The State of Chicago Public Schools, 1957-1966

The battles over desegregation of the Chicago Public Schools at times turned into an argument about "What Makes Schools Good." Educational "experts" like Benjamin C. Willis argued that neighborhood schools, which, he said, kept children in their communities and close to their families, were the best for the student. Civil rights activists countered that Willis maintained segregated and unequal schools. They saw the protest movement to oust Willis, as a necessary step to created integrated, improved public schools.

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Documenting Segregation and Inequality

In a 1957 article in the Crisis, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) first called attention to the fact that the Chicago Public Schools were segregated, and that African-American students received an inferior education. For example, the report showed that schools where the students were 90 to 100 percent white the average size of the student body was approximately 700 students, while in the schools with 90 to 100 percent black students, the average size was more than 1,200 students. “De Facto Segregation in the Chicago Public Schools,” Crisis 65 (February 1958).

The NAACP report began a series of investigations into the state of the Chicago Public Schools that John E. Coons called “a statistical display of prodigious and bewildering proportions.” Together, the NAACP, the Chicago Urban League, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights demonstrated that the city’s schools were segregated, and that overcrowding and poor facilities disproportionately affected black students. School Superintendent Benjamin C. Willis shot back with his own statistics, showing that he had built or refurbished an unprecedented number of schools. He argued neighborhood schools provided the best education, and that the migration of southern blacks to Chicago, the suburbanization of white Chicagoans, and the movement of thousands of people every year from one Chicago neighborhood to another created unique pressures on Chicago’s schools. Willis, along with the Board of Education and Mayor Richard J. Daley, countered that de facto segregation was beyond their control. In the South, they suggested, segregation was a matter of law, and southern officials could desegregate their schools merely by changing local statutes. In Chicago, from this point of view, racial separation was a matter of demographic chance rather than public policy.

No one doubted that Chicago’s schools were segregated because black and white Chicagoans lived separately. Civil rights activists and researchers needed to show that school policies maintained segregation in the public schools, and that changes in those policies could create integrated and more equal schools. Ultimately, integrationist researchers for the Chicago Urban League and the federal government forcefully argued that gerrymandered school districts maintained segregation even in racially mixed sections of the city. They demonstrated that many of Chicago’s white schools contained underused facilities while predominately black schools had significantly larger average class sizes, continued to practice the “double shift,” or placed students in mobile classrooms.

Within just a few years after first documenting the segregation and inequality in Chicago Public Schools, activists had inspired hundreds of thousands of white and black residents to boycott the schools and march in favor of equal education. They had placed the issues of race and education on the city’s political table. And they recruited the energies of the ascendant southern civil rights leaders to bring their leadership and experience to Chicago, transforming the single civil rights issue of school desegregation into a much more ambitious movement to “end slums.”