The conveniently forgotten movement in the North

The civil rights struggles in New York City and Boston’s schools demonstrate how the Civil Rights Movement’s narrative of being an issue of the South was false. New York actually had the largest civil rights protest of the 1960s, although it received practically no recognition. In February of 1964, almost half a million students and teachers stayed home from school in protest of the New York City Board of Education’s refusal to create a comprehensive plan for school desegregation (Theoharis). This protest happened as a result of a decade of work by Northern organizers and parents who wanted equal rights for their children. There were also many protests in Boston, where Black students faced the same issues. Despite all of the rallies, student walkouts, and meetings, the Boston School Committee refused to enact any kind of change. In 1973, they “willingly gave up $65 million in state and federal funds rather than desegregate schools” (Theoharis). In both of these cases, there were clear issues with segregation, especially in schools, in the North that people refused to acknowledge. It was much easier for people in the North to make it seem like racial discrimination was something unique to the South. 

Aside from trying to focus attention on desegregation in the South, white liberals in the North also used a lot of coded language to avoid accusations of racism. In New York, schools labeled their segregation as “racial imbalance and “separation” in order to make it seem less deliberate and more like a product of the structure of the city, which they couldn’t be blamed for (Theoharis). Similarly, they referred to the people opposed to desegregation as parents who were committed to “neighborhood schools” and disagreed with “forced busing.” This painted the people who wanted to uphold segregation as simply wanting to keep schools local because they didn’t want to have to bus their children elsewhere. However, the truth was that the “neighborhood schools” were segregated because of the redlining system which relegated Black people to certain parts of the city, and thus, certain schools. Black students were also labeled as “culturally deprived,” which was another reason to blame the students themselves for their poor quality of education instead of the system. All these coded words were used to avoid talking about the actual issues in order to keep the systems in place that made life for black people extremely difficult.

I was initially surprised by this history, because none of my history classes really focused on racism in the North during this time, so I never learned much about it. However, after reading this article, it makes sense that my history textbooks mainly talked about the South. I think that in this way, the North’s approach to presenting themselves as more liberal, despite practicing many of the same segregation techniques under different names worked. It’s actually really sad to think about, because not only were the people in the North shown in a more positive light, but they were never held accountable for their actual actions. I think that the fact that some of the most segregated schools in the U.S. to this day are in the North is very telling.

One thought on “The conveniently forgotten movement in the North

  1. Maija,
    You did a great job at describing the Civil Rights Movement in the North as well as the resistance that it was met with. I agree that none of my previous history education has ever touched on the strength of this movement in the North, specifically on the problem of segregation in the North. Even in South Dakota, I feel that many believe themselves to be on the “right” side of history as though the problem of racism did not exist beyond the South. I agree with you that it is one problem that these tremendous movements are not celebrated, but also a larger problem that the atrocity of racism in the North has been erased and those who made these horrible decisions in these school districts have not been held accountable.


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