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The New York City teachers' strike of 1968 was a months-long confrontation between the new community-controlled school board in the largely black Ocean-Hill Brownsville section of Brooklyn and New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. The strike dragged on from May 1968 to November 1968, shutting down the public schools for a total of 36 days and increasing racial tensions between Blacks and Jews.
Thousands of New York City teachers went on strike in 1968 when the school board of Ocean Hill–Brownsville abruptly dismissed a set of teachers and administrators. The newly created school district, in a mostly Black neighborhood, was an experiment in community control over schools—the dismissed workers were almost all white and Jewish.
The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), led by Albert Shanker, demanded the teachers' reinstatement. At the start of the school year in 1968, the UFT held a strike that shut down New York City's public schools for nearly two months.
The strike pitted community against union, highlighting a conflict between local rights to self-determination and teachers' universal rights as workers. Although the school district itself was quite small, the outcome of its experiment had great significance because of its potential to alter the entire educational system—in New York City and elsewhere. As one historian wrote in 1972: "If these seemingly simple acts had not been such a serious threat to the system, it would be unlikely that they would produce such a strong and immediate response."
From the 1880s through the 1960s, Brownsville was predominantly Jewish and politically radical. The Jewish population consistently elected Socialist and American Labor Party candidates to the state assembly and was a strong supporter of unionized labor and collective bargaining. Margaret Sanger chose Brownsville as the site of America's first birth control clinic because she knew the community would be supportive.
In 1940, Blacks made up 6% of Brownsville's population. By 1950, their numbers had doubled. Most of these new residents were poor and occupied the neighborhood's most undesirable housing. Although the neighborhood was racially segregated, there was more public mixing and solidarity among Blacks and Jews than could be found in most other neighborhoods.
Around 1960, the neighborhood underwent a rapid demographic shift. Citing increased crime and their desire for social mobility, Jews left Brownsville en masse, to be replaced by more Blacks and some Latinos. By 1970, Brownsville was 77% Black and 19% Puerto Rican. These changes corresponded to overall increases in segregation and inequality in New York City, as well as to the replacement of blue-collar with white-collar jobs.
The newly Black Brownsville neighborhood had few community institutions or economic opportunities. It lacked a middle class, and its residents did not own the businesses they relied upon.
Despite the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board ruling against segregated schools, educational segregation in Brooklyn actually increased in the following years, due to segregationist districting and school construction. Some whites on the neighborhood's periphery lobbied with the school board against the building of a new school that would draw a racially diverse population. They were opposed by Blacks, Latinos, and pro-integration whites, but nevertheless succeeded in functionally limiting the new school's racial makeup.
In the years before the strike, Brownsville's schools had become extremely overcrowded, and students were attending in shifts. Junior High School 271, which became the nexus of the strike, was constructed in 1963 to accommodate Brownsville's expanding population of youth. The school's performance was low from the outset, with most students testing below grade level in reading and math, and few advancing to the city's network of elite high schools.
New York City's school system was controlled by the Central Board of Education, a notoriously large and centralized bureaucracy headquartered at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. It became clear to activists in the 1960s that the Central School Board was uninterested in pursuing mandatory integration; their frustration led them away from desegregation and into the struggle for community control.
Brownsville's teachers were members of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a new union Local that had recently displaced the more leftist Teachers' Union (TU). The TU, which contained active socialist and communist members campaigned actively for racial equality, desegregation, and other radical political goals.
The UFT held a philosophy of limited pluralism, according to which different cultures could maintain some individuality under the umbrella of an open democratic society. The union also championed individualist values and meritocracy. Some called its policies 'race-blind' because it preferred to frame issues in terms of class. The UFT contained a high proportion of Jews.
The UFT's program for poor Black schools was called "More Effective Schools". Under this program class sizes would shrink and teachers would double or triple up for individual classes. Although the UFT expected this program to create goodwill among Blacks, it was challenged by the African-American Teachers Association (ATA; originally the Negro Teachers Association), a group whose founders in 1964 were also part of the UFT. The ATA felt that New York City's teachers and schools perpetuated a system of entrenched racism, and in 1966 it began campaigning actively for community control. The UFT opposed both involuntary assignment and extra incentives for experienced teachers to come to poor schools.
In 1967, the ATA opposed the UFT directly over the "disruptive child clause", a contract provision that allowed teachers to have children removed from classrooms and placed in special schools. The ATA argued that this provision exemplified and accelerated the system's overall racism. In the fall of 1967, the UFT held a two-week strike, seeking approval for the disruptive child clause; most of the ATA's members withdrew from the union. In February 1968, some ATA teachers helped to produce a tribute to Malcolm X that presented African music and dance, and glorified Black power; the UFT successfully asked that these teachers be disciplined.
In the New York City school system, regulated by a civil service examination, only 8% of teachers and 3% of administrators were Black. Following Brown v. Board, 4000 students in Ocean Hill–Brownsville were bussed to white schools, where they complained of mistreatment. Faith in the controllers of the school system was sinking lower and lower.
Bolstered by the civil rights movement, but frustrated by resistance to desegregation, African Americans began to demand authority over the schools in which their children were educated. The ATA called for community-controlled schools, educating with a "Black value system" that emphasized "unity" and "collective work and responsibility" (as opposed to the "middle class" value of "individualism). Leftist white allies, including teachers from the recently eclipsed Teachers Union, supported these demands.
Mayor John Lindsay and wealthy business leaders, supported community control as a pathway to social stability.) When in 1967 the Bundy Panel, a creation of the Ford Foundation, recommended trying decentralization, the city decided to experiment in three areas—over the objections of some members of the white middle-classes, who disliked the ideological tendencies that black-controlled schools might embrace.
The New York City Board of Education established the Ocean Hill–Brownsville area of Brooklyn as one of three decentralized school districts created by the city. In July 1967, the Ford Foundation issued Ocean Hill–Brownsville a $44,000 grant. The new district operated under a separate, community-elected governing board with the power to hire administrators. If successful, the experiment could have led to city-wide decentralization. While the local Black population viewed it as empowerment against what it saw as an intransigent white bureaucracy, the teachers' union and other unions saw it as union busting—a reduction in the collective bargaining power of the union who would now have to deal with 33 separate, local bodies, rather than a central administration.
Rhody McCoy, the new superintendent of the board, began working as a substitute teacher in 1949. He worked in the city's public school system ever since, as a teacher and then principal of a special needs school. He told the New York Times he was gentle but ambitious, and eager to change schools for neglected children. Some described him as a militant follower of Malcolm X, and the UFT opposed the board's decision to appoint him in July 1967.
Educational stratification in elementary schools was reduced. Fewer grades were issued, and one school abolished grade levels completely. The schools expanded the role of Black and African history and culture in the curriculum. Some schools began to teach Swahili and African counting. One school with a large number of Puerto Rican students became completely bilingual.
However, the district still relied on the school board for funding, and many of its requests (e.g., for a telephone and new library books) were reportedly met slowly if at all.
Teachers were taken aback by the level of control exercised by the school board, and many objected to the board's new policies concerning personnel and curriculum. The UFT opposed the new principals denounced the Ocean Hill–Brownsville curriculum, saying that awareness of one's racial heritage would not be helpful in the job market.
Once created, the new administration of Ocean-Hill Brownsville began to select principals from outside approved civil service list. The schools appointed a racially diverse set of five new principals—including New York City's first Puerto Rican principal—winning broad support from the community but angering some teachers.
In April 1968, the administration sought additional control over personnel, finance, and curriculum. When the city did not grant these powers, the district's parents initiated a boycott of the schools. The boycotts coincided with unrest due to the April 4 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
On May 9, 1968, the administration requested the transfer of 13 teachers and 6 administrators from Junior High School 271. The governing board accused these workers of attempting to sabotage the project. All received short letters similar to the following, sent to teacher Fred Nauman:
This unilateral decision violated the rules of the union's contract. The teachers were all white and mostly Jewish. One Black teacher included on the list, seemingly by accident, was quickly reinstated. In total, 83 workers were dismissed from the Ocean Hill–Brownsville district.
Shanker called the dismissals "a kind of vigilante activity" and said the schools had neglected due process. The Board of Education urged the teachers to ignore the letters. Mayor John Lindsay issued a statement countermanding the district's decision and condemning "anarchy and lawlessness". The dismissals were also condemned by the American Jewish Congress.
When the teachers tried to return to the school, they were blocked by hundreds of community members and teachers who supported the administration's decision. One sign displayed in the window of the occupied school read, "Black people control your schools". (At the same time, other teachers were staying off the job as per UFT instructions.)
On 15 May, 300 police officers, including at least 60 in plainclothes, cordoned off the school (making five arrests), effectively breaking the parent blockade and allowing the teachers to return. The city's Board of Education and the Ocean Hill–Brownsville board both announced on the same day that the schools would close.
On 22–24 May, 350 UFT members stayed out of school in protest. On June 20, these 350 strikers were also dismissed by the governing board. Under the terms of the decentralization agreement, the teachers were returned to the control of the New York City public school system, where they sat idle in the school district offices.
A series of city-wide strikes at the start of the 1968 school year shut down the public schools for a total of 36 days. The union defied the new Taylor Law to go out on strike, and more than a million students were not able to attend school during strike days.
On 9 September 1968 93% of the city's 58,000 teachers walked out. They agreed to return on September 11 after the Board of Education ordered the reinstatement of the dismissed teachers, but walked out again on September 13, once it became clear that the Board could not enforce this decision.
The strike did have support from Black leaders Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, who had gained prominence in the labor movement as well as within the civil rights movement. Rustin and Randolph were shunned from the black community due to their position.
Not all UFT teachers supported the strike, and some actively opposed it. A statistical study published in 1974 found that teachers—white and Black—of Black students were significantly more likely to oppose the strike. A coalition of Black and Puerto Rican UFT members, supported by members of other local unions, released a statement supporting Ocean Hill–Brownsville and opposing the strike.
Students and teachers returned to a chaotic atmosphere in the fall. Classes were held despite UFT picket lines outside.
In fact schools ran more smoothly in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville neighborhood than elsewhere, due to the fact that system was less reliant on the striking teachers and keys to the buildings. The board hired new teachers to replace the strikers, including many local Jews, who publicly contradicted claims that the district was antisemitic. Test scores in these schools improved (in a year where almost every other school's scores declined due to the strike.
When the original teachers were restored to their posts at JHS 271, students refused to attend their classes. New York School Superintendent Bernard E. Donovan attempted to close schools in the district and to remove McCoy and most of the principals. When they refused to vacate their positions, Donovan called in the police.
Striking teachers were in and out of school during the first weeks of the year, affecting over one million students.
Superintendent Donovan ordered many schools locked; in many places, people smashed windows and broke locks to re-enter their school buildings (sealed by union janitors sympathetic to the strike). Some camped on school grounds overnight to prevent further lockouts by janitors and custodians. Some were arrested on trespassing charges.
Other parents sent their children to Ocean Hill–Brownsville because the schools there were operational. Most of these outside students were Black but some were white; some came long distances to attend the community–controlled schools.
Shanker was routinely branded a racist, and many African-Americans accused the UFT of being 'Jewish-dominated'. A Puerto Rican group in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville neighborhood burnt Shanker in effigy.
Shanker and some Jewish groups attributed the original firing of the teachers to antisemitism. During the strike, the UFT distributed an official pamphlet called "Preaching Violence Instead of Teaching Children in Ocean Hill-Brownsville", citing a lesson that advocated Black separatism.
Some members of the school community, as well as the New York Civil Liberties Union, accused Shanker of playing up antisemitism to win sympathy and support. Some of the rhetoric surrounding the strike may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, crystallizing Black antisemitism where it had not solidly existed.
70% of the district's new hires were white, and half of these were Jewish.
The strike ended on November 17, 1968, when the New York State Education Commissioner asserted state control over the Ocean Hill–Brownsville district. The dismissed teachers were reinstated, three of the new principals were transferred, and the trusteeship ran the district for four months.
The conflict at Ocean Hill–Brownsville smoldered after the end of the strike. Eight people charged with harassing strikers counter-sued the city, alleging that law enforcement had been discriminatory and excessive. In 1969 some charged that the schools underwent "a purge of militant black teachers". When school opened in September 1969, the school district shut itself down for a day in protest of new regulations that deprived it further of autonomy.
Shanker emerged from the strike a figure of national prominence. He was jailed for 15 days in February 1969 for sanctioning the strikes, in contravention of New York's Taylor Law. The Ocean Hill–Brownsville district lost direct control over its schools; other districts never gained control over their schools.
The UFT crippled the ATA during the 1970s through a lawsuit, filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, accusing the ATA of excluding white teachers. The UFT also sought to cut off the ATA's sources of funding and remove its leaders from the school system.
Residents of Brownsville continued to feel neglected by the city, and in 1970 some staged the "Brownsville Trash Riots". When the schools agreed to impose a standardized reading test in 1971, its scores had fallen.
The strike badly divided the city and became known as one of John Lindsay's "Ten Plagues". Scholars have agreed with Shanker's assessment that "the whole alliance of liberals, blacks and Jews broke apart on this issue. It was a turning point in this way." The strike created a serious rift between white liberals, who supported the teachers' union, and Blacks who wanted community control. The strike made it clear that these groups, previously allied in the struggle for civil rights and the labor movement, would sometimes come into conflict. According to historian Jerald Podair, it also pushed New York's Jewish population into accepting an identity of whiteness, further polarizing race relations in the city. He argues that the shift in coalitions after the 1968 strike pushed New York City to the political right for decades to come—in part because race came to eclipse class as the main axis of social conflict.