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The Lessons of Ocean Hill-Brownsville

The 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers strikes pitted teachers and parents against each other. But they didn't have to. Teachers and parents today can avoid those past mistakes and create coalitions against racism and austerity.

New York school children, October 1, 1964. Marion Trikosko / Library of Congress

Contributors
Mike Stivers (MS)
Clarence Taylor (CT)
Karen Ferguson (KF)
Dan Perlstein (DP)

Over the past several weeks, Jacobin has published a series of articles on the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers strikes, edited by New York City public school teacher Mike Stivers, on the occasion of their fiftieth anniversary.  The series of strikes pitted the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the city’s mostly white teachers’ union, against poor and working-class parents of color who demanded “community control” of their schools. Historian Jerald Podair called the episode the “strike that changed New York,” creating such bad blood between parents of color and the teachers union that the two were unable to fight the onslaught of austerity in the city that decimated both in the decades to come.

The series has featured an introduction and broad overview of the conflict, a history of the refusal of New York’s teachers unions and Board of Education to fight racism, a reflection on how the UFT’s narrow craft-union consciousness and history of anticommunism led to the parent-teacher conflict, and an analysis of how the Ford Foundation allied with city elites to push “reform from above” on the neighborhoods’ parents.

Stivers held a conversation with historians Clarence Taylor, Karen Ferguson, and Dan Perlstein on how the relationship between teachers and parents became so toxic, how the coalition of strange bedfellows opposing the teachers came into being, and what lessons teachers unions today should take from Ocean Hill-Brownsville a half century later.


MS

1968 was an explosive year for the Civil Rights Movement. It marked a turning point away from liberal integrationism and towards Black Power. What role did the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strikes and the community control projects that were at the center of them play in that transition?

CT

There had been debates among activists and leaders about liberal integrationism for some time. Long before 1968, activists were arguing that black empowerment was a solution to racial inequality and repression. In 1968, many people who were leading that struggle moved to the fore as the resistance to integration mounted.

Those pushing it were not able to make the changes they were hoping for. The community control movement started in the mid-1960s. 1968 is pivotal, of course, because that’s when things really start happening like the formation of the experimental school boards. But that came after a long debate and struggle in black and Latino communities.

That gave those forces that were struggling for black empowerment the opportunity to make some fundamental changes to democratize the school system.

DP

There are a number of enduring ideals in African-American activism and life: freedom, equality, community, inclusion in the greater society. In Ocean Hill-Brownsville, there were different visions of Black Power in play. There was an effort enhance the experience of African-American culture and life in schools’ curriculum. There were efforts to elevate the status and authority of black teachers. There were people who did not see their project as antithetical to integration; there were people who did.

So, while there was a movement towards what we think of as Black Power, there were still many visions of racial justice at work in 1968. And it shouldn’t be limited to any one kind of vision, although they did all involve, as Clarence said, visions of increased power and authority for black people in schooling and beyond. And it is for precisely that reason that this range of black activity and thought was largely ignored by UFT leaders and other whites.

MS

The immediate grievance of the UFT was over a lack of due process. Unionized teachers were in a collective bargaining agreement that, like all collective bargaining agreements, spelled out the process for firing a teacher. How much stock should we put in that argument? To what extent did this experimental board really threaten the rights of unionized teachers? Or was this just a shallow cover for maintaining control of the public school system?

DP

Due process rights for teachers is absolutely a legitimate issue, without which teachers or other workers couldn’t have their workplace rights protected. But it was used as a smokescreen to oppose people of color’s say in education.

CT

The teachers’ union essentially dropped the whole due process argument and moved on to, “Black militants are taking over the schools. What have to fight them.” But it’s interesting: the people who defend the UFT go back to that argument every time. Richard Kahlenberg, who wrote a biography of UFT President Al Shanker, makes that argument. But I agree: it is a smokescreen.

DP

The second thing that operated in much the same way is antisemitism. It is true that before and after 1968, there were instances of antisemitism by black people. But in the course of the strike, Jewish organizations changed their stance from arguing this issue of antisemitism was marginal to a coalition politics asserting full citizenship and democracy for everyone, to arguing that antisemitism was a dividing line by which they could exclude and condemn others.

MS

The strike created strange bedfellows on both sides, with plenty of contradictions on each. First there were black and Puerto Rican community groups allied with Mayor Lindsay, the Ford Foundation, the City Board of Ed, and much of the mainstream press. Why did these elites support a demand that seemed to be radical and grassroots?

KF

White liberals did not start to support black school activism until it turned to community control. They were very conflict-averse, and the white reaction against desegregation and school integration was very intense. This confounds our notion of postwar racial liberalism, but there was very little support for school integration.

We often think of the New Left impulse towards decentralization of large bureaucratic institutions, but this extended to elite groups as well. Mayor Lindsay, for example, worked to shake up the New York City bureaucracy. There was this notion that participatory democracy, bringing the grassroots in, could really shake up static political blocs in the city and elsewhere. That’s why those elites supported it.

In the case of the Ford Foundation, they saw community control as a therapeutic means to assimilate African Americans into the system. They and other elite liberals were looking to resolve the urban crisis and especially their concerns about rioting. And they had this an extremely naive belief that all that African-American activists were looking for is self-esteem, a kind of psychological power. And if they could get some experience running their own affairs, in this very limited way, black anger would be solved, and they would assimilate fully into the American political system.

DP

In some ways, though, the AFT got it right. The head of the Ford Foundation, McGeorge Bundy, had previously been one of the architects of the war in Vietnam. Shanker quipped that Bundy was doing to New York what he had done to Vietnam. That highlights a larger analysis of his, which was that the school conflict pitted a coalition of the haves and the have-nots (elites and parents of color) against the have-littles (UFT teachers). You see this phenomenon elsewhere. In Boston during the busing battles: white, working-class South Boston fighting against the integrationist efforts of black activists, white suburban liberals, and elite white reformers.

The question also invites us to think about the role of the Ford Foundation. There was a shift in the broader politics that led to privatizing decision-making and attacks on the welfare state. Ocean-Hill-Brownsville heralds that.

KF

The Ford Foundation was pushing for something very close to the charter school system. They wanted to take education totally out of public hands. They were imagining what they called “competitive subdistricts” that were run by universities and corporations.

MS

Daniel, in your book you write about Bayard Rustin and his criticisms of the strike. He thought that community control didn’t really have a redistributive element to it — that it was choosing not to engage with the state, just contesting for resources at the local level. What do you all think of Rustin’s critique?

DP

You see this question raised again elsewhere. There were seven prominent ideas for improving urban schools, liberal Detroit superintendent Norman Drachler observed. “One was community participation; the other six cost money.” You’re raising a question about the politics of redistribution versus the politics of recognition. This is germane to 1968 in New York and to our political situation today.

Rustin raised a couple critiques. He said that invocations of “the black community” invariably served the most privileged members of the black community, particularly professionals like teachers. There was a class bias to them. He also said that now that the Civil Rights Movement had won the abolition of Jim Crow, the crucial issues facing blacks were economic more than racial. He argues that to fight for economic redistribution, blacks had to accept a junior partnership in a white-led and to some degree racist, class-based movement. If Rustin was right about the need for a politics of redistribution, he did not really explain working-class black support for community control or how hostility to it would enable the development of a powerful social movement.

KF

It was striking when I was doing my research how little the community control activists engaged with questions of economic power. And the Ford Foundation saw power in a symbolic, psychological sense, never an economic sense. They wouldn’t touch economic power with a ten-foot pole.

So, in that sense, the two groups were able to unite. But I do see that as a striking issue and a weakness of the community control movement. But then again, what else could they have done? They had been fighting the Board of Education and white New Yorkers for nearly fifteen years. And nothing had changed.

CT

One argument that could be considered economic was community control advocates thought black and Latino children were destined for failure. They were going to drop out of school and become part of this underclass. So they said, “We are essentially fighting for the lives of our children. We want them to be successful, and in order to be successful, we have to take over the school and determine their education.”

KF

Yes, and the way the New York City school system had been seen as a crucible of upward mobility for European immigrant groups — families of color were not reaping that same benefits from the school system.

MS

The strike drove a wedge not only between the UFT and working-class communities of color in the city, but also between the union and the New Left. Many of the replacement teachers hired in the district were white, politically left, young people, many of them also Jews who were supportive of the community control project. What was it about the dynamic of the Left in the United States that led to this split? What led the Left at this time not to ally with the labor movement?

CT

It was a certain segment of the Left. Because I talked to people that were in the Communist Party during the strike, and they told me they agonized. They always supported labor. But the New Left established labor as part of the problem. They saw labor as racially discriminatory, as backing Vietnam.

DP

The communist activists were able to keep in mind the claims of class and racial justice. Whether they crossed the picket line or not, they agonized because they were conscious of the contradiction between them in that moment. That contradiction weighed much less heavily on certain elements of the New Left who came out of college campuses rather than shop floors, who cut their activist teeth in the Civil Rights Movement or protesting against the Vietnam War.

To them, the actions of the US state were central to the construction of an oppressive order. So they brought that skepticism of state institutions to schools.

KF

The main architects of the Ford Foundation’s efforts for community control were white ethnics themselves: Marilyn Gittell at Queens College and Mario Fantini. There were others who were part of the liberal side of the white ethnic revival that started in the late sixties, which is usually seen as quite conservative and anti-civil rights, anti-Black Power. They imagined that same kind of upward mobility that the school system had provided their descendants in the past.

This gets back to the psychological aspect of Black Power: they really believed that ethnic and racial pride were extremely important for the assimilation of African Americans — that African Americans needed to celebrate their culture and build their self-esteem in order to assimilate into mainstream American life, like white ethnics did.

MS

The UFT was tactically quite militant in the eight years before the ’68 strike. They went on strike in 1960, 1962, 1967, and then of course 1968. After Ocean Hill, they didn’t strike again until 1975, during the financial crisis. And they haven’t gone on strike since.

1968 was also the year when Shanker really solidified his grip on the union. The Unity Caucus, which has always controlled the UFT, becomes very strong. How did the experience of Ocean Hill change the political direction of the union itself?

CT

I’m not sure it did. This was a union that started out strongly militant, but militant for the rights of teachers, improving working conditions, improving salary, all of that. But the union didn’t develop a social justice unionism, through which they work on the behalf of the communities that they were serving. This was a key battle between the UFT and the old teachers’ union, which was communist-dominated.

The union completely alienated itself from the black and Latino communities. They now find themselves in an extremely difficult position because of that history of fighting social justice unionism. Many black and Latino parents today are in support of the school reform agenda, including charter schools, because they only see the union as self-serving.

MS

This brings us closer to today. New York City schools are some of the most segregated in the country. But the idea of school integration is back in the mainstream. Are there ways our current political context is similar to that of the mid-1960s?

CT

The larger picture is there is no large movement for school integration as there was in the 1950s and 1960s. You have a progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, who doesn’t even want to use the word “integration.” You have a chancellor who is now discussing the issue. But there is resistance to it. This makes the struggle in New York and other places much more difficult.

KF

Well, there wasn’t much of a movement for integration in New York City in the sixties before community control. There’s a long history of official recalcitrance against integration: powerful groups arrayed against it, officials and liberals who are cowed by that and don’t really want it in the first place.

DP

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis was about the schools, but it was also about everything else. It was the lever on which urban politics and national politics was being fought, in an attempt to weigh the claims of the white working class on the one hand, and working-class and poor blacks and Latinos on the other. We’re not past that today.

Can we imagine a politics that reconciles them? Can we imagine teachers’ unions thinking this is a time for a do-over? I think that’s possible.

KF

The elite liberals I researched for my book had utter contempt for the teachers and a paternalistic view of African-American communities. They basically wanted to use black people. They allied with them for instrumental reasons. If the teachers or the parents of color could have understood how they were viewed and being used in that period, there could have actually been an alliance there.

MS

This leads us towards an important concluding question: what are the lessons of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strikes for unions seeking to build power and for rank-and-file members who want to transform their unions?

KF

The teachers and parents in New York City should have been in alliance.

CT

Yes. The UFT won the battle in 1968 but lost the war. That war was essentially the destruction of public education and weakening the unions. And because of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the unions could not turn around and seek an alliance with the parents they had just been fighting. That’s a problem. That’s why so many parents of color come out in support of the school board movement. It’s a horrible bind.

But there’s a way out. The Chicago Teachers’ Union, especially the CORE caucus that took over leadership in 2010, demonstrated a way of addressing this: you go and you build that relationship in the community. You work in the community along with striking. You let the community know that teachers are fighting not for just higher salaries, but for public education. They are fighting to guarantee that all children are get the same educational services.

That’s what unions have to do. They have to have a social justice agenda, otherwise the Right can paint them as enemies of ordinary people.

DP

We talked earlier about the New Left and its legacy. Many young teachers today who are committed to social justice have little interest in teacher unionism. Part of that is a legitimate critique of the work that teachers’ unions have done in the past. Part of it is also stems from people who are committed to social justice but haven’t imagined a vehicle other than their own individual heroic action to achieve social justice. There is no path to a democratized school system that doesn’t work through progressive teachers in their unions.

CT

This is the fiftieth anniversary of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. There are some people out there who have pushed a certain narrative about the strike for fifty years. It’s important to confront that and say it’s wrong. Kahlenberg and others have argued that the strike destroyed a civil rights-labor coalition because black militants stepped to the fore and ruined everything.

We can’t let that story be the legacy of Ocean Hill-Brownsville 1968. That legacy is much more complex. It embodies all the contradictions that we’ve been talking about today.