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Ocean Hill-Brownsville and the Freedom Schools of 1968

A teacher’s account

The following piece is an account of the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Strike by former teacher and rank-and-file activist in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) Marc Pessin.

AAn earlier version of this piece was published on on the fiftieth anniversary of the strike. The strike marked a huge shift in UFT politics as Albert Shanker consolidated his power within the union through mobilizing conservative teachers against the community control movement. By 1975, the union was in a weakened state as it faced historic budget cuts that marked the rise of neoliberal austerity.

I started teaching right at the end of 1967. The 1968 strike by the reactionary United Federation of Teachers (UFT) against the Black community’s efforts to determine their own destinies started the next semester. This was not the first instance of the UFT’s conservatism, as the union supported the Vietnam War and refused to support sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

I had just been teaching a partial program in two different schools, but then with my first full-time job at JHS 22 on the lower east side, I had to decide whether I should cross a picket line or stay out on strike. Coming from a radical background, it was a gut-wrenching and difficult choice. I decided with all the involvement I had in civil rights struggles, I could not go against the community. How could I sing “We Shall Overcome” at meetings of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and now turn my back on the Black community?

This was not a typical strike for greater pay or better working conditions, it was a divisive strike which could only weaken the union in the long run.  It was a strike which did the very opposite of the 2012 and 2019 strikes by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which united with the community for the common good.  In Chicago, keeping schools open, reducing class sizes and providing services for the community was just as important to teachers as salary increases and other benefits. I decided to join the movement for community control.

In the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement shook the foundations of U.S. society. Members of the Black community and white progressives fought together to try to bring about the integration of the New York City Public Schools. They met tremendous resistance from reactionary whites. One proposal was for building new schools in areas on the border between a white district and a Black district, and having Black and white kids attend these schools. Many whites would have none of this.

When I started teaching, less than eight percent of the school staff were people of color, and that was all people of color. The majority of teachers were white and Jewish, while around sixty to seventy percent of the students were non-white. By contrast, in D.C., Detroit, and Philadelphia, more than half of the teaching staff were people of color. This disparity was due to a systematic attempt by the New York City Board of Examiners to keep Black people and other people of color out of education jobs through licensing exams. The schools were controlled by whites; Black people had no control over the curriculum or over hiring and firing because the New York City Board of Education was dominated by whites.

Eventually, the Black Power movement became a factor and many people of color moved on from fighting for integration to fighting for community control, as whites had effectively defeated the movement for integration. Having a quality education took precedence over integration, if integration was not possible because of the racist resistance of whites.

In 1964, there were Freedom Schools set up in the South, and Freedom Summer took place in Mississippi. Freedom Summer was an attempt to register people of color to vote in the region where they had been most disenfranchised under Jim Crow laws and through extralegal violence. Over forty schools were set up in which the curriculum would be controlled by Black people, and they proved to be very successful.  These successes had an effect on antiracist struggles in the North, and there was a growing campaign for community control of the New York City schools.

That movement eventually led to the setting up of three “demonstration” districts by the Board of Education to see if community control could work. One was set up in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the area which precipitated the strike; the IS-201 complex was set up in Harlem; and there was a third school set up in Chinatown called Two Bridges. The UFT leaders were very upset about these developments. The union was concerned that New York City would eventually have 32 bargaining units instead of one Central Board of Education if community control was successfully implemented. The additional danger was that some of these districts would be controlled by people of color, and the predominantly white Jewish teachers union did not go for this. Albert Shanker was the president of the United Federation of Teachers (I eventually ran against him for union presidency in 1983 and 1985). Shanker took a sharp position against community control and fought it every step of the way.

Eventually, there was a confrontation; proponents of community control argued the community should be allowed to set up their own curriculum and be able to hire and fire teachers like any other school district. In 1968, there was a confrontation when Rhody McCoy, the head of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experimental school district, transferred about fifty UFT teachers. Transfers were a common occurrence in other districts, but when Rhody McCoy, a Black man, did it, it led to a racist backlash.

Ultimately, the teacher’s union went out for two months to fight the transfers. The odd thing was that not only the teacher’s union went out, but also the administrator’s union and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators (CSA), too. When have you ever heard of a situation where the bosses and the workers went out on strike at the same time? They were both on the picket lines and they both refused to come in to work; principals, assistant principals, and teachers.

The UFT leadership said that Rhody McCoy and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville administrators should not have “fired” the teachers. Union leaders also suggested that there were political motives in firing the teachers. For some, this was an issue of job security; for the ones that were really running the show (Shanker and his Unity Caucus), it was an issue of who was going to control the schools. They wanted to maintain white and Jewish influence in school governance.

Not everyone in the union agreed with Shanker. There were quite a few teachers who came from a Left tradition and organized the Teachers for Community Control. This group was established by people who were formerly members of the Communist Party-led Teachers Union (TU). They joined forces with activists in Black neighborhoods and formed a coalition to fight for community control against the strike. The demonstration districts that were community-controlled continued to operate, and in districts like Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Harlem, they established a new curriculum, hired and fired their own teachers, and governed the schools in their own way.

The curriculum in the community-controlled districts was influenced by Black nationalism, emphasizing Black history, Black struggles and educating people to become activists and to fight for their rights. The local community board developed a curriculum that emphasized Black pride and a restoration of Black history that had not been told in the white-controlled schools. At that time, there were no Black people in the history books except Booker T. Washington and maybe some abolitionist leaders. The curriculum that was developed in these schools gave light to the contributions of Africans and African Americans throughout history. The idea was to give kids pride in themselves, and there was a reawakening around Black pride, Black history, and Black identity.

While this was going on in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Harlem, there were a number of other schools, like the one where I worked, where teachers broke open the schools. I was a member of Teachers for Community Control and participated in the decision to cross the picket line collectively. Teachers like myself came to the conclusion that this was a racist strike and the teacher’s union was not fighting for salaries and working conditions or a health plan, but to keep Black people from running their own schools.

Even though it was a very difficult decision—because I never thought I’d ever cross a picket line and because I support workers’ struggles—I did so because it was a racist strike. And so we crossed: nineteen other teachers and I broke into the school, went in through the window, opened the doors, and established a Freedom School. Many of the kids from the neighborhood, supported by their parents, attended.

The New York City schools I taught in for 35 years claimed to teach democracy, yet education is often authoritarian and hierarchical, even today. The textbooks in the 1960s were almost identical to those used in the 1940s and 1950s. Schools were horrible places with limited resources and no up-to-date information. When we broke into these schools, we established real democracy; the parents, the students, and the teachers all had a role in determining curriculum and in determining what would happen in the classroom. We had meetings where we discussed how things were going, what we wanted to do, what was working right, and what wasn’t working. The new principal, Bobby Greenberg, was elected by the parents and teachers. At one point, he was criticized for things as mundane as straightening the desks and chairs. As quickly as he was hired, he could have been fired if he didn’t fall in line. To avoid this, we organized the community.

It was like the revolution had come. We didn’t just work during the period of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; the teachers stayed for several hours after school every day, working to develop curriculum and to give special attention to the kids. We studied and developed new teaching techniques, new curriculum, and a new way of managing our affairs that was democratic and collective. It was an exciting period, but it only lasted two months.

My school, JHS 22, happened to be 95 percent Latinx, with a small minority of African American students; I don’t remember many white students. The teachers involved in the Freedom School were predominantly white progressives, but Latinx and Black teachers had greater representation than they had in the UFT. As a white person in the movement, there was always a question of where I stood. I think there is always a little bit of awkwardness, but over time you become part of a movement by building trust and taking risks with others in solidarity. I began to be accepted by the community and respected for my actions, which were deemed risky. The striking teachers were outside on the picket line, often threatening our physical safety. There was a lot of anger. I understood the anger on the other side too, because when you’re on strike, you don’t want people crossing a picket line. We were considered scabs.

My feeling is that a lot of students were radicalized as a result of the struggle. There was tremendous uproar in the city: You can imagine 55 thousand teachers out on strike and the Black community trying to defend itself against this militant racism. This strike took place in the context of a social crisis that was going on all over the country, where multiple cities were literally on fire. Standard education was on the defensive.

I remember a teacher once raised the issue of whether we should be teaching “ebonics” to accommodate the needs of Black students. In our school, similar ideas pushed beyond this logic with bilingual and multicultural education; we made sure that our classes were taught in Spanish and English. The Vietnam War was an issue that was brought up, as the U.S. was getting deeply into the war. So, consequently, we were dealing with all kinds of issues that may not have been brought up before. I remember many people became more radically against the war, along with the radicalizing influence of Black Nationalism.

When the strike was over and the administrators and other teachers returned to the school, the 19 of us who had crossed the picket line were targets. The very first semester I was there as a regular substitute teacher, I was fired, and so were all the other first-year teachers and regular substitutes who had crossed the picket. Here was a strike over the issue of hiring and firing, and many of us were fired without cause. Since the union was on the other side during the strike, they didn’t defend us. On the other hand, the parents demonstrated near Houston Street and Columbia for over five days. This was due to the movement being a coalition of parents and teachers who walked in. Some parents were radicals, while others just wanted their kids back in school. Once parents were willing to block the streets for us, we were all hired back. Everyone who was let go was rehired because of the strong support of the parents and the students.

How did the strike end? Basically, the community control movement lost. The Board of Education did away with community control and brought in a kind of fake community control called decentralization, all in collaboration with the Ford Foundation. They set up 32 school districts in the city, but they were at best pseudo democracies. It was an attempt at trying to save face for the community control movement, yet the teacher’s union was the real winner. When the teachers came back, they were allowed to teach an hour and a half extra every day to make up for the penalties of the notorious Taylor Law, which made all public strikes in New York City illegal, with harsh consequences. In this case, however, while the teachers who went out on strike were to lose two days pay for every day they were out, when they returned, they were paid to teach after school, ostensibly to give the students extra work to make up for the lost education.

This was an expression of the union’s victory. The teachers did not lose anything for going out on strike, or at least they did not lose what the Taylor Law prescribed. This shows that “illegal” only matters when you don’t have the strength. Since the UFT had the strength, they were able to find a way to give the teachers back the money they lost. If we are united, it doesn’t matter what laws are in effect. The ruling class will back down because of our collective power to shut things down.

The worst thing that happened as a result of the conflict in 1968 was the fissure that was created between Jews and Black people, who had fought together for civil rights and against racism and antisemitism. In the end, all working people in New York lost as a result of the strike.

The UFT won a good contract in 1972, but after that, because of the lack of unity, every contract I have seen was a losing one until I retired in 2001. In addition to losing contracts, labor was weakened as the pension system consistently deteriorated with the creation of different tiers for new employees, which got worse with each new tier.

After three years of defending myself at JHS 22, I realized that the writing was on the wall and that if I didn’t go somewhere else, I would lose my job. So, I applied for a job at IS 201 in Harlem, which was unique in that 95 percent of the staff were people of color and all of the administrators were people of color. When I got there it was made quite clear to me who was in charge. I would be welcome as long as I respected the way things were being done and that Black people were in charge at this school. I was eventually elected UFT chapter leader and led my chapter out on strike in 1975. Unlike 1968, this strike was fought over legitimate union issues like wages, working conditions, and job benefits. Unfortunately, on these issues, Shanker and the Unity Caucus sold out the teachers by ending the strike prematurely after five days. Because of this major defeat, the UFT has not been on strike since.

Featured image credit: Richie Girardin; modified by Tempest.

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Marc Pessin View All

Marc Pessin is a community activist who serves in a number of organizations in Rockland County, NY, such as the Board of Directors of the Martin Luther King Multipurpose Center and the Steering Committee of the Rockland Coalition to End the New Jim Crow; Marc is the treasurer of the Gordon Center for Black Culture and Arts and a member of Rockland Socialist Study Group. He was a Social Studies teacher for a total of 51 years in New York City public schools and in Rockland County. In NYC, Marc co-founded the New Directions Caucus, which helped to build a rank-and-file opposition to the conservative leadership of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). He also served as a Delegate and/or Chapter Leader in the UFT. He helped to initiate a lawsuit, Gulino vs. New York City Board of Education, which supported Black and Latinx teachers in their efforts to fight discriminatory teacher tests (NTE and LAST). After 25 years of struggle, this suit led to the largest damages payout in NYC history and a two-billion-dollar victory for people of color.