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"Jim Crow Must Go"

Thousands of New York City students staged a one-day boycott to protest segregation – and it barely made the history books.

By 1964, the black community’s frustration with the glacial pace of change in the schools led to a massive school boycott. Led by Brooklyn minister Milton Galamison and organized by Bayard Rustin, the boycotters demanded that the school board implement a desegregation plan across the city. Groups of students, parents and some teachers marched in front of 300 schools and in front of the Board of Education headquarters, chanting, “Jim Crow must go,” and singing “We Shall Overcome.”  Tina Lawrence, a black college student who helped organize the boycott, saw the massive protest as a challenge to New York City’s white residents. “They thought it was all right when it was happening in Jackson, Mississippi, but now it’s happening here,” she said. “The people are going to wake up.” While the boycott succeeded as a public demonstration of unity among blacks, Puerto Ricans and white liberals, these alliances began to fray shortly after the boycott, with many black and Puerto Rican community leaders and parents emphasizing community control of schools rather than school desegregation.  

One of the reasons the New York school boycott does not show up in our history textbooks is that the Northern media did not cover it with the same moral urgency as they did civil rights activism in the South.  The New York Times, which insisted that there was “no official segregation in the city,” criticized the boycott as “violent, illegal approach of adult-encouraged truancy” and dismissed the civil rights demands as “unreasonable and unjustified.”

Among those opposed to the boycott were Parents and Taxpayers (PAT), a coalition of white neighborhood groups who organized protest marches and a boycott against zoning changes and school desegregation in March 1964. The marchers, “15,000 white mothers” as the press dubbed them, held signs reading “Keep our children in neighborhood schools” and “I will not put my children on a bus.” These white protesters, while many fewer in number than the civil rights school boycott, commanded much more attention from politicians. Most important, they had the support of Emanuel Celler, a Democrat from Brooklyn, who helped craft the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This landmark civil rights legislation included a loophole (section 401b) that allowed school segregation to exist and expand in Northern cities like New York, Boston, Chicago and Detroit. “In my opinion the two Senators from New York are, at heart, pretty good segregationists,” Mississippi’s James O. Eastland said of his Empire State colleagues, “but the conditions in their State are different from the conditions in ours.”