Remembering Willis Wagons — 50 years later, civil rights challenges remain — Robert McKersie

From the Huffington Post

MIT Sloan Prof. Emeritus Robert B. McKersie

The nation has marked its I Have a Dream moment of history, but now the civil rights anniversary spotlight shines on Chicago, which saw one the largest civil rights demonstrations in its history exactly 50 years ago this week when a one-day boycott kept more than 200,000 students home from school. It was about something called Willis Wagons.

Schools in neighborhoods populated primarily by white students had generally better financing. They also had empty seats that students from poorer schools were anxious to fill. But under the neighborhood school policy of Superintendent of Schools Benjamin Willis, students could not transfer to these better-performing schools. To keep African-American kids in their local schools, Willis instead installed trailers (called Willis Wagons) to create more seats. As a result, students of different races were kept separate. And their educational opportunities remained far from equal.

Despite a number of marches and rallies during the early months of 1963, Willis would not change his policy. Chicago civil rights leaders decided that the only option left was to mount a one-day boycott to demand that the school board fire the superintendent. On Oct. 22, 1963, I recall joining several thousand others in a march that day that circled City Hall and then proceeded to the Board of Education. But Willis and the school board remained intransigent. The civil rights movement organized a second boycott in February, 1964, during which I taught at a Freedom School organized by several churches in Hyde Park to provide “inspirational” instruction for students who had participated in the boycott.

Read the full story at the Huffington Post.

Robert B. McKersie is the author of A Decisive Decade: Inside the Chicago Civil Rights Movement During the 1960s, published by Southern Illinois University Press.  He is Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, MA.

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