On February 3, 1964, in what arguably was the largest protest in civil rights history, nearly half a million students boycotted schools to protest segregation in the New York City school system. The book excerpt below tells the story of the unsuccessful political efforts that followed those protests. In the wake of the Board of Education’s repeated failures to combat school segregation, the integration movement receded for nearly 50 years after that. However, beginning around 2014, a new cohort of student activists reignited the fight for school integration. In early 2020, they began envisioning a May 18 citywide boycott that would evoke the indelible protest action that had occurred 56 years earlier. Regrettably, the emergence of the COVID pandemic scuttled those plans. As the devastation of the pandemic began to unfold, both the DOE and student activist groups turned their attention to addressing the immediate needs of students. Integration activists were able to glean some hope from the un-screening of all middle school admissions in 2021-22 and 2022-23. Whether this change becomes permanent remains to be seen.
In May 1964, State Education Commissioner James E. Allen’s Advisory Committee on Human Relations and Community Tensions released its report Desegregating the Public Schools of New York City, commonly known as the Allen Report. Kenneth Clark, who had been urging the city to take desegregation seriously for a decade, was one of three members of the Advisory Committee. The Board of Ed had requested Allen’s recommendations days after the February 1964 school boycott to protest ongoing segregation in city schools. Diane Ravitch neatly summarized the committee’s estimation of the board’s integration track record as plainly insufficient: “It dismissed Open Enrollment and the Free Choice Transfer policy (too dependent on voluntary choice by Negro and Puerto Rican parents), the school building program (too many schools built in the ghetto), junior high school feeder changes (too limited in impact), and pairing of schools,” which would reduce segregation by only 1 percent if all proposed pairings were effected. Most civil rights supporters were heartened by the report’s pointed criticisms of board integration efforts.
At the same time, despite Allen’s and Clark’s strong belief in integration, the report was highly pessimistic about the prospects for substantial reductions in racial isolation, whatever the degree of planning undertaken by school authorities or pressure exerted on them. Demographic shifts that brought ever-rising Black and Puerto Rican enrollment, coupled with the residential segregation of these groups in teeming low-income neighborhoods and the loss of white residents, sharply circumscribed possible integration solutions. Moreover, the panel asserted, any viable integration plan would require acceptance by both whites and minorities and not fuel further white flight.
Upon the release of the Allen Report, Board President James Donovan, readying for a cruise to Europe with his wife, said that hundreds of millions of dollars would be required from federal, state, and city coffers to integrate schools in the Big Apple. The federal government should pony up a substantial chunk of money, he argued, contending that the city should not be expected to absorb the costs of the large influx of Black and Puerto Rican families (700,000 combined since World War II) if Miami was not expected to pay the tab for the 200,000 Cuban refugees who had settled in that city. Eight hundred thousand whites had moved out of New York City during that time. “White parents must realize that they will have to stop running,” Donovan warned. “Unless they do, this problem has virtually no solution.”
The Allen Committee, while cautioning that it is “inaccurate and cruel” to assert that classrooms with no white students cannot be high quality, urged the city to act firmly in eliminating school segregation to the extent possible. “Among all the great cities of the North,” the panel proclaimed, “New York’s public schools stand a better social chance of achieving authentic desegregation than possibly any of the others,” citing “a heritage of cultural innovation and educational progress” and the lack of backlash against civil rights efforts. The latter was a perplexing statement, given the large anti-integration rallies that had occurred months before the report’s release. The report stated plainly: “If school segregation cannot be fought effectively here, if the public school children of New York City must be relegated to second class status for lack of energy and effort, the nation will have reason to despair.” This proclamation would prove prescient.
The panel’s most notable recommendation was to resequence elementary, junior high, and high school education from a 6-3-3 plan to a 4-4-4 plan. In plain language, the proposal meant that students would enter junior high two years earlier than previously and would presumably experience more integrated school environments, since neighborhood elementary schools were often highly segregated. However, as Jeremy Larner observed in January 1967, the 200 new intermediate schools that would be needed to replace the 140 junior highs would serve smaller geographic areas and thus might be more segregated than before. The 4-4-4 plan, Larner adjudged, was “the most celebrated and expensive non-solution to the integration problem” proposed in the Allen Report. Indeed, the board implemented the 4-4-4 plan in a very small number of mostly segregated schools before ending transfers of ninth grade students to high schools and continuing its construction of segregated intermediate schools in 1967. Similarly, the board agreed with the Allen recommendations that high schools should become comprehensive, rather than bifurcated into vocational and academic ones (which increased segregation). By 1967, the superintendent asked the board to abandon its comprehensive high school plan. As Annie Stein explains, “The whole agitation for the comprehensive high school to eliminate the segregated, antiquated and expensive vocational schools had been turned into its opposite—the enlargement and enrichment of the predominantly white elite academic schools.”
A longer-term approach to integration also recommended by the panel, the creation of vast educational complexes to serve students from a wide geographic swath, would have proven the most expensive and far-reaching approach to integration, if it had been attempted on more than the constricted basis that it eventually was. The report also called for complete equalization of facilities in Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods and enhanced recruitment of minority teachers and other personnel. Those two recommendations in particular seemed achievable, but like recommendations in so many previous (and future) reports, they languished in office files or were implemented on a piecemeal basis before being abandoned quickly. A new study could always be authorized. The board would continue to employ administrative checkpoints to retain the status quo.
In confronting the problems of educational inequality, New York City was far from alone among big cities. In fact, according to the Allen Report, school segregation was less severe in New York than in other large cities. From 1958 to 1963, the white percentage of students in public elementary schools had declined from 62 to 51 percent. Whites made up less than a quarter of public elementary students in Manhattan, half in Brooklyn, 42 percent in the Bronx, 77 percent in Queens, and 89 percent in Richmond (Staten Island). Using a generous definition of desegregated schools—those that were 10 to 90 percent Black and Puerto Rican—the Allen Committee reported that 44 percent of elementary schools, 59 percent of junior highs, and 67 percent of high schools met this criterion. At all three levels, the number of “segregated white” schools (over 90 percent white) exceeded the number of “segregated Negro and Puerto Rican” schools (over 90 percent Black and Puerto Rican). At the high school level, only one segregated Black and Puerto Rican school existed, and that one, Girls’ High School in Brooklyn, was slated to close. Of the twenty-eight other high schools in that borough, ten were segregated white. This was rather surprising, given that the public school population there, at least at the elementary level, was half Black.
Beneath these broad-brush statistics, the data was more troubling. In his widely read Dark Ghetto (1965), Kenneth Clark noted that only two of Harlem’s twenty elementary schools had Black enrollments under 89.9 percent. (As was often the case during this era, it was unclear how, or if, Puerto Ricans were being counted in the statistics.) All four junior high schools had over 91 percent Black enrollments. No high schools operated within Harlem’s borders. In the autumn before the release of the Allen Report, Clark had concluded that the inadequacy of Harlem schools was so pressing that improving education there had to be the main focus, even if that meant delaying desegregation. “If I were a white parent, I would not want my child to attend these schools. I can’t see how anyone can expect Negro parents to send their children to them.” Voluntary transfers of students from segregated schools to more integrated ones were mere “tinkering,” he believed, since they did nothing for the substantially greater number of students stuck in failing schools. Triage would not be sufficient.
Yet, in Dark Ghetto, Clark viewed Black boycotts calling for immediate desegregation fatalistically, given the “timidity and moral irresolution of whites,” who could easily kill mandatory integration with a countermovement of their own, undergirded by threats to exit the public schools. At this time, 30 percent of white and 10 percent of Black students were enrolled in nonpublic schools. Without the creation of quality education, integration was a dead letter. Though Clark’s belief in integration would be as long- standing and unwavering as any public figure’s, he refuted claims that demands for exemplary ghetto education constituted a capitulation to segregation. Because far- reaching integration was impossible, the goal must be to “save as many Negro children as possible now.” Children, Black or white, “must not be sacrificed on the altar of ideological and semantic rigidities,” he warned.
Black students in Harlem were clearly being sacrificed. As their school careers unfolded, they fell further and further behind their peers in New York City and the nation in reading and math achievement: in the third grade, one year behind their city peers; in sixth grade, nearly two years; and in eighth grade, almost two and one-half years—and three years behind students nationally. Summarizing the existing evidence, Clark concluded that “fewer than half of the ghetto youth seem likely, as matters now stand, to graduate from high school. And few of them are prepared for any job; fewer still will go on to college.” Physical checkpoints in the early years made subsequent meritocratic checkpoints self-enforcing.
Clark did not place great faith in the effectiveness of protest to forge change in school policies. He sharply criticized local leaders, sometimes self-appointed, “who often do not have responsibility for the burdens of a complex organization, [and thus] can assume postures of militance and make flamboyant statements which appeal to the crowd without regard to whether the statements lead to change.” Not having to bother themselves with planning, strategy, and the like, “it is enough that they have an arsenal of words and are adept at name-calling and are ruthless in their ability to ascribe nefarious motives to anyone who disagrees with them. The most successful of these wildcat civil rights leaders use the technique of demagogic intimidation of the more responsible civil rights leaders.”
One might guess that Clark had Malcolm X in mind. However, Clark often spoke warmly about the former Malcolm Little. In 1976, Clark remembered: “Up until Malcolm’s death, we were quiet, understanding friends, and I’m not sure that the word ‘friend’ is the precise word here, but there was a quality of mutual respect and understanding, even with disagreements.” Malcolm had accepted the invitation of Clark’s son Hilton to speak with students at his elite and very white Connecticut prep school (Kent School). When the elder Clark would invite Malcolm to speak to his classes at the City College of New York, “all that stuff about ‘Whitey’ disappeared, because there’d be only one or two black youngsters in my class, and Malcolm would . . . embrace the students psychologically. He was a very empathic man. You would never know it by some of the extreme things he said. You know, he was trying to shake people up.” Clark also recollected that he and Malcolm would discuss the “division of labor” in the civil rights movement: “He knew that he had a difficult role to play, which would complement the kind of role that more ‘respected’ civil rights leaders played.”
Christopher Bonastia (email@example.com) is a professor of sociology at Lehman College in the City University of New York. This article is excerpted from The Battle Nearer to Home: The Persistence of School Segregation in New York City, by Christopher Bonastia, published by Stanford University Press, ©2022 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved.