Place  /  Video

Half of New York City’s Public-School Students Stayed Home to Protest Segregation in a 1964 Boycott

Historians say that a major milestone in the history of school integration is often left out of the civil rights story

Embedded video

If the video does not load or is not working, it may be a problem with the video service, or you may need to turn off an ad blocking browser extension.


American students may be asked to memorize facts about efforts to desegregate schools in the South and about the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling against racially segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education, but they rarely learn that the era’s biggest demonstration against school segregation took place in the North, a full decade after Brown. On Feb. 3, 1964, more than 460,000 New York City public-school students—nearly half of the city’s public-school population—didn’t go to school, instead participating in a boycott to demand equal educational opportunities.

“Students are left with thinking that once the court rules [in Brown], desegregation in schools actually occurs, and the reality is far from that,” says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, host of the podcast Teaching Hard History and professor of history at The Ohio State University. “We don’t see anything happening whatsoever in the North because Brown v. Board of Education did not apply to schools that did not segregate explicitly by law.”

In northern cities like New York, says Matthew F. Delmont, author of Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation and professor of History at Dartmouth College, school segregation “worked hand in glove” with mortgage redlining. Since the 1930s, banks made a practice of denying mortgage loans to applicants in Black and racially mixed neighborhoods (outlined in red on a map, hence the term redlining). So, even in places where school segregation was not the law, it became firmly entrenched in practice, as school boards could draw district boundaries “to replicate the existing residential segregation.”

And those schools were, by and large, worse than the ones attended by white students. Lack of investment in Black and racially mixed neighborhoods translated to lack of investment in the neighborhoods’ schools. Black students were packed into overcrowded classrooms in dilapidated buildings with the most inexperienced educators in the system teaching from outdated curriculum materials.

In the spring and summer of 1963, as incidents of police brutality in places like Birmingham, Ala., took the civil rights movement to a new level, many northerners who were horrified at the televised injustices in the South continued to turn a blind eye to complaints in their own schoolyards. So, that summer, fed up with the NYC Board of Education’s sluggishness on addressing classroom inequities, Black civil rights activists and parents started planning for a boycott. The effort was spearheaded by Milton Galamison, pastor at Brooklyn’s Siloam Presbyterian Church, and Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington, with support from civil rights organizations the NAACP and The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).