.
MAX: Okay. Fair point. Anyway, it was what, two years after we started working on this project that you went to visit your Uncle Neilson.
MARK: Yeah, so check THIS out: I started off by playing some of the tape we already had, including your interview with Jay. Neilson - whose memory isn’t what it once was - recognized Jay’s voice. Immediately. And with affection. I was like, whaaaa?
MAX: And this is how we found out that after the strike, your Uncle Neilson and my cousin Jay actually worked side-by-side in the same school. For 17 years.
MARK: Neilson was the principal, Jay was his assistant principal. Even though they’d been on opposite sides of the strike, Jay and his wife Bonnie ended up becoming good friends with Neilson and my Aunt Lil.
MAX: They went to Jay’s kids’ bar mitzvahs. And all this time, we had no idea.
MARK: And as destructive and polarizing as Ocean-Hill Brownsville was, Neil and Jay both seemed at peace with what they did in 1968.
NEILSON GRIFFITH: I hated the situation but um as I look back on my movements I say to myself “You were okay Jack.” Right.
MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH: Just for the record you're patting yourself on the back.
NEILSON GRIFFITH: You got it. You got it. You got it.
JAY ESKIN: And it was a hardship. We were out what three months. And as a young teacher we needed the paycheck but it was important to stand with Al Shanker and he said we were going to see this thing to the end and we and we did.
MARK: The end of the strikes finally came on Sunday, November 17. Mayor Lindsay went on the radio to tell the city.
JOHN LINDSAY: I am gratified that the teachers strike is over and that our children can return to school at once.
MAX: A trustee was appointed to oversee the experimental district. Union teachers would return -- and receive full back pay for the weeks they’d been on strike.
JOHN LINDSAY: Clearly no one is fully satisfied but I think everyone in this city realizes that a settlement of the strike and a return to the orderly education is essential for all involved.
MARK: The Governing Board had not been party to negotiations.
JOHN LINDSAY: I hope we can begin now to heal the divisions this strike has opened and to turn our attention to the real possibilities for educational greatness this city can achieve.
MAX: That was a nice thought. The strike may have been over, but the divisions were far from healed.
MARK: Just because the union had prevailed in the strike, didn’t mean they would necessarily win the day in Albany -- where the future of not just Ocean Hill-Brownsville, but the entire school system would be decided.
MAX: If community control was ever going to overcome the union’s momentum, they were going to need all the public support they could get.
MARK: But that’s not how it went down. After the break.
ANTHONINE PIERRE: Hi, this is Anthonine Pierre, the Deputy Director of the Brooklyn Movement Center. As you’ve heard by now, School Colors is produced by Brooklyn Deep, which is BMC’s citizen journalism arm. So keeping it real, we put this podcast together on a shoestring budget. And there’s so many more powerful and deeply impactful stories to be told in Central Brooklyn. If you want to see more storytelling like this, we need your help. You can donate to Brooklyn Deep at schoolcolorspodcast.comsupport.
MARK: The end of the strikes had not exactly worked out in Ocean Hill-Brownsville’s favor. But math teacher Charlie Isaacs says there was a short period -- about three weeks after the end of the third strike -- that was in some ways the apex of the experiment, the clearest demonstration of what was possible with community control.
CHARLIE ISAACS: There were a lot of assemblies, cultural presentations. In many classrooms the American flag was replaced with the red black and green black liberation flag.
MAX: The principal of 271, William Harris, had been suspended, so assistant principal Al Vann was in charge.
AL VANN: And one of the songs that was very popular at that time. With the kids and throughout the community was. Oh happy days I think. Oh happy day When Jesus heard and anyway it was very popular at the time throughout. The black community. And along with the Negro National Anthem we always played that every morning.
MARK: Cleaster Cotton remembers this very well.
CLEASTER COTTON: In the morning we used to just have the Pledge of Allegiance and nobody would just be into it.
VERONICA GEE: That stopped.
CLEASTER COTTON: No. What happened was they did the Pledge of Allegiance. But then they did lift every voice and sing. And you could hear the whole school singing that.
CHARLIE ISAACS: I couldn’t believe the transformation, they stood up and sang along, we all sang along.
CLEASTER COTTON: The sound of that song went through the whole school every morning and I get goosebumps thinking about it.
CHARLIE ISAACS: So this sort of infused the spirit of the strike period back into the school. All that ended when the principal came back. He had a more conventional approach to things. And the chaos came back too.
MAX: When striking teachers returned to Ocean Hill-Brownsville, their students were not too pleased to see them. At 271, they’d start chanting whenever a teacher tried to speak, making basic communication impossible.
MARK: Teachers said the kids had been coached not to allow any education to take place. Kids like Monifa Edwards didn’t see it that way.
MONIFA EDWARDS: For us, we felt if you were with the UFT, that you weren’t with us. I would say at a certain point it did become yeah I would say you were, you were the enemy.
MAX: The return of these unwanted teachers -- and the constant presence of police and union observers in hallways and classrooms -- was taking a toll.
FATHER POWIS: No one knew exactly who was who in the school. and the result was just total chaos. All the unity that was there before, all the education that was going on, everything just stopped.
MAX: Teachers started leaving.
CHARLIE ISAACS: For some it was just too much. You don’t gravitate towards teaching because you love conflict. And some of them just couldn’t take it. Now as teachers left, they weren’t being replaced by the Board of Education. So we were short - increasingly short staffed as the rest of the school year wore on. And this is meanwhile, while kids are fighting their guerilla war against the returning teachers.
MARK: And as the pressure increased, the Black teachers at 271 split into factions. Using terms they might have used for each other, it was the ‘Revolutionary Black Militants’ versus the ‘Conservative Black Bourgeoisie’ - and everybody took sides. Many of the so-called radicals were members of the Afro-American Teachers Association, and they rallied around social studies teacher Les Campbell. But Campbell wasn’t doing himself or the movement any favors.
MAX: In early 1969, two events began to turn the tide of public opinion against community control and Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and the first centered squarely on Leslie Campbell. Near the end of January, the New York Times got wind of a radio appearance that Campbell had made back in December. Campbell had been a guest more than once on a show on WBAI called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” hosted by Julius Lester. But this time:
LES CAMPBELL: I showed him a poem by Sia Berhan that was a raw response of a 15 year old youth to what had happened in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. And, he asked me to read this poem on the air.
MAX: The title of the poem was “To Albert Shanker: Anti-Semitism.” Here’s how it started: “Hey Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head. You pale-faced Jew boy, I wish you were dead.”
I could read the rest of it, but I don’t want to. It’s not fun for me to read, and… you know, Campbell was dogged by this really for the rest of his life. I don’t want to contribute to that. He always said the poem was taken out of context, and that’s true. But honestly - what did he think was going to happen? The poem seemed to confirm exactly what the union had been saying for months about Black anti-Semitism: not only that anti-Semitic beliefs were personally held by the leaders of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, by teachers like him, but they were being taught in the classrooms. After the poem became public, the mayor announced that he was opening an investigation into Leslie Campbell, and reporters who had previously been sympathetic to community control and painted Al Shanker as the bomb-thrower started to change their tune.
MARK: The next blow against Ocean Hill-Brownsville in the press came from journalist Martin Mayer. Here he is on WNYC talking about his new book: “The Teachers’ Strike.”
MARTIN MAYER: They had very serious troubles at junior high school 271. And in general the quality of teaching that I saw was I not terribly pleased with.
MARK: 271 had been visited by countless reporters and academics. But Martin Mayer was the first out the gate with a book about it, which was published in February 1969.
CHARLIE ISAACS: And it was loaded with inaccuracies and distortions and it was just terrible.
MARK: Charlie Isaacs.
CHARLIE ISAACS: The UFT sent copies of this book to every member of the state legislature. This was their story the story they wanted people to believe. And it just kept getting retold.
MARK: The UFT sent copies of Martin Mayer’s book to every member of the state legislature because it was the state legislature that was ultimately going to decide the fate of community control.
MAX: In fact, the state legislature was set to take up a bill that might have expanded community control citywide - creating Governing Boards like the one in Ocean Hill-Brownsville all over the city. Al Shanker lobbied hard to make sure that would never happen.
ALBERT SHANKER: I'm not opposed to community participation or even community control. I am against, what in those days, was called total community control, which means that we can do anything we want and people don't have any civil rights or human rights. We don't have that in our country. A mayor can't do anything he wants, a governor can't do anything he wants. I didn't want school districts that could do anything they want.
MARK: At the end of April, Shanker got his way. A decentralization law with the UFT’s stamp of approval was passed and set to go into effect a year later. This law made it almost certain that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experimental district in its current form would be phased out.
MAX: Between teachers fighting and teachers leaving and students fighting teachers and this new state law, morale at 271 was low.
CHARLIE ISAACS: Eventually you know we just couldn’t wait for the school year to end.
MARK: This was the context for Junior High School 271’s eighth grade graduation on June 13, 1969. Monifa Edwards was the valedictorian. We started this story with the beginning of her speech.
MONIFA EDWARDS: Our ancestors were brutally forced to an unknown land to be enslaved and looked down upon as animals by the white man.
MARK: Now here’s the end of it.
MONIFA EDWARDS: We students have a responsibility to our people. We are the might and the strength of our race. We of young blood set the pace. We are the hopes the dreams the future that must be fulfilled. Black and Puerto Rican students must go on to high school and finish. Go to college and finish. And come back to our communities and finish the job that has been left unfinished for over four hundred years. Be Black Be Beautiful Be Brilliant and Be Yourself.
MAX: I asked Monifa how she felt reading this today.
MONIFA EDWARDS: It feels very odd. I hear a lot of this being said again today it's like certain things were not resolved in all these years. As I read it now it seems a youthful naive optimistic. And I thought that by now that work would be done. So to read it and see like oh my gosh somebody at 14 could have written that today is kind of awesome but not in a great way. Kind of mind boggling.
MARK: Three days after graduation, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Governing Board dismissed every single teacher affiliated with the Afro-American Teachers Association, including Leslie Campbell. Al Vann was demoted. He never returned to 271 or to public education.
AL VANN: I don't know how to describe it without being vulgar. I felt betrayed at that point in time that. All that we had put into this supporting of Ocean Hill-Brownsville at that time the board and all the struggles we had gone through and the progress we made with those kids. I mean you know in that one year was extraordinary. And so. I guess I just felt frustrated to the point that I didn't really want I didn’t want to be there anymore at that point in time.
MAX: Charlie Isaacs returned to 271 in the fall, but not much was the same. All the members of the Afro-American Teachers Association had left, there were more union teachers, and everyone knew the experiment was coming to an end.
CHARLIE ISAACS: Things went back to the way they were before and I think the parent activists and leaders were pretty deflated.
MARK: By the end of the school year, Ocean Hill-Brownsville had been redistricted out of existence. The 8 schools in the experiment were absorbed into the much larger area of District 23 - an area whose boundaries just so happened to line up with the power base of a local politician named Sam Wright who supported the UFT. In the spring of 1970, there was a new school board election.
CHARLIE ISAACS: People from the Governing Board made a decision to boycott that election. It was a very very low turnout, and Sam Wright’s slate won, because the people who opposed him didn’t vote.
MARK: And that was the end of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Not the place, but the school district. The moment.
MAX: A few months later, Reverend Oliver, chairman of the Governing Board, went back to 271 to see how things were proceeding under new leadership.
REV. OLIVER: I went to I.S. 271 just to pay a friendly visit but it was not taken as a friendly visit by those who were in charge. So they called the police on me. So when I saw that I left and just made up in my mind I would never go back into a school again if that was what I would have to face. So I never went back into the schools again.
SUFIA DE SILVA: I'm 63 years old. That happened when I was 13 14 15 years old.
MAX: Sufia De Silva lives in Los Angeles now, but she keeps in touch with a group of her classmates from 271. All of them are artists and educators. You’ve heard their voices throughout these two episodes.
SUFIA DE SILVA: I may not have associated so much at the time how big an impact it had on my life but my life impacts my children's lives. OK. And I'm just one person out of thousands that was involved in this. So I'm sure that it affects not only that generation but partially the next generation whether they know it or not.
MARK: Natasha Capers is part of that next generation. And for a long time, she did not know how the movement for community control had affected her.
NATASHA CAPERS: I've lived in Brownsville Brooklyn basically my whole life. And never realized that that fight was literally up the block. Like I literally pass this history when I ever. I walk towards the C train. Never realized it.
MARK: And she has personal and professional reasons to know this history: she’s both a parent in Brownsville and the director of the New York Coalition for Educational Justice, the largest group dedicated to grassroots organizing of Black and brown parents in the city.
NATASHA CAPERS: No one talks about this. Like it not only changed New York City it changed how we think about school governance across the country.
MARK: And yet:
NATASHA CAPERS: People still don't know how this happened and that this happened here and that this happened in a community that is often demonized that is often seen as violent that is often seen as um low educational um value that we don't care about student achievement and we don't care about school and I was like. This was a fight led by black mostly black and Puerto Rican parents. Right here. But yet y'all still be talking about how don't nobody care. And yet we changed y'all whole world. You welcome.
MARK: The movement for community control of schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville did change the world: in big ways and small, for good and for ill.
MAX: Most tangibly, the map of school districts in New York City we still have today is a product of the Decentralization Law which was passed in the aftermath of the UFT strikes.
MARK: Several characters continued to fight for quality education and self-determination in Central Brooklyn. We’ll catch up with them in the next episode.
MAX: Teachers in the three demonstration districts -- not just in Ocean Hill-Brownsville but also in East Harlem and on the Lower East Side -- they pioneered African-centered and bilingual education, and some of their innovations continued in the public system even after the experiments were dismantled.
MARK: And who knows how much more the demonstration districts might have been able to demonstrate if they had had more time.
STEVE BRIER: If they'd been allowed to flourish. They might have been able to provide some interesting lessons and approaches that could have been adopted. No guarantee it would've worked. No guarantee that that that this would solve the problems of New York City public education but it would have been damn interesting to see where they went.
MARK: Then there are the big-picture political consequences.
MAX: Ocean Hill-Brownsville gave rise to a powerful new political coalition. Thanks in part to the union’s propaganda, many Jews came to identify for the first time with their traditional rivals, Irish and Italian Catholics. And some historians argue that this consolidation of the so-called “white ethnic” middle class was enough to tip the balance of New York City politics in favor of racial conservatism for decades, giving us mayors like Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.
MARK: That might be too much to lay at the feet of just this one event, but the strikes undoubtedly weakened both the labor movement and the racial justice movement by pitting them against each other, making them appear incompatible. And Steve Brier believes that at least in New York, the split between the teachers’ union and communities of color has never really healed.
STEVE BRIER: We're so far away from that spirit of you know community control and community militancy that really drove the movement in the late 60s that I feel will never get back to it. And I think that's to my mind. The takeaway from what happened in 1968 was. The union won the battle and we've lost the war to kind of create a much more broadly based movement around educational equity.
LESTER YOUNG: You know in 1968 people were talking about a revolution.
MARK: This is Dr. Lester Young. He’s a big deal in Central Brooklyn educational circles: a former principal and superintendent, now a member of the New York State Board of Regents. He started as a teacher in Bed-Stuy in the fall of 1969.
LESTER YOUNG: And people were talking about real change substantive change. Taking matters into their own hands not allowing this to happen. Down at 271 you could actually see parents standing up to the police. Right. And parents really articulating what they wanted and they weren't backing down. They weren't letting it go. And there was a coalition of parents around the city that were all saying the same thing.
MARK: To be honest, it’s hard to imagine the kind of sustained grassroots mobilization we saw around community control happening today in Central Brooklyn, let alone citywide.
LESTER YOUNG: People associated that with being part of what I would call the movement. Whether you thought it was black power whether you thought it was civil rights but you felt like you were part of something that was bigger than yourself. And I continue to ask myself, what happened.
MARK: That’s the question, isn’t it? What happened? What happened to the movement that made you feel like you were part of something bigger than yourself?
MAX: What happened to the system known as Decentralization that was put in place across New York City instead of community control?
MARK: On the next episode of SCHOOL COLORS.
ANNETTE ROBINSON: Everybody was not corrupt.
SEGUN SHABAKA: The government was hostile.
HEATHER LEWIS: Everyone is just in survival mode.
CLEASTER COTTON: The pressure that we went through as children killed many of us.
MAMA FELA: It was perfect. It was perfect for my mind body and spirit. To be able to be someplace where I could feel like a human.
ANNETTE ROBINSON: And then she came over and she hit me.
LESTER YOUNG: This is what goes on when you let them run the schools.
MARK: School Colors is a production of Brooklyn Deep, with support from the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
MAX: This episode was produced and written by Mark Winston Griffith and Max Freedman. Editing and sound design by Elyse Blennerhassett. Production associate Jaya Sundaresh.
MARK: Original music by Avery R. Young and de Deacon Board. Additional music in this episode by Chris Zabriskie and Blue Dot Sessions.
MAX: Archival material courtesy of WNYC; the New York City Municipal Archives; the Henry Hampton Collection at the Washington University Libraries; and Prof. Steve Brier at the CUNY Graduate Center.
MARK: In this episode, you heard the voices of Jon Mincey, Manoc Joa-Griffith and Ayodele Joa-Griffith. Special thanks to Monifa Edwards and the Brooklyn Five; Charlie Isaacs, Leo Casey, Norm Hill, Heather Lewis, Rhody and Carole McCoy, Fred and Judy Nauman, Dan Perlstein, and Jerald Podair.
MAX: Follow Brooklyn Deep on Twitter and Instagram @BklynDeep. You can find more information about this episode, including a transcript, at our website, schoolcolorspodcast.com. Brooklyn Deep is part of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a member-led organizing group in Central Brooklyn. Visit brooklynmovementcenter.org to join or donate. Until next time --