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.
President Obama’s deeply personal thoughts have filled the air and blogosphere with renewed calls for that serious conversation about race we keep meaning to have in this country. But for any such conversation to occur, let alone succeed, the president noted, white Americans must recognize that African-Americans look at race relations “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
As a white liberal who has just published a book about my own experiences with Chicago’s civil rights movement in the 1960s, I too have been struck by how personal experience influences not just my view of specific incidents, but by how the baseline of how we discuss race has shifted. Just over my own life span, I have seen that as a nation, we have been able to move the race conversation forward — even if we don’t always recognize at the time that we are doing so. Read More »