Ocean Hill-Brownsville Reexamined 

When Black Power Collided with the Teachers’ Union

The struggle that ensued marked the decline of the historical Black-Jewish civil rights coalition, which had been fissured by increasingly clear distinctions between liberal and radical approaches to African-American emancipation. In the early 1960s, Blacks and their Jewish allies had targeted state and federal governments to gain enabling civil rights legislation. In Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the focus shifted to the question of who controlled vital institutions in Black communities — institutions that, in many instances, were  owned or at least visibly managed by Jews. This was certainly the case with the schools in New York.

THE BACKDROP for the community control struggle was a racially segregated public school system in New York City, despite at least three separate attempts at desegregation between 1960 and 1965, all in response to organized protests, including two citywide boycotts. Throughout the previous decade, more than one million whites had left the city, leading to a 20 percent drop in white student enrollment in the public schools — while there had been an influx of nearly four hundred thousand Blacks and Latinos, mostly living in highly concentrated neighborhoods with seriously overcrowded, eroding schools. Every meager move that the Board of Education made toward school integration, however, had inspired immediate, dramatic, and often violent white response. More than four thousand Ocean Hill children, for example, had been sent into white communities across the city. Virtually all of them had some form of bigotry and insult directed at them; students at one school had been herded by their new principal into an all-Black classroom of students bused from other parts of the city. Eventually, most students begged to be returned to their local schools.

In Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the Board of Education, New York Mayor John Lindsay, the Ford Foundation, and a faction of community leaders joined forces in 1967 to propose a plan for greater community participation in the soon-to-be-opened local Intermediate School 55. Their plan not only required parent-teacher committees and new programs, but dramatically increased local control. An experimental district of eight schools was established, to be run by a locally elected governing board. However, although this governing board ran the schools for a two year period, its actual powers were never clearly delineated.

The election itself was controversial. The community planning council approached the Board of Education for the files of students in order to register their parents to vote. Board representatives told them to hire two Board secretaries to acquire this information. When the planning council promptly agreed, its representatives were told that these secretaries had, in fact, gone on vacation and that no one else could help. As a result, some 2,200 prospective voters were registered in a door-to-door campaign led by local nuns, poverty workers, and paid parent-canvassers.

The board that emerged claimed the right to appoint a business manager, nominees for the community relations liaison position, and community school workers. It further claimed the right to select the project administrator, to approve selected principals, to determine policy in areas of curriculum, personnel, and the program at large, and to determine its own budgetary needs and the allocation of its funds. Finally, the governing board argued that it, rather than the Board of Education, would make provisions for evaluations of the project.

Diane Ravitch (in The Great School Wars, 1974) notes that there was “nothing mentioned about the power to hire, fire, or transfer professionals.” Nevertheless, teachers were concerned and angry and expressed fears that high concentrations of power were accumulating at the local level. As a summer planning council met with teacher representatives, impasses soon emerged around issues of teacher representation on the board; teacher responsibility to the board; supervision, evaluation and tenure; voting; and the legality of the decentralization operation. Teachers complained that participants on the planning council had made a “constant stream of remarks… which stated that teachers were bigoted, incompetent, uninterested, obstrucive, and were attempting to sabotage the plan,” that “the atmosphere became so hostile that teachers hesitated even to ask a question or express an opinion,” and that teachers had not been allowed to vote (“Final Report by the Advisory and Evaluation Committee on Decentralization,” July 30th, 1968). Acting Administrator Rhody McCoy replied that teachers were bent on seeing “that no militant or Black Power advocates were selected. This to us was an attempt to exclude a vital segment of the community and to deny the exercise of free choice.”

Meanwhile, the Board of Education and the UFT had not yet reached settlement on a citywide contract. One of the union’s central demands was to provide stricter controls over disruptive children. Civil rights organizations, representatives of the Ocean Hill- Brownsville community, and most Black teachers strongly opposed this, seeing it as an effort to expel or punish children of color rather than change the classroom culture.

At the opening of the 1967 school year, eighteen assistant principals and five principals requested transfers out of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Teachers were charging that there had been a Black Power takeover of their schools and that all of the changes had been effected through undemocratic processes. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict became a cause célèbre among teachers citywide. Almost with a sense of vindictiveness, the strike began.

Parents had already made plans to staff the schools in the event of a strike. Black teachers in the district supported the governing board’s efforts to keep the schools open, and Black teachers from other parts of the city even came to the district to assist. The governing board established communication, information, and public relations centers within the community. A curriculum and bylaws committee was formed; new principals were selected; student teachers were placed; paraprofessional training programs for parents were established.

The local leaders also now became convinced that having the right to hire and fire employees would be a necessary precondition for community control; the loyalty of many white teachers, as they saw it, was to the union, not to students.

White teachers, for their part, commonly said in public that they were in favor of community control, but they disputed the ability of the people in Ocean Hill-Brownsville to carry out the work. Some said residents were not educated or “socially-elevated enough to run schools,” reports Diane Ravitch. The travesty, in the minds of the UFT, was that the governing board, led by Rhody McCoy, was being taken seriously by those with the formal powers to enable their project.

McCoy reported encountering resentment on the part of supervisory personnel, manifesting in “lapses of memory, the need for clarification of standard practices, inability to respond to directives, interruption of schedules, and many other omissions.” Accusations of assault and hostility were abundant. Rumors spread and mushroomed. Teacher boycotts were countered by parent boycotts. Black parents charged racism and police brutality. They were, in turn, accused by picketing teachers and UFT supporters of “vigilantism” and Black racism.

“A sort of hoodlum element is in control of several schools,” charged UFT President Albert Shanker. “Teachers remaining in Ocean Hill-Brownsville are subject to a kind of vigilante activity…. Children… are chanting Black Power slogans.” McCoy argued, in turn, that Black educators “must become the vital force in halting the downward trend in urban education. The tokenism,” he wrote, “which we now endure must develop into a raging conflagration that will ultimately mean control. The policymakers and first-line implementers of the educational process for Black and Puerto Rican children must be Black and Puerto Rican.”

THE CONFLICT in Ocean Hill–Brownsville continues to pose provocative questions about who should control and determine the aims of education for politically and economically marginalized, disenfranchised youth. Both liberal and social democratic critics of the local community board were inclined to minimize the impact of racism on opportunities for political participation. Their assumption was that if Blacks were saying something legitimate, they would have been heard. These critics often failed to recall how liberal Black efforts at school amelioration that preceded the turn to more confrontational policies had been largely ignored. Thanks to this amnesia, there was a widespread view that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community had chosen aggressive means as a first rather than a last resort.

Characterizations of the “illiberalism” of Black Power were articulated by leading left Jewish intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt, who suggested that such activism had led to a deliberate lowering of academic standards in universities, and Michael Walzer, who described the community’s politics as mainly one of gesture that quickly turned nasty. A consensus with significant media backing suggested that “community control” was a misnomer, that the struggle was nothing more than a quest for power by a few disgruntled individuals. In fact, the local governing board consisted of Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and whites, and was heavily supported by most of its new Jewish employees, who had chosen to be in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and spoke consistently in defense of the project of community control. Nationwide, moreover, the Black Power movement had brought together Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Native Americans and Asian Americans in many neighborhood and social justice struggles.

Discomfort with the rise of Black Power approaches to education was quickly converted into charges of anti-Semitism when a set of pamphlets mysteriously emerged that said African-American history should not be taught to Black children by “Middle East Murderers” and “Bloodsucking Exploiters.” The UFT reproduced half a million of these pamphlets and disseminated them throughout the city. The coverage that followed rarely distinguished between comments made by formal representatives of the local board and random others.

The board responded with an advertisement in the New York Times on November 11th, 1968, stating that the board and the school district “has never tolerated nor will it ever tolerate anti-Semitism in any form. Anti-Semitism has no place in our hearts and minds and indeed never in our schools…. When the governing board recruited 350 new teachers last summer, more than 50 percent of them were Jewish. Are these anti-Semitic actions?”

Indeed, how would the UFT have appeared if its position had been reduced to off-the-record comments by angry white teachers in the faculty lounge? Questions about whether the anti-Semitic materials had in fact been authored by COINTELPRO (the domestic counter-intelligence program of the FBI) or the union itself were ignored, as were reports from the newly hired Jewish teachers about the honoring of Jewish holidays in the schools.

WHY DID NEW YORKERS have to choose between concerns of Jews in the labor movement and issues of racial injustice? Why were Jewish teachers and Black community activists not the most obvious of allies? Why did a “progressive” union lead a crusade against community control? And why did Black teachers and new white employees of the local board split so categorically with their union?

Many of those who had fought for the creation of teachers’ unions had been Jewish radicals fighting against trade union stagnation. Their activism was shaped in the 1930s and ’40s by the ideology of welfare-state socialism, which focused on centralized bodies for the enactment of social justice measures. Smaller communities, marked by more local and narrower interests, could not, in their view, effect systemic redistributive measures. Many of them, moreover, believed that race was not intrinsic to issues of class inequality. They believed good politics to be color-blind, on the mistaken assumption that, under the society’s laws and principles of justice, everyone comes to the table of contention on equal discursive playing fields.

The centralizing and standardizing of the public schools had led to the professionalization of school administrators and staff, and in doing so had created the space for unions to protect the school system’s employees. To the governing board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, however, the UFT’s commitment to labor clearly did not extend to the labor — or the lack of work — of members of poor communities of color like their own. Observers of the schools consistently commented on the changed school environments under community control — in particular, how administrators weary of their strained contact with students had been replaced by leaders who wanted to work with and for such young people. “[W]hite, centrally controlled schools meant in effect no learning but an atmosphere of fear and alienation for teacher and child alike,” wrote Sol Stern (“‘Scab Teachers,’” 1969), a critic of the UFT. “Community-controlled schools, as anyone who visited Ocean Hill-Brownsville must know, at least provide an atmosphere of warmth and dignity. I asked two 15-year-old girls who had graduated from JHS 271 last year, and who thus had lived through that school’s agonizing transition from white to Black control, what the difference was between the two principals. One of them said, ‘Well, Mr. Bloomfield… used to hide in his office all day — whenever there was trouble he would send one of his assistant principals to check it out. He was like a scared mouse. Mr. Harris we could always see. And when he took over he asked all the classes to elect a delegate to come and meet with him and tell him what our complaints were.”

Stern argued that if the union had fought in cooperation with the local board for strong decentralization with adequate safeguards for teachers, they would have been better able to protect their teachers in ghetto schools and their own ties with an increasing Black and Puerto Rican New York City school community. They might also have contributed, rather than abated, efforts to bring more teachers and administrators of color into the public education field. Stern suggested that the union leaders and their allies were conservative social democrats, white and Black, who were anachronistic in their inability to contend with issues of race and self-determination and in their commitment to bureaucracy and rules. “[T]he winning of collective bargaining rights for all teachers,” he wrote, “has made [the UFT] the instrument of job security, and now the conservative and the mediocre have become the union’s majority. Now it is the radicals who break the picket lines.”

Indeed, there were numerous Jews, including many young teachers, who allied strongly with the Ocean Hill–Brownsville community. Most of them were social activists with parents and grandparents active in communist and socialist movements. Disdained by their UFT colleagues for their youth, naiveté and seemingly obtuse political thinking, they thought of the union as narrow, careerist, and self-interested.They argued that it was an expression of their Jewishness, of their own community’s history, to demand an alternative vision of the relationship among education, race, and labor.

THE EXPERIMENTS in Ocean Hill–Brownsville were certainly not without flaws, but they should have been allowed to exist and generate tangible results. Such experiments are necessary if schools are to be committed to expanding democracy and not simply reproducing the injustices of the world into which students are born. Instead, UFT opposition to decentralizing legislation returned all decision-making power to the Board of Education.

American public education has been in a perpetual state of failure in the ensuing decades. Battles for community control by communities of color have been more or less displaced by movement toward site-based management and charter schools. Although some individual leaders continue to take seriously what it means to make their schools of these communities, more settle for varying degrees of race representation, with individual faculty or administrators of color speaking on behalf of communities of which they may or may not be a part.

Although well-intended, these measures do not represent a centralized commitment to the use of public schools as places where the conditions of inequity that afflict the majority of people of color in the U.S. may be altered. Such utilization of the schools would require that the people who are genuinely committed to transforming the system gain the means to re-envision and create the relationship between public education and U.S. democratic life. Reform of this nature would involve more than just the employment of a certain number of minority members, the rationing of courses that offer marginal treatments of the history of people of color, and a small list of successful college students of color. It would require, instead, the creation of a social and political reality in which the success of children of color is not seen as the abnormal groping for standards of white or middle-class normativity. This would require the ability to see in Black people, dead and alive, a past with evidence of and a future replete with greatness.

Dr. Jane Anna Gordon is the author of Why They Couldn’t Wait: A Critique of the Black-Jewish Conflict over Community Control in Ocean Hill- Brownsville (1967-1971). She is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the Program in Jewish Studies at Temple University, where she co-directs the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies.