The Community Control Movement: New York’s Dirty Secret

Near the end of my last blog, I mentioned a concept known as community control.  I listed community control as one of the essential elements needed for building back better after the pandemic in order to accelerate the learning of poor Black children. 

Community control is a form of participatory democracy where the community makes decisions around personnel, finances, and the curriculum that will be taught in its neighborhood schools.

In America, community control is based upon geographic location in the public sector yet based upon economics in the private sector.  This can be seen in the practices of rural and suburban communities privilege of voting rights on allocating funds in schools in their community.  Regardless of having children enrolled in the district or not, citizens in those communities decide on which curriculum will be taught, which building and grounds updates will be made and other monetary decisions.  In private schools, parents pay tuition and therefore dictate what curriculum will be taught to their children and how funds will be expended.  However, city residents are not afforded those same rights. 

I remember learning about this in one of my educational administration courses at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York.  My professor was explaining the funding formula for New York State schools.  She mentioned that the largest portion is received from NYS and another portion is received from taxpayers.  However, city taxpayers are the only group that does not get to decide how their tax money will be spent.  I thought to myself, “well, that seems to be racist.”  But, it didn’t cross my mind too often after that because it was framed by my white professor as “the way things are.”

She didn’t teach me that just 40 years ago, the Black community fought hard and furious for those rights.  And she didn’t teach me that a whole community control movement occurred in the Black community in New York State in the 1960’s; a movement complete with marches, boycotts, and rallies.  And I didn’t learn until later in my life, that my own grandmother, Mrs. Elizabeth Lidge Burgos, organized one of those boycotts in Buffalo.  However, the events that occurred in Brooklyn during the 1968-69 school year determined the outcome for all New Yorkers (upstate, downstate, rural, urban, and suburban) until this day.  The way business is handled in New York in education has since remained the same.

It all started with the landmark decision of Brown vs. Board of Education making it illegal to segregate schools starting in 1954. On paper, segregation was illegal; however, in practice, boards of education made no efforts to integrate schools.  For nearly 10 years, the Black community demanded integration by requesting two policy changes: 1) open enrolment and 2) bussing.  At first, they believed that it was important to enroll their children in schools that had updated textbooks, newer building facilities, and experienced teachers.  However, just the opposite had occurred.  In Brooklyn, sharply contrasting worldviews collided when white mothers greeted Black students with curses, spitting, and name-calling.  Black students were ushered into segregated classrooms, ignored and treated as second-class citizens. 

The trauma of this experience is penned in this poem written by a 10-year-old Ocean Hill-Brownsville student:

where was my mother
when I was bussed to Gravesend
and rivers of people
shaking the bus
what was the meaning?
we don’t want them with us?
white people?
I am a nigger?

The aforementioned policies of open enrollment and bussing were such disasters that the Black community decided that integration was no longer the answer.  Through the organization and collaboration of several parent groups, the Black community united and formed a premise that argued, since the white-dominated educational bureaucracy has failed to teach Black children, the Black community itself should be given the chance.  Now, they believed that community control of Black schools would be the only solution for teaching Black children how to appreciate their self-identity and become self-sufficient.

A few famous civil rights activists were a part of the movement including Ossie Davis, Stokley Carmichael, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Malcolm X.  Regarding the move from integration to community control, Ossie Davis said, “Suppose that now, bitter and disillusioned but clearer in our vision and wiser in our aims, we turn to another source of power, the only power sufficient for that fundamental change demanded by the times?  Suppose we now turn to ourselves in answer to our needs!”  This message fit with Malcolm X’s message of self-reliance and self-determination.  After his recent pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm sought to form alliances with the Civil Rights movement, which he had previously shunned.  By the time of the school boycott’s in the mid 60’s, he saw the only path to equality as “Black control of the Black community’s economic and political institutions.”  As Harlem activist David Spencer put it, “Nobody from outside is going to tell us what kind of segregated school we’re going to have.”

In 1967, the New York City Board of Education passed a resolution calling for community control of its public schools.  It had been centralized since 1898.  However, the board selected three neighborhoods to begin an experiment for the 1968-69 school year.  The three school districts selected were in Manhattan, Harlem, and Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn.

All Hell Broke Loose!

At the request of the community board, the newly appointed Black superintendent of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Rhody A. McCoy, wrote a letter to terminate 13 white teachers and six supervisors, one of who was a United Federation of Teachers (UFT) chapter leader.  Fred Nauman received his termination letter on May 9, 1968.  This sparked the longest and the largest NYC teachers strike to date. 

The 92 percent white teaching faculty went on strike for 10 weeks because they didn’t think it was fair that the Black community should have the right to terminate their teaching jobs in order to train and hire Black teachers. 

How the NYC Teachers Organized and Gained Collective Bargaining Power

Prior to 1960, there was more than one teachers union; there was the Teacher’s Guild and the Teacher’s Union (TU).  Neither had collective bargaining rights at the time.  There was also a stark, historical disunity amongst the ethnic differences of the white teachers.  The older teachers were White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and Irish where as the newer teachers were Italian, Catholic and Jewish, many of which were first-time graduates of their families and had just achieved middle class status. 

In 1960, the Teachers Guild merged with some other professional associations and renamed itself the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).  The nation’s AFL-CIO decided to support the UFT and its 7,500 members by supplying them with political organizers and campaign funds.  In 1961, the UFT received recognition as the collective bargaining agent for the city’s teachers.  By 1964, the TU was eliminated because of its affiliations with the Communist party and 35-year-old Albert Shanker was elected as the second president of the UFT.  Needless to say, despite years of divisiveness amongst themselves, the white majority banded together against the Black community in this moment to form one solidified teachers union known today as the United Federation of Teachers or the UFT.

Also, in 1964, the Black teachers united and formed the Negro Teachers Association (NTA) and elected Albert Vann as its president on April 12th.  New to the teaching profession at that time was Leslie R. Campbell aka Jitu Weusi and Dr. Oliver Patterson.  All were extremely instrumental in organizing the Black community in New York City and worked closely with the Black community board president Rev. Milton A. Galamison.  Together, they had organized one of the nation’s largest boycotts on February 3, 1964 where 464,361 students participated by not attending 300 NYC schools and they held a rally at the Board of Education’s Central headquarters at 110 Livingston Street.  Yet, the Freedom Schools remained open and attracted about 100,000 students.

It was war!

Sabotage was the name of the game.  The UFT employed dirty politics and slandered the Black superintendent.  Albert Shanker caused a further divide in the community by mailing out anti-Semitic leaflets disguised as coming from the Black community board and Rev. Galamison.  The news media published numerous bogus sensational reports and cast the Black community in a negative light.

Two notable books on the subject, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis by Jerald E. Podair and Inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville: A Teacher’s Education 1968-1969 by Charles S. Isaacs, share primary source documents that reveal how the UFT led the slanderous confrontation.  The latter contains more primary sources than the former.

“Education would play as a means of advancement – as a commodity – in the city’s new economy,” Podair wrote.  They negotiated collective bargaining rights for their dues-paying members and came out stronger than ever before with a contract, class size stipulations, teacher transfer rules, and job security.

The greater white community sided with the teachers union.  In the end, it was determined that teachers’ job security was more important than the Black community having control of its own children’s education.   “By 1966, the UFT was more concerned with institutionalizing its power than with confronting the Board of Education across the class divide,” Podair wrote.  The rights of poor Blacks who live in the city and attend public schools have been systematically ignored ever since.  Today, they do not decide on curriculum, funding allocation, or the hiring of suitable teachers for their children.

As W.E.B. Du Bois said, “Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.”

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