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When 200,000 CPS Students Walked Out of School In Protest

Conditions in Chicago schools during the civil-rights era led nearly half the student body to resist.

Kartemquin Films’ ‘63 Boycott’ looks back at the epic protest and its legacy.   Photo: Kartemquin Films

Thousands of students are walking out of school today for 17 minutes–one for every victim of the Parkland tragedy. How many thousands? We probably won’t know; they’re walking out in waves at 10 a.m. local time across the country. The Tribune reports thousands here. The New York Times reports thousands there. The Los Angeles Times reports that over 2,800 walkouts are scheduled, so it wouldn’t take many students per school to get into the hundreds of thousands (although one walkout of one was documented).

It would take 71 students per scheduled protest, though, to top just one Chicago school protest. In 1963, over two hundred thousand public-school students walked out of school to protest the deplorable conditions that superintendent Benjamin Willis oversaw. His name literally lives on in infamy with the phrase “Willis Wagons,” in reference to the portable trailers Willis brought in to address students that were crammed into overflowing schools and even sent to school in less-than-full-day “double shifts.” A photograph from a lawsuit filed by the NAACP is a glimpse of the conditions faced by the students.

Willis’s actions were a very bad solution to very bad problems that preceded his tenure. Pressure that had been building up finally exploded all over the city’s streets, as nearly half the student body stayed out of the system’s crowded, segregated classrooms. Joining them was the well-known Chicago activist Al Raby, who would play a critical part in the city’s Freedom Summer of 1966. They were also joined by a couple young people who would later become well known: University of Chicago student Bernie Sanders, who was arrested that day, and his classmate Gordon Quinn, who filmed the protests.

Quinn would go on to found Kartemquin Films, and 54 years later produced the film ‘63 Boycott, which pairs his vivid footage with the day’s participants reflecting on it.


It screens Friday at Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest.

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