An Education in Politics

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s

Chicago Teachers on Strike, 2012 (Flickr: John W. Iwanski)

For many Americans, the story of public education in this country relative to Black people begins with an iconic photograph of a smiling Linda Brown looking up at her father, Oliver, on the day the U.S. Supreme Court announced its affirmative decision in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case calling for an end to segregated schools. For some, the story of the fight for educational equity ends in the 1970s with white, northern parents resisting school desegregation and busing and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a white man wielding a flagpole with flag attached as he attempts to impale a Black man at one such demonstration.

My point is that the Supreme Court, white parents, and occasionally, Black schoolchildren are generally the protagonists in the story of education for Black people in the United States. There is, however, another story in need of telling. This one is about Black activists, students, teachers, and elected officials and their consistent and ongoing educational fight for quality education for Black children. This is the very necessary political, cultural, and historical work of Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s. In this book, the guiding principle, or North Star so to speak, is the centrality of the frequently under-acknowledged political commitments, strategies, and presence of Black parents, teachers, community members, unionists, and activists in the story of urban education history in the United States.

More than a mere exercise in how to “add Black people and stir” them into existing frameworks and ideologies, Todd-Breland’s intent is to fundamentally shift “popular and scholarly narratives, by insisting that Black people’s organizing and political engagement was — and is — central to the politics of cities, education reform, U.S. history, and visions of liberation.” She does that and so much more.

Todd-Breland is able to recover the nuanced social, cultural, and political alliances and disagreements running through decades, along with the intersectional histories underlying various educational battles. She does so from the perspectives of community members who she refers to as Black education reformers. In the process, we learn that throughout the twentieth century, and continuing into the twenty first, Black people in Chicago were very much part of larger political struggles and formed political coalitions to advocate for a variety of community-based strategies to improve education for Black children. She makes clear that there is more to the story than what we previously knew.

By the book’s end, we understand how Black electoral politics matter, why Black people called for community control of schools, the reasons behind movements advocating for experimental schooling models that pre-dated the charter schools, and how Black communities responded to school closures and increased 21st century efforts to privatize education. The thread holding the narrative together is the sophistication and intergenerational efficacy of grass roots organizing in Chicago in relation to education.

Though this book is about Black politics and political organizing in general, and educational politics in particular, throughout it explodes a number of persistent myths about Black people in urban America. One is that cities with large Black populations are, “wastelands of Black poverty, pathology and crime and decline, where Black residents were too disenfranchised, or focused on survival to be politically engaged” (3). There is no way one could read this book and leave it still believing that is the case.

For example, A Political Education moves between two strikes called by the Chicago Teacher’s Union. The first was in 1969, and the second in 2012. In the late 1960s, Black teachers in Chicago, a majority of whom were women, made up almost a third of the teaching force. Despite such high numbers, they were frequently relegated to positions as full-time substitutes, akin to being a 3/5ths person as opposed to a full citizen. They were paid less, barred from voting on issues brought before the overall membership, and would be the first fired in any economic downturn. In order to address their second-class citizenship, Black educators in Chicago connected these inequities to larger educational and community struggles, like those then raging around the issue of Black community control of schools.

While the epicenter of the movement for community control was in New York City, Black students in Chicago also seized on the issue and staged mass walkouts asking for community control in their city as well. Black teachers joined with the students in walking out and used the protests as opportunities to highlight their economic and educational concerns—demands for the promotion of Black teachers and administrators, improved facilities, relief for overcrowded classes, and a curriculum that included African American History. By 1969, the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union was ready to call for a strike, but nearly half of Black teachers crossed picket lines, demanding that the union and school district respond to the needs of Black educators and communities. Black student and teacher activism contributed to the significant increase in the number of Black certified teachers and administrators in the years that followed. They were successful.

Fast forward to 2012 when a Black woman named Karen Lewis served as the President of the Chicago’s Teachers Union. She had cut her political teeth as one of the students who participated in the student walkouts decades before. This strike also began with a focus on compensation, but quickly developed into an all-out challenge to the corporate-friendly educational privatization movement that many in Black communities charged was systematically destroying public education. Tens of thousands of teachers and paraprofessionals marched. Thousands of community members and parents joined the demonstrations. Crowds shut down busy city streets.

While in the earlier strike “people power” proved sufficient, on the other side of this struggle was Rahm Emmanuel, Chicago’s mayor who, backed by the Obama administration, argued that, despite what protesters thought, only corporate-style education reform could rehabilitate Chicago’s struggling school system. Despite the community support for the strike, Emmanuel was resolute. He would go on later that year to close 50 of Chicago’s public schools. Far from conceding defeat, however, the Chicago Teacher’s Union would emerge from the strike as the face of resistance to corporate education reform strategies. In victory, and in defeat, we come to understand that organizing and protest matter.

A Political Education, along with offering as fine an example as I have read of the truth of the adage, “all politics is local,” makes clear that Black people have always fought hard for their children to be educated, and Black activists, teachers, and community members have been at the forefront of political and educational battles over control, curriculum, funding, and privatization. They have embraced a vision of politics that is as complex as it is comprised of various political and cultural strands and commitments. In the end, we see that politics is education by other means.

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Noliwe Rooks

Noliwe Rooks is the W.E.B Du Bois Professor of Literature, a Professor in Africana Studies, and the director of American Studies at Cornell University where she is also a member of the core faculty in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. An interdisciplinary scholar, her work explores how race and gender both impact and are impacted by popular culture, social history and political life in the United States. Follow her on Twitter @nrookie.