The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Strikes of 1968

Palace of Learning, checkerboard marble entrance hall and white marble staircases, two swimming pools,

In 1968 I left Inwood Junior High School, unfortunately not on best of terms with Hanauer and Finkelstein.  The Vietnam War also tended to fray personal relationships.  I had applied for an open English position at George Washington High School, but my application was rejected by the department chairman, Lou Simon.  He tended to prefer English teacher with names like Harding, Connolly, and O’Grady, and might have had some doubts about my German accent.  Be that as it may, the Board of Education, in its infinite wisdom, Lou Simon not withstanding, appointed me to George Washington, the alma mater of Henry Kissinger, Barbara Tuchman and many notable others .  I arrived at what the kids called “The Dubs” just in time for one of the most serious attacks by a private foundation on the United Federation of

Albert Shanker, a disappointment to Woody Allen

Teachers, which at the time was led by Albert Shanker, a former junior high school math teacher. Of course, the New York Times led the hue and cry against the union in the so-called “liberal” establishment.

At the time, the battle cry of the “reformers” was “community control.”  The last scar of that movement can still be seen in the ugly, serpentine mosaic surrounding President Grant’s Tomb, on Riverside Drive.

In any case, the Ford Foundation decided to see what would happen if it backed the firing of several union teachers (the numbers given often vary from between 8 and 78) working in a predominantly black district in Brooklyn called Ocean Hill-Brownsville, one of three experimental districts to test local control.  Those teachers had not committed any infractions and were not noticeably  worse than any other teachers.  Their only crime was that they were white, Jewish, and Union. The Union and the City had rules governing the firing of teachers, but these firings were in direct contravention of those rules and without “due process”.  Because the “community” wanted it, and it was anti-union (the establishment of separate districts would make contract negotiations tougher for the UFT), it was backed by the entire media establishment of the country and the leadership of all black organizations, the only exception being Bayard Rustin, one of the great, independent spirits of the Civil Rights Movement.

Al Shanker and Bayard Rustin

For a union, the firing of its members without reason, without due process, just for their race, was unacceptable.  The United Federation of Teachers went on strike.  Each time a settlement was reached, the agreement was broken with the support of the Ford Foundation, and this led to not one strike, but to three, which lasted a couple of months and kept one million students out of schools.  The whole city got involved, with black groups demonstrating in front of schools and sometimes breaking into schools that had been locked by their janitors whose unions were sympathetic to the UFT.  It was a really ugly series of events, but the union won.  The strikes, of course, were illegal (Al Shanker, the UFT president, spent several weeks in jail), and all sorts of threats were made by the city, but eventually, the strikes ended, the union teachers in Ocean Hill / Brownsville returned to their jobs, and all became quiet.  The City deemed community control of schools a success and expanded it to the rest of New York.  The superintendent of the district, Roddy Mc Coy, who had done the Ford Foundation’s bidding, left the district and was offered a cushy job at the Ford Foundation, and I began teaching at George Washington High School.

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the “Final Solution” by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.

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