Black Parents Take Control, Teachers Strike Back In 1968, a vicious battle went down between white teachers and black and Puerto Rican parents in a Brooklyn school district. Many say the conflict brought up issues that have yet to be resolved more than fifty years later.
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Black Parents Take Control, Teachers Strike Back

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Black Parents Take Control, Teachers Strike Back

Black Parents Take Control, Teachers Strike Back

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

And I'm Gene Demby. And it's February, best-known for being the shortest month of the year. And, oh, yeah, it's Black History Month, too. Don't think that's a coincidence.

MERAJI: Coincidence - he thinks not.

DEMBY: It's not. We're going to make the most, though, of the limited time available by bringing you stories each week this February of black resistance.

MERAJI: This week, we've got a story about a vicious battle between white teachers and black and Puerto Rican parents in Bedford-Stuyvesant that led to a teachers strike in New York City. And when that strike went down in 1968, it held the title of longest teachers strike in U.S. history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Some say the ghost of that strike still haunts the biggest public school district in the country because so many of the questions and concerns shouted into bullhorns more than 50 years ago have yet to be answered.

DEMBY: It was a very big deal.

MERAJI: It was.

DEMBY: And, you know, most of us have probably never heard of it. But don't feel bad, y'all. We hadn't either, and we like to think we're up on these things. It's kind of our job.

MERAJI: Yeah, it was kind of embarrassing that we didn't know about this.

DEMBY: I know, right? You lived in Brooklyn and everything. So we're passing the mic to the co-hosts of the "School Colors" podcast, Max Freedman and Mark Winston Griffith. Max is a former history teacher and producer of the Unsettled podcast, and Mark is a veteran community organizer in Bed-Stuy and executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center.

MERAJI: They spent more than two years researching and reporting out this story so that it isn't forgotten. And that's enough talking from us. We're going to turn it over now to Mark and Max.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SCHOOL COLORS")

MONIFA EDWARDS: Our ancestors were brutally forced to an unknown land to be enslaved and looked down upon as animals by the white man.

MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH: On June 13, 1969, Monifa Edwards got up to speak at her junior high school graduation. She was the valedictorian, and that was the first line of her speech.

EDWARDS: They were separated from their tribes and unable to speak to their own people because of language barriers. Forced to speak the language of their oppressors, they have since that time been struggling from what was considered the lowest of worldly creatures, slaves in bondage, to achieve a respected place in the world.

GRIFFITH: That voice you're hearing right now - that's Monifa 50 years later, reading her own speech out loud for the very first time since that graduation day.

EDWARDS: Today, black people are still technically in bondage. The man has been limiting our education, keeping us from getting jobs, and keeping us in slums. Though our black men are the last to be hired in times of peace, they are the first to be hired to die in times of war.

GRIFFITH: Remember; this was Monifa's junior high school graduation. She was 14 years old.

EDWARDS: We must be aware and proud of our blackness. I feel that we must also get out of the Hate Whitey bag that so many of us developing awareness fall into. A white person may be a great friend and a valuable asset to your career later on. But remember that even God first helps those who try to help themselves.

GRIFFITH: So how does an eighth-grader come up with this? She went to 271.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAX FREEDMAN: In the late 1960s, Junior High School 271 was the center of a bold experiment in community control of schools in the central Brooklyn neighborhood of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

GRIFFITH: After decades of neglect from the Board of Education, black and Puerto Rican parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville were given power over their own public schools. But as they tried to exercise that power, they collided headfirst with the teachers union.

FREEDMAN: Leading to one of the longest teachers strikes in American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: This is "School Colors," a podcast from Brooklyn Deep about how race, class and power shape American cities and schools.

FREEDMAN: No single event has done more to define the New York City school system than Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

GRIFFITH: What started as a local pilot project turned into one of the most divisive racial confrontations ever witnessed in New York City. Ocean Hill-Brownsville made the national news for months, shattered political coalitions and created new ones, and fundamentally shaped the city we live in today, for better or worse.

FREEDMAN: But as the strike tore the city apart, something important was happening on the ground in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The union had shut down schools all over the city, but the people of Ocean Hill-Brownsville mobilized to keep their schools open and prove to the world that black people could run their own institutions successfully.

GRIFFITH: In the process, Ocean Hill-Brownsville inspired a particular brand of defiant, independent and intensely proud black activism that would define political life in central Brooklyn for generations. For me as a community organizer, it provided a vision of black self-determination in action.

FREEDMAN: For students like Monifa Edwards, they still say the education they got in Ocean Hill-Brownsville was the best they ever received.

GRIFFITH: But 50 years later, exactly what happened and why is far from settled. Depending on who you talk to, you can hear dramatically different versions of the same events.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDRA FELDMAN: Teachers were very dedicated, trying very hard to do a good job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LES CAMPBELL: There was no teaching going on. The teaching had just stopped.

CLEASTER COTTON: They didn't have any skin in the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

RHODY MCCOY: They never intended for this pilot program to have any meaning.

DOLORES TORRES: We had, like, a regular election like a politician has.

AL SHANKER: Well, what kind of election is that?

MCCOY: This is a fraud, and it's a hoax.

FRED NAUMAN: Somebody has to say something to the children that we are not the enemy.

TORRES: We did not fire these people.

SHANKER: I can't force those teachers to go back there 'cause otherwise the city will burn down. They will burn the city down.

RAFIQ KALAM ID-DIN: (Reading) We are engaged in a fight for our survival - the survival of the black race, of our race, of our people. Do you know what survival means?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Who you choose to believe is up to you, but that choice is especially personal for us. We both have family who are directly involved on opposite sides of the strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: This is Mark Winston Griffith.

FREEDMAN: And Max Freedman.

GRIFFITH: Welcome back to "School Colors."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing) But I can't (ph).

JAY ESKIN: Bedford-Stuyvesant has certainly changed a lot since I started working here. It's now gentrified. Is that the word they use - gentrified?

FREEDMAN: This is my mother's first cousin, Jay Eskin. He picked me up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where I live, because I'd asked him to drive me around the neighborhood where he was born just southeast of Bed-Stuy - Brownsville.

So where are we going first?

ESKIN: We're going to take a look at the Junior High School 271, which was the scene of the longest teachers strike in American history back in 1967 or '68.

FREEDMAN: And Jay was right there on the picket lines as a union teacher. In fact, Junior High School 271 was down the street from his grandmother's apartment. Jay's grandmother was my great-grandmother. When she came to Brooklyn from Russia in 1923, Brownsville was a poor Jewish immigrant neighborhood. My great-grandfather literally sold junk from a pushcart in the streets.

But after World War II, the neighborhood started to change.

ESKIN: When I lined up for first grade at my school the first day of school, I was the only Caucasian child. And my mother said, this is ridiculous; we have to move. She wasn't prejudiced, but she didn't want me to go to an all-African American school.

FREEDMAN: Look; nobody really wants their kid to be the only one of anything. But it also sounds like she might have been a little prejudiced. Anyway, Jay's mother clearly wasn't the only white parent who felt this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SCHOOL COLORS")

FREEDMAN: One million white people left New York City in the '50s and '60s, and they were replaced by an almost equal number of African American and Puerto Rican migrants, who moved into many of the same neighborhoods the Jews and Irish Americans and Italian Americans were leaving.

GRIFFITH: So when Sufia DeSilva arrived in Brownsville in the early '60s, the ethnic boundaries were pretty clear.

SUFIA DESILVA: OK, so right there on Herkimer and Ralph all the way up to Hopkinson Avenue was black. And then you crossed Hopkinson, and all the sudden you were in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. You walk two more blocks and you were in an Italian neighborhood. And everybody kind of knew how to stay in their lane. If the wrong people went in the wrong area, there was a fight that would break out, you know? And sometimes it was, like, really violent with guns and bats and...

GRIFFITH: Sufia lived in Manhattan as a young girl. So when her family came to Brooklyn...

DESILVA: It was a culture shock for me. It really was. I remember praying every night, God, please let me go back to Manhattan, because I moved to a black neighborhood, and I was Puerto Rican. They would never let me forget that. I was - every day, I'd go out to play, and they'd call me Mira Mira, which I didn't understand, especially because I'm a dark-skinned Puerto Rican. And so I had to go through this thing of fighting almost every day to establish myself in Brooklyn.

GRIFFITH: Despite the fighting, it was a very close-knit community.

DESILVA: Everybody knew each other, played together. And they had a store on the corner called Jimmy's (ph), which were owned by some Italians. And we all used to go there every day to go get hoagie sandwiches. They made the best sandwiches.

FREEDMAN: Father John Powis, a soft-spoken white Catholic priest, grew up in another part of Brooklyn and came to Brownsville in 1963. What he found there was troubling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN POWIS: Gradually, what was happening was large black and Hispanic families were moving into these tenements that had 16 or 20 apartments. And whereas one or two Jewish people would live in an apartment, there was now eight or 10 people living in each apartment.

FREEDMAN: Just like the tenements were increasingly overcrowded, so were the schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWIS: All the kids in Ocean Hill-Brownsville at that point were going to school on a half-day basis. They either went from 8 to 12, or they went from 12 to 4.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: Well, what happened was they told us the kids would have to go on double shifts.

GRIFFITH: Dolores Torres was the mother of four boys in Brownsville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: I had two going in the morning and two going in the afternoon. School was overcrowded to an extreme, whereas there wasn't much learning, wasn't much education going on.

GRIFFITH: One way to relieve the overcrowding might've been a serious school integration plan. There were plenty of open seats in majority-white schools.

FREEDMAN: But even after a citywide school boycott in February 1964 that kept almost half a million students home from school in support of integration...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Jim Crow must go. Jim Crow must go. Ole, ole.

FREEDMAN: ...The Board of Ed responded as they always had, with vague promises and one-off pilot programs. And there was massive organized resistance from white parents.

GRIFFITH: The movement for school integration was fracturing, exhausted and increasingly appeared out of step.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STOKELY CARMICHAEL: Now, if you talk about giving visibility to the one people in this country who have been locked out of everything in this country and who are the only people who can build a force to turn this country upside down, then you've got to talk about black power. That's what you have to talk about.

GRIFFITH: That's Stokely Carmichael, president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In Stokely's view, black people fighting for integration were playing themselves. By reinforcing the idea that the only way for a black child to get a good education was to send them to a white school, integration was just a cover for white supremacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Dolores Torres wasn't going to wait for some pie-in-the-sky citywide integration plan. Her kids were still in overcrowded schools that were failing to teach them much of anything. So she organized a group of parents from the neighborhood to appeal to the central board of education for help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: And we were totally ignored or told to take it to our local school board.

FREEDMAN: Which they did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: We went into the local school board that represented - supposed to represent our district. We found not one person on that board lived in our district. Most of the people on that board were white. We were a district of mostly Hispanic and black families. The ones that did have children in public schools went to public schools in good neighborhoods. We were a poor neighborhood.

FREEDMAN: So they went back to the central Board of Education, which sent them back to their local board.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: And these people, we felt, did not represent us. They had no children in the schools in our district. They weren't paying any attention to us because we were the ignorant people. These were the educated people. And we felt that they didn't care about us or our children.

FREEDMAN: On December 19, 1966, frustrated parents from across the city went to a meeting of the Board of Education at their Brooklyn headquarters. The meeting started to unravel when a black mother from Brownsville tried to speak her piece only to be ruled out of order because she had not submitted her name in advance. Parents were fed up with procedure. The board tried to continue the meeting, but the audience drowned them out, chanting, let her speak. We pay the taxes. Father John Powis was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWIS: And suddenly, the members of the Board of Ed got up and walked off their platform and refused to hear any more. And the people who were there selected nine representatives, and I was one of them. And we went up, and we took over the seats of the Board of Education. And we were there for 48 hours. And people all during the day, all during the night were coming down from all over parts of the city and testifying about how bad the schools were in their neighborhoods.

GRIFFITH: They called this the People's Board of Education. After this bit of political theater, parents all over the city started to demand people's boards in their own neighborhoods - in other words, community control.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: And at the same time the pressure for community control of schools was coming up from the neighborhood, the idea was gaining traction at the very top, with Mayor John Lindsay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LINDSAY: My fellow New Yorkers, I summon you to enlist in the fight for a better New York.

GRIFFITH: John Lindsay was a liberal Republican WASP with an Ivy League education and deep ties to the business class.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSAY: The fight to revive the hopes of the downtrodden, the sick and the exploited. The fight for new and better employment.

GRIFFITH: He was elected mayor by running as a fresh-faced idealist. He talked like a man on a crusade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSAY: The fight against wretched slums, poisoned air, stifling traffic and congested subways. The fight for excellence in quality and equality in our education.

FREEDMAN: Plus, in the wake of so-called race riots in Los Angeles, Boston, Newark, Detroit and many, many other American cities, Lindsay also believed that giving poor communities like Ocean Hill-Brownsville more power over their local institutions would help to keep the peace.

GRIFFITH: New York made it through the notorious long, hot summer of 1967 without a major outbreak of violence, but the mayor was rattled. By going along with community control, Lindsay could be seen as helping to head off a black revolution without having to demand anything from angry white parents.

FREEDMAN: So the mayor appointed a task force to study decentralization of the school system led by McGeorge Bundy, president of the Ford Foundation and, incidentally, one of the architects of the Vietnam War. And in May 1967, under pressure from the mayor and his task force, the Board of Ed created three demonstration districts - one in East Harlem, one on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and one combining a handful of schools from two adjacent neighborhoods on the eastern end of central Brooklyn, Ocean Hill and Brownsville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: The plan for community control was get people on the local school board that represented these kids and would represent us - in other words, people that lived in the community, had children in the community.

GRIFFITH: Dolores Torres.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: We would have an experimental district of eight schools - two junior high schools, six elementary schools.

FREEDMAN: And, first things first, that experimental local school board had to be elected. Here's Father John Powis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWIS: The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Demonstration School District began with an election, and a very representative election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: We were speaking to people coming into the office. We rode around speaking on a loudspeaker in the streets. We had people campaigning for us. We had, like, a regular election like a politician has.

FREEDMAN: Albert Shanker, president of the teachers union, saw it differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANKER: Well, there was no election. The election was - so-called election was conducted by having members who wanted to be elected to the governing board knocking at the apartments of people, saying, do you vote for me? Well, what kind of an election is that? It's not an election.

GRIFFITH: Yes, it is. That's literally how you do political organizing - for an election or otherwise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Al Shanker, depending on your point of view, is either the hero or the mustache-twirling villain of this story. He was hostile to community control almost from the beginning. But why?

GRIFFITH: It's hard not to hear in his voice this embedded racism where he sees the community as some kind of banana republic that doesn't know how to govern itself.

FREEDMAN: Sure, but it was more than that. He saw community control as a direct threat to his union, the United Federation of Teachers.

STEVE BRIER: They like to think of themselves as blue-collar. They like to think of themselves as teamsters.

FREEDMAN: This is labor historian Steve Brier.

BRIER: We're tough-talking. We're militant. We're going to fight for our own. We're going to get benefits for our members, higher salary, better working conditions. We're going to control the workplace. And that's what happens throughout the 1960s.

FREEDMAN: As unions go, the UFT was pretty young. But in just a few years, they had been very successful. And all that success was at risk if the Board of Ed went through with its plan to split up the school system.

BRIER: That would've meant all conditions would've been had to be negotiated locally, and that was anathema to Shanker and the union. They sure the hell didn't want to have to add three or 30 more contracts. They wanted one contract to negotiate. That's the labor leader mentality. You sort of don't want to deal with a dispersion of authority. You want, as they say in other contexts, one throat to choke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANKER: Matter of fact, I had a meeting with McGeorge Bundy. And I asked him, do you really think that dividing the city up into 64 districts and having parents pick boards and principals and teachers - is that going to make Johnny read? And he said, well, no, but they won't blame you. And they won't blame the mayor.

FREEDMAN: To your point, Mark, about the embedded racism in the way Shanker talked about Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the irony is that Shanker saw himself as a champion of civil rights. And he talked about civil rights all the time when he was attacking community control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANKER: I must say at the time that I didn't see it as part of the civil rights movement. To me, the civil rights movement was the movement for integration and the movement to eliminate segregation. In a sense, this represented a kind of backwards step. It represented a step by people in the community saying we've given up on integration, so we want to take hold of our schools.

GRIFFITH: Yeah. That's pretty much it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIER: My argument about Shanker is Shanker liked the civil rights movement when it was Martin Luther King and the March on Washington in 1963. He had no connection to sympathy for ability to connect to that movement when it became more radical. So from Malcolm X on, he was an antagonist because he felt like those people were bomb throwers and they were undermining the very thing that he believed workers needed to do, which was to form, as he imagined it, black-white alliances. But he wanted that done within the confines of the Democratic Party. And he wanted that done within the confines of the traditional labor movement, not its more radical alternatives that were posed in the 1960s.

GRIFFITH: So these are the battle lines. On the one side, we've got poor parents of color and black power activists seemingly aligned with the mayor and the Ford Foundation and the elites they represent. On the other, there's the teachers union.

FREEDMAN: Was it inevitable that they would come to blows? I don't know. Many teachers were just as unhappy about overcrowded classrooms as the parents were. But from the union's point of view, the first shot across the bow was this governing board election in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in the summer of 1967.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANKER: Well, what kind of election is that? That's not an election.

FREEDMAN: Shanker believed the election was held during the summer deliberately so as to exclude teachers who were on vacation.

GRIFFITH: Well, what were they supposed to do, wait a whole year? There was too much at stake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

C HERBERT OLIVER: Well, when my family moved here from Birmingham in 1965, they came from totally segregated schools. The children were all black. The teachers were all black. The principals were all black.

GRIFFITH: The chairman of the newly elected Ocean Hill-Brownsville governing board was a veteran of the civil rights movement in the South named Reverend C. Herbert Oliver. Reverend Oliver was relatively new to the neighborhood, but he had had a taste of what his fellow parents were facing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLIVER: One of my sons was above the national average in mathematics. But when it came to the schools here in Brooklyn, within one year, he was flunking math. And I went to the school to find out why. In Alabama, when I went to a school, I was welcomed. But when I came to the school here in Brooklyn, I couldn't get to see the principal. Someone wanted to know why I came, what I wanted to see him for, and that he was unavailable. So I simply said, well, I'll wait for him.

GRIFFITH: As a parent, if this happened to me today, I'd lose it. But that was not Reverend Oliver's style.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLIVER: In about a half an hour, the principal came. And I talked with the principal and told him what the problem was. We went and talked with the teacher. The teacher said my son was doing fine. I said he is not bringing home assignments, and he's flunking math. And he came here from Alabama, and he was ahead of the national average. And you're telling me he's doing fine? Something is wrong.

FREEDMAN: As chairman of the governing board, Reverend Oliver's first task was to hire a superintendent for the district.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLIVER: We knew that black people were capable of running schools. I knew that. I had come from the South, where all of the schools were black, and all of them had black principals. So I didn't feel that blacks in the North were incapable of running schools - they could. But somehow the system had shut them out.

FREEDMAN: Father John Powis was also on the board.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWIS: You've got to remember, at that time, there was no superintendent in the school system that was black. There was maybe one or two black principals, maybe a few here and there. But all of a sudden, to have a superintendent who was black, New York wasn't ready for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Blue-eyed pipe-smoking Rhody McCoy was the principal of a school for students who were labeled emotionally disturbed. This was one of a group of schools into which difficult kids - almost all of them black and Puerto Rican - were dumped, and discarded and the only corner of the system where a black man to be a principal at all. So McCoy knew the system from the inside and the worst of what it could do to black students and teachers alike. When he came to Ocean Hill-Brownsville to meet the governing board, he didn't mince words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCOY: A game is being being run on you. This is a fraud and it's a hoax. It's designed to detour you from what your goal is. And it's the typical kind of things that they do. And one of the board members said to me, who do you think you are? And she called me a few choice names and said, what makes you think you can do this job? And if we did give you a job, what would you do with it? And I said, first thing is everybody's going to have to follow my directions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWIS: He just caught everybody's imagination immediately. I mean, he came in. He was talking the language that the parents were talking. He was talking about a whole new way of teaching that had to be done. And somehow or another, it would have to involve parents in the community.

FREEDMAN: So Rhody McCoy would be the city's first black superintendent, and his first order of business was to hire five new principals. If you wanted to appoint a new principal anywhere in the city, union rules said that you had to pick from the first few names on the top of the list. But McCoy was determined to hire men of color - yes, they were all men - so he ignored that list. One of his picks was the first Puerto Rican principal in the city. One was the first Chinese American principal in the city. One was white and Jewish. One was black and Jewish.

GRIFFITH: And another was a black man, Herman Ferguson, who was then under indictment for conspiracy to murder two civil rights leaders. Whatever the merits of the case, Ferguson would later become known to me as a legendary political prisoner. Even attempting to make him a principal in Ocean Hill-Brownsville was a real provocation to the teachers union.

FREEDMAN: Ferguson never did get the job, but relations between the union and the governing board did not improve when the school year began.

GRIFFITH: On the first day of school in the fall of 1967 - the first day of the first year of community control - the UFT went on strike.

FREEDMAN: Now, stay with us here. This is not the big cataclysmic strike that we talked about at the beginning of this episode. That strike was in the fall of 1968. Exactly one year earlier, there was another citywide teacher strike that in many ways set the stage for what was to come.

GRIFFITH: According to the union, they went on strike in '67 to get more resources for schools in poor neighborhoods like Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But most people in Ocean Hill-Brownsville believed the teachers were just trying to get more power to discipline and expel, quote-unquote, "disruptive children."

FREEDMAN: The truth is the union was trying to do both. But most people in Ocean Hill-Brownsville saw this primarily as hostile to their black children and as an attempt to kill the momentum of community control.

GRIFFITH: So when the union went on strike citywide for two weeks, Ocean Hill-Brownsville did whatever they could to keep their schools open.

FREEDMAN: UFT president Al Shanker took this as a personal affront.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: With or without the union support, the governing board began to govern.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCOY: Oh, it was a joy to go to a board meeting. Not only were the board members present, but the community folk was sitting around, and they had as much input as the board members.

GRIFFITH: What McCoy and the board members describe sounds like an impossible utopia compared to what we have today. Board meetings often had 200 or 300 people in attendance. Can you imagine that? And parents didn't just come to the board. The board would come to them. Dolores Torres was a community-wide representative, but there was also a parent representative from each of the eight schools in the district.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: Each parent that was on the school board represents that school, so that parent was there every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCOY: So you didn't have anything going on in that school that the parents were, one, not knowledgeable about, and two, didn't support.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: We as community representatives had to visit all eight schools and also attend all of the PTA meetings at night.

GRIFFITH: It's worth pointing out that even though figures like Rhody McCoy and Reverend Oliver and Father Powis got most of the press, most of the governing board looked like Dolores Torres. They were mothers from the neighborhood - Blanche Pile, Hattie Bishop, Clara Marshall, Agnes Hanson, Elaine Rooke, just to name a few. Women, especially women of color, who do so much of the work in social movements, have so often been erased from history. And this is just how it happens. Those women who I just named - we don't have any of their voices on tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCOY: You've got to understand that these were community people who were disenfranchised with the system or were nameless and faceless, who had never been incorporated and included even though their children were mandated to go to school. For them to take on that responsibility was tremendous, and they did a Herculean job.

FREEDMAN: McCoy's leadership had a lot to do with this. His office provided training for parent members of the governing board in everything from educational policy to how to run an effective meeting. He encouraged them not only to work with their own schools but to join a citywide curriculum committees.

GRIFFITH: But union teachers resisted their leadership.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCOY: It scared them a little bit because here were parents evaluating teachers and professionals for the first time. They'd never been in that situation. They were always judged by another professional.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWIS: The first year of the demonstration was really no demonstration because there was so much resistance from the teachers that very little happened.

GRIFFITH: According to Father Powis, union teachers were constantly suspending students for the most insignificant behavior deliberately, so that McCoy's office couldn't get anything done because they were too busy with parents and kids waiting for a hearing. Union teachers would take collective sick days. A third of the teaching staff from the same school would call out sick on the same day.

FREEDMAN: For the record, I talked to a union teacher from these days. And I asked him, did you sabotage the experiment? I don't know what we would've been sabotaging is what he told me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCOY: They never intended for this pilot program to have any meaning. And the way we had designed it and implemented it, it became obvious to them that they had to fight it from beginning to end.

GRIFFITH: The governing board fights back, and that fight takes over the city - after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Hey, fam. If you're in Alabama, we want to mention an upcoming NPR event that you will not want to miss. It is happening at the University of Alabama in Birmingham this Friday. It is all about trying to understand each other a little bit better as human beings, especially in these very polarized political times.

DEMBY: Think of maybe a brief conversation with that neighbor or that family member whose politics you really cannot stand.

MERAJI: It's a project from our friends at StoryCorps, and they're not out to change minds but to help us get together and talk through why we believe what we believe.

DEMBY: That project is called One Small Step. StoryCorps is doing this with member stations around the country and our friends at WGBH in Birmingham - shoutout to BHM. On February 7, NPR's own Elise Hu, who you've probably heard on the CODE SWITCH podcast, she'll be joined by LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter, conservative commentator Erick Erickson and StoryCorps' Dave Isay to talk about that project. So you should check out One Small Step on February 7 at nprpresents.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Junior High School 271 is a nondescript bureaucratic-looking building of brick and metal that takes up a whole city block. It was finished in 1962 as part of a building frenzy by the Board of Education.

FREEDMAN: Sandra Feldman was the field rep for the teachers union in the district.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FELDMAN: I.S. 271 was a school where teachers were very dedicated, trying very hard to do a good job and in a lot of instances were doing a good job.

FREEDMAN: Fred Nauman was the UFT chapter chairman at 271

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAUMAN: 271 was not a prestigious school. It was a ghetto school. But as a ghetto school, it was probably one of the best.

GRIFFITH: Yeah. I'm feeling a little way about his use of the term ghetto school.

FREEDMAN: Yeah. I know what you mean. I do think that that's how people talked about these neighborhoods and these schools back then.

GRIFFITH: That doesn't make it right.

FREEDMAN: The students at 271 didn't think too highly of their school or their teachers.

COTTON: They didn't have any skin in the game. They were coming in to make their money.

FREEDMAN: Cleaster Cotton was the student body president.

COTTON: I literally had a male teacher - he would come into classroom with a newspaper, put his feet on his desk, cross his legs at the ankles, open his newspaper and say to the class, do whatever you want. I got my education.

FREEDMAN: Sufia DeSilva was also a student at 271. She and Cleaster were best friends.

DESILVA: I remember a teacher - right? - who - he just - I don't know what it was about him. And he was a black teacher. Nobody liked this man. He just - you know how you have teachers sometimes that they speak in monotone. It's all one level. There's no excitement. There's no highs. There's no lows. It's just that, you know? It's like they're reading out of a book even when they're not. It doesn't inspire you, doesn't challenge your imagination. It doesn't make you want to think. And I started acting out because I had at least four teachers kind of like that, and they weren't all monotone, but some of them, they just didn't show any interest. It was like I can't wait to get home, you know? And you could feel - you know when they feel that way.

FREEDMAN: Sufia began to fall behind in school.

DESILVA: I started thinking of myself as somebody who couldn't learn, and that one teacher decided he was going to meet with my mother because I was acting out, and I was acting out, you know. So he went to my house, and he told my mother that I was retarded. I mean, who does that?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PREACH")

AVERY R YOUNG: (Singing) Help me, help me, help me, help me, help me, help me, help me, help me.

GRIFFITH: Social studies teacher Leslie Campbell remembers Junior High School 271 the same way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: There was no teaching going on. The teaching had just stopped. Teachers came in in the morning with radios, with coffee and cake and newspapers. Teachers left their classrooms to place their bets at the track.

GRIFFITH: When Campbell arrived the 271 in the middle of the school year, he stood out - literally.

EDWARDS: How could you miss the person - how tall was he - like, 6'8"? Then we were taught to call him Brother Campbell. And that was a first.

GRIFFITH: Leslie Campbell, later known as Jitu Weusi - this means black giant in Swahili - was a fixture of Bed-Stuy life for decades to come. I remember seeing him during the '80s and '90s wearing a dashiki, loping down the street with his huge frame and knock knees. But in 1968, he was a svelte action figure, not even 30 years old, with a shock of gray in his hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: Well, I felt I was part of the freedom struggle of black people. I was part of the ongoing struggle of the black community to establish itself, to obtain self-determination, to obtain dignity and to obtain liberation.

FREEDMAN: Campbell transferred to Ocean Hill-Brownsville in March 1968 after he was suspended from his previous school for taking his students to a Malcolm X memorial program against the principal's wishes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: When I arrived at Junior High School 271, I constructed a bulletin board and put it in the rear hallway. And we had pictures of people like Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown, who were the heroes of the Black Power movement of that day. We had this large poster of Uncle Sam with the slogan, Uncle Sam wants you nigger, which was a anti-militaristic poster of the day talking about the fact that the United States government was recruiting young black males to go and fight in Vietnam for freedom that they did not in fact have living in the United States. And the kids took to it almost immediately. And it became one of the most popular spots in the school.

FREEDMAN: You might notice some variation in his voice here. We were working with two different interviews with Leslie Campbell, one from 1988 and the other from more than 20 years later.

GRIFFITH: In both interviews, he felt some kind of way about this bulletin board.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: My bulletin board was up maybe like a day before the UFT was calling a meeting on my bulletin board. Oh, man, I mean - I'm using the bulletin board to intimidate the kids, to indoctrinate the kids and threaten the teachers and this and that and on and on and on. This was a different breed of people who hadn't had this kind of confrontation education previously. So now when I come on the scene and do these things, this is like, what the hell? He's here - he just got here. He's here three days and he's got a bulletin board? Look at that bulletin board.

The next major thing to happen is April 4.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please? At 7:10 this evening, Martin Luther King was shot in Tennessee. Martin Luther King, 20 minutes ago, died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: The next day is a Friday, OK? And the next day is absolute pandemonium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAUMAN: We came into school that morning, and somebody had been very busy all night.

GRIFFITH: UFT chapter chairman Fred Nauman.

NAUMAN: There were signs all over the walls - the whites have killed our king, we have to take revenge.

GRIFFITH: Administrator for the district, Rhody McCoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCOY: The students reacted because here we're talking about obeying the laws and, you know, being good citizens and so forth. And here is a gentleman who all over the United States is talking about peace and talking for the benefit of mankind and somebody assassinates him. And then when they thought and heard that it was a Caucasian who had assassinated him, it made it even worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: So I suggested that they bring everybody into the auditorium and have a memorial program for Dr. King.

GRIFFITH: The principal, who was black, invited white teachers to leave if they weren't comfortable with what was being said. But those white teachers who stayed reported something quite different from a memorial program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAUMAN: What happened was an incitement to violence, really, by a number of people, governing board members and particularly Leslie Campbell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: It's not my fault that someone from the UFT decides that day that they're going to take down my bulletin board.

GRIFFITH: When the assembly was over, students discovered a young white teacher tearing down Campbell's infamous bulletin board.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: And when they saw her doing this, they stopped her. And she was assaulted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAUMAN: She was mobbed by a bunch of youngsters, thrown down. Her dress was torn. Hands full of hair were pulled from her head. She was badly bruised and badly shaken up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: At the end of the day, it was a little bit of a ruckus, you know? But I don't think other than this particular teacher being assaulted nobody else was assaulted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAUMAN: Another teacher was knocked unconscious and sent to the hospital. Someone else who tried to leave had beer cans thrown at him and he had to run back into the building.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: Nobody else was assaulted. The union, they used their newspaper to blow this out of proportion, naturally.

GRIFFITH: This is just the kind of he said, she said that characterizes the way people talk about Ocean Hill-Brownsville, both then and now. Of course, folks have different opinions, but the facts themselves are disputed. After the day of pandemonium at Junior High School 271, the school was closed for two weeks to give students a chance to cool down. A number of union teachers, including Fred Nauman, had reservations about going back into 271.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAUMAN: We said, before we can go back into that school, somebody has to say something to the children that we are not the enemy. McCoy said, well, we're not going to say anything like that. We went back anyhow.

FREEDMAN: By the time the school reopened, it was nearly the end of the year. From Rhody McCoy's point of view, the first year of the experiment had been undermined every step along the way by union teachers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCOY: A girl was held on a hot radiator and burned. The teacher said, of course, it was an accident. He was trying to restrain the girl. There was an instance where one teacher was an insurance agent and he would go lock himself up in a room and take care of his insurance business. There was an absentee principal who had been absent for seven years. I mean, the horror stories can keep going. So when the time came for the governing board to begin to look at its teaching staff, it did not want certain people back into the district.

FREEDMAN: The governing board held their regular meeting on May 7, 1968. But what happened that night would have far-reaching consequences. Father John Powis remembers it well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWIS: On the agenda that night, McCoy had put an item - the transfer of 13 teachers and also some assistant principals. I guess there was five or six of them. We knew that there was really no demonstration district going on because these folks were the ones - the main ones who were causing us so much sadness because of the way that they just weren't cooperating with the experiment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: We didn't feel that they really had our children's best interests in mind. We were asking teachers to make an extra effort to get along with our kids, to teach our kids, if there was any problem to possibly visit in the homes. Well, the union didn't - this wasn't in their contract. They didn't have to do any of these things. And we felt that these people were not - they wouldn't even compromise. We had bells ringing at 3 o'clock for dismissal and teachers were out of there before the kids were. So we felt that they weren't making any effort to try to change their way of thinking and teaching. And we felt that we couldn't put up with it anymore.

FREEDMAN: The next morning, 19 teachers and supervisors, including Fred Nauman, each received a registered letter. The letter said...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) The governing board of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration school district has voted to end your employment in the schools of this district. This termination of employment is to take effect immediately. You will report Friday morning to Personnel, 110 Livingston Street, Brooklyn for reassignment.

GRIFFITH: So that's what the letter said. But what the letter meant, of course, was immediately in dispute, and that dispute was the basis for everything that followed.

FREEDMAN: The letter was a little confusing. The governing board used words like end your employment and termination but then referred these teachers to the Board of Ed for reassignment, which doesn't sound like termination. It sounds like a transfer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANKER: Transfer is something that's accomplished by a high authority who has control over school A and school B. And I say, I'm transferring you from school A, since I'm the superintendent, I'm transferring you to school B, where I'm also the superintendent. But how can somebody say I'm transferring you out of this district to where? Rhody McCoy didn't have any control over any schools out of the district. So if I say I'm transferring you out of the United States, what am I doing? I'm not transferring you. I'm firing you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: We did not fire these people. We could not fire the 19 teachers. We had no power over firing. We had power over hiring. We could not fire anybody. So we really didn't have that much power.

FREEDMAN: It was never quite clear what powers the city had intended for the governing board to have, but this turned out to be the red line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWIS: Transferring teachers from one district to another was something that was very ordinary. But when McCoy tried to do it, of course that created the scene of the century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing) Hail the Lord.

GRIFFITH: The following Monday, the teachers who had been transferred out of Junior High School 271 tried to enter the building, and they were blocked by parents and activists. Parents and activists then occupied the building overnight so that the next morning, Tuesday, the transferred teachers tried to enter again, and again they were blocked. This was high drama, and the press took notice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: First Columbia University, now Brooklyn's Junior High School 271. Who knows? In the future, this kind of thing could catch on with the kindergarten children.

FREEDMAN: On Wednesday, teachers got into the building, but it was empty. Students from 271 stayed home from school through the end of the week in protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANKER: That's when we said, well, we have no choice. You're acting strictly on a basis of power. We have to act strictly on that basis because we have no other doors open to us. And that's when we shut down the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

GRIFFITH: Shanker ordered all of his teachers out of the district, so 350 union teachers stayed out for the next six weeks until the end of the school year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: So this was like now a real slap to the community.

GRIFFITH: Social studies teacher Leslie Campbell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: You know, I mean, and if you know anything about oppressed communities, if you want to unify them in action and purpose, you slap them because that says to them, like, hey, you're not even human. So that makes them step up - OK? - fast.

FREEDMAN: At the end of the school year, Rhody McCoy dismissed all the teachers who had walked out of their classrooms on Shanker's orders. So over the summer, the district had to hire 350 new teachers to replace them. One of these replacement teachers was Charles Isaacs. Charlie was born in Brooklyn, but during the first year of community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, he'd been in law school at the University of Chicago.

CHARLES ISAACS: I figured I was going to be drafted before I finished. And the only way I could think of to get out of the draft was to teach in the inner city.

FREEDMAN: So he dropped out of law school and came back to Brooklyn.

ISAACS: And I asked people whose opinion I value where they thought I should go. And everybody said, go to Ocean Hill. The term we used then was, that's where the action is. It really looked like history was being made there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCOY: When they began to interview for teachers, they set up a gymnasium and put tables around and brought in all of the governing board members and as many parents who were interested in talking to prospective teachers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: And a lot of them were young people. And I guess at that time, well, we called them hippies. They had long hair, the men and the women. We weren't used to that. I mean, our kids went for the Afros. But these were young white people with long hair. They wore jeans. But they seemed like they weren't afraid. They weren't afraid to try something new in teaching our kids.

FREEDMAN: Charlie did not have long hair, and he would not have called himself a hippie. But like a lot of these would-be replacement teachers, he had been active in the anti-war and racial justice movements. When he entered the gym to interview, he was seated at a table with Reverend Oliver, the governing board chairman.

ISAACS: So I showed Reverend Oliver my resume, and he looked it over. And he said, well, it seems to me you're not afraid of controversy. I said, (laughter) that's right. And I don't remember what we talked about after that. But what I do remember is that he made me feel like a welcome guest in his home.

GRIFFITH: Ocean Hill-Brownsville wasn't just where the action was for white leftists like Charlie. At the same time, the Afro-American Teachers Association put out a call to black teachers all over the city - all hands on deck. And they flocked to Ocean Hill-Brownsville. For black teachers, if you wanted to have an impact on the future of education for black kids in this city, this was the place to be.

FREEDMAN: In the meantime, a judge ruled against Ocean Hill-Brownsville, saying the governing board had not proven their case against the 19 teachers who originally received transfer letters back in May.

GRIFFITH: So Al Shanker expected the mayor to enforce this ruling, to force Ocean Hill-Brownsville to accept these 19 teachers back into the schools. But that is not what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANKER: All I ever heard from John Lindsay is, Al, you're absolutely right. Those teachers are innocent. This never should've happened. It's terrible. But I can't force those teachers to go back there because otherwise, the city will burn down. They will burn the city down. We've got to keep the city cool. Look what's happening in other cities across the country. And I said, Mr. Mayor, you can't govern a city on a basis of constantly being threatened. I mean, what's the next thing that's going to happen? What's the one after that? You can always have a threat hanging over you. The place is going to blow up or be burned down. I can't run a union that way. You can't run a city that way. And that's precisely why I'm going to stand up here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Monday, September 9, 1968 - the first day of school for 1.1 million children in the city of New York - or it would've been, except that 54,000 of their teachers were on strike.

GRIFFITH: Damn, that's gangster - to shut down the entire school system over one district.

FREEDMAN: But that one district, Ocean Hill-Brownsville, was open for business.

GRIFFITH: Outside Junior High School 271, Herkimer Street was busy with reporters, police officers and picketing teachers.

FREEDMAN: But inside, the eighth grade was assembled in the auditorium for a speech from their new assistant principal, Albert Vann. Charlie Isaacs was watching from the back of the room.

ISAACS: He was backed up by about a dozen ATA members, most of whom were dressed in some kind of African garb - dashikis and the like.

GRIFFITH: Albert Vann and Leslie Campbell had co-founded the Afro-American Teachers Association in 1964, when they were both teaching at Junior High School 35 in Bed-Stuy. When ATA members came to Ocean Hill-Brownsville from all over the city, Al Vann joined Campbell at Junior High School 271. On this first day of school in 1968, Al Vann made his entrance into a political spotlight that he would occupy for decades to come.

KALAM ID-DIN: (Reading) We are engaged in a fight for our survival - the survival of the black race, of our race, of our people. Do you know what survival means?

FREEDMAN: This is the voice of Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, founder of Ember Charter School in District 16. He thinks of himself as carrying on the work of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, so we asked him to read Al Vann's speech.

KALAM ID-DIN: (Reading) Yes, we must live together and make it as a race. We must survive. And we cannot survive in this country without some very necessary skills, all kinds of skills, so we can get good jobs to help serve our people. We need the skills we learn right here in 271 - math, science, reading, typing, languages. To survive and to prosper as a race of people, we need all of these skills. Now, to get these skills for survival, you must respect and listen to your teachers - all of your teachers, be they black or white. However, if they don't respect you, if we find that they can't do the job, there'll be some changes made. You can depend on that.

FREEDMAN: And at the end of his speech...

ISAACS: He asked how many students listened to WWRL, which was then the city's leading African American radio station, and all the hands went up. And then he shouted, from the James Brown song...

KALAM ID-DIN: Then say it loud.

ISAACS: And they thundered...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD – I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) I'm black, and I'm proud.

ISAACS: ...I'm black and I'm proud.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD - I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD")

BROWN: (Singing) Some people say we got a lot of malice.

ISAACS: So that was pretty unusual for an eighth-grade orientation.

FREEDMAN: Later that day, Charlie was sent to cover an eighth-grade homeroom class, and he suddenly realized he had nothing prepared to teach.

ISAACS: I had never taught before, and I was so wrapped up in the politics of the thing, I thought somebody would tell me what to teach. I didn't know what to do. I go look in the window of the classroom door, and kids are passing notes around, throwing spitballs, playing cards. And I open the door and come in. And the teacher, who's been there for two hours by then, is trying to explain to them why they should address him as Dr. something. And this was very important to him. Meanwhile, the kids are all out of control.

So when he left and I took over, they gave me what I later learned was a small window of opportunity for anyone who comes into the classroom. And so I wrote my name on the board, and I said, you can call me Charlie.

GRIFFITH: Remember Monifa Edwards, who gave that speech we heard at the very beginning of this episode? She was in Charlie's class that day.

EDWARDS: So we're like, OK, this must be a trick. Your name is Mr. Charlie. And at this point, we know, you know, that's kind of a, you know, a nickname - whatever - for white people. So he goes, well, no. My name is Charlie Isaacs, but you can call me Charlie.

ISAACS: That changed the whole atmosphere of the room.

EDWARDS: From Day 1, from, like, practically Second 1, we saw that he had great respect for us and he truly wanted to teach.

GRIFFITH: The next day, the mayor and the Board of Education gave in to every one of the union's demands without even consulting the Ocean Hill-Brownsville governing board. So the unwanted union teachers returned to Ocean Hill-Brownsville on Wednesday, September 11. They expected teaching assignments when they arrived.

FREEDMAN: Instead, they were summoned to a meeting with Rhody McCoy in the auditorium at I.S. 55. In that meeting, according to union teachers, they were yelled at, threatened and ridiculed. Men from the community stood onstage with violin cases intimating that what was in the cases were not violins but actually guns. Somebody was throwing bullet cartridges at the teachers, and others were carrying pine boxes around made to look like coffins.

PAUL CHANDLER: Well, coffins are very expensive. And I don't recall anybody buying any or making any, you know?

FREEDMAN: Paul Chandler was a young organizer in the community at the time. And I asked him about this particular event, and he was skeptical.

CHANDLER: This wasn't a time of social media. But at those meetings, there were always people from the press. Show me one picture - just one - that has a coffin. Do you understand what I'm saying? It was definitely misrepresented to a point of even aggravating or making the situation worse, because you got to remember, the juicier, the better. It'd sell more papers.

FREEDMAN: Whatever really happened at I.S. 55, the meeting was cut short, and the teachers walked out, escorted by 3,000 helmeted police officers, 35 police on horseback, 150 in plain clothes, helicopters overhead and sharpshooters on the roofs of surrounding houses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: When they arrived at 271, they were met by about a hundred parents and activists from the neighborhood waiting on the steps to try to block the union teachers from entering. Cops started throwing parents into a paddy wagon, and things escalated fast. Dolores Torres from the governing board was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TORRES: I saw a reporter beaten and bloody on the ground. I went back inside to get a washcloth. Before I got back out of the door and I looked through the window, I saw Ms. Hamilton get hit in the stomach by a policeman with a stick. They had hit one of our warriors. This was a woman that was a teacher, Thelma Hamilton. She was instrumental in starting a lot of programs in the neighborhood. This woman, at the time, I believe, might've been in her 60s - was struck in the stomach with a stick by a policeman and knocked down. Across the street, a line of the Black Panthers had shown up. I was standing there with folded arms. As a result of that, no one else got hit that day by a policeman. They didn't do anything. They just stood there. But no one else was struck by a policeman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Union teachers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville had once again been prevented from returning to classrooms. So the union went back on strike.

GRIFFITH: The first strike was two days. The second strike was two weeks. Mayor Lindsay was pissed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSAY: There comes a time when New Yorkers have just had enough. And there comes a time when all parties have to back off of extreme positions that have been taken. And enough of the angry voices and the shouting and the marching and the yelling and the screaming. And think about the 1 million children of our city and about their parents.

FREEDMAN: But the angry voices and the shouting and the marching and the yelling and the screaming were just getting started.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: At the end of September, the mayor again agreed to send the union teachers back into the classrooms. When they tried to return, teachers and students walked out of every school in the district.

FREEDMAN: Over the following two weeks, the governing board was suspended. McCoy was suspended. And Junior High School 271 was closed. Then the superintendent of schools changed his mind. Rhody McCoy was reinstated, and 271 was reopened. And Shanker threatened to strike again if 271 didn't stay closed. And he did. He shut down every single school in the city for the sake of one.

GRIFFITH: And this time, he said the union would strike until the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Demonstration District was dissolved entirely. This thing was going to be longer, uglier and more consequential than anyone could've ever imagined.

MERAJI: Shereen and Gene breaking in here. You know you want to hear what longer, uglier and more consequential sounds like.

DEMBY: So next week on CODE SWITCH, more "School Colors."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SCHOOL COLORS")

FREEDMAN: On the next episode of "School Colors"...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

WILLIAM BOOTH: Have we come to that point of a race war?

IRVING LEVINE: Is there something that you would characterize as black fascism rising?

SHANKER: Is this a district that's going to run on the basis of prejudice and discrimination?

MCCOY: Everybody in that community began to play a role in the schools. The school became the focal point of the community.

COTTON: Our teachers - they said, this is who you are. We're like, what?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWIS: Every time I went into the school, I saw something that I thought was so spectacular that I still thought that we were going to win this thing. You know, who's so stupid as to destroy this?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: "School Colors" is a production of Brooklyn Deep, with support from the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

FREEDMAN: This episode was produced and written by Mark Winston Griffith and Max Freedman. Editing and sound design by Elyse Blennerhassett. Original music by Avery R. Young and de Deacon Board. Additional music in this episode from Chris Zabriskie and Blue Dot Sessions.

GRIFFITH: Archival material courtesy of WNYC, the New York City Municipal Archives, the Henry Hampton Collection at the Washington University Libraries and Professor Steve Brier at the CUNY Graduate Center.

FREEDMAN: Special thanks to the Brooklyn Five - Sonia Cotto, Cleaster Cotton, Sufia DeSilva, Monifa Edwards and Veronica Gee - Charlie Isaacs, whose book "Inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville: A Teacher's Education" was an invaluable resource and source of inspiration, Leo Casey, Heather Lewis, Liz Morgan (ph), Dan Perlstein and Jerald Podair.

GRIFFITH: Follow Brooklyn Deep on Twitter and Instagram - @BklynDeep. You can find more information about this episode, including a transcript, at our website, schoolcolorspodcast.com. Brooklyn Deep is part of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a member-led organizing group in central Brooklyn. Visit brooklynmovementcenter.org to join or donate.

FREEDMAN: Until next time...

GRIFFITH: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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