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This Day in Labor History: November 17, 1968

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On November 17, 1968, the New York State Education Commissioner reasserted control over the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn, ending the strike by teachers that started when African-American activists fired white teachers in their schools in violation of the union contract. This fraught incident represented the difficult relationship between organized labor and other social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, demonstrated the increased militancy of teachers unions during this period, and suggested the complexity of labor’s responses to social groups making new demands upon society.

In 1967, African-Americans in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood, working with a pretty wide variety of white allies, demanded community control over their schools. More than 95 percent of the students were African-American or Latino and about 2/3 of the teachers were white. Such demands were increasingly common among communities of color during this era, especially among Chicano activists in the Southwest. They believed their schools were failing because of their inherent racism of the educational system. They believed the teachers were racist too. They wanted the students to learn about their history, read literature written by black writers, and be part of the revolutionary change demanded by Black Power activists nationwide. The city allowed Ocean Hill-Brownsville and a couple of other districts to experiment in community control beginning in 1967. Much of this community control movement nationwide had a strong anti-union element to it, especially among whites who supported it. One architect of the idea wanted to “destroy the professional education bureaucracy,” i.e., the unions.

The teachers were members of the United Federation of Teachers. They were largely Jewish and many considered themselves liberals or leftists. Other teachers were indeed pretty racist. This was a tricky issue. African-American parents had real concerns. On the other hand, the teachers had a collectively bargained contract. The head of the UFT was Albert Shanker. The contract he had negotiated with the city allowed teachers to advance through a serious of standardized tests that could allow them to move ahead depending on how they did on them. This merit-based system Shanker and the rank and file believed represented teachers effectively. It did indeed serve the white teachers well. But as standardized teachers often go, African-American teachers tended not to score as highly. So the tests and the contract did institutionalize racism.

Responding to this, the community activists fired several white teachers, violating the contract. Black teachers and whites who were not union members but committed to community control of the schools replaced them. Shanker and the UFT when ballistic and 350 teachers in the district went on strike on May 22. The community fired them all. Technically this meant that they were returned to the New York central school district office, where they would have to show up and hang out all day rather than actual firing, but it was effectively firing the teachers. This strike was a foretaste of the broader response once the new school year started in the fall. The activists behind community control wanted to ensure the fired teachers would never work again. Said the head of the community board who fired the teachers, “Not one of these teachers will be allowed to teach anywhere in this city. The black community will see to that.”

Shanker himself and the UFT as an institution had worked for civil rights. They had actively supported Freedom Summer in 1964. The UFT’s field rep in Ocean Hill-Brownsville was Sandra Feldman, a member of Harlem CORE and a volunteer during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But this was a bigger principle for the union. No union can survive if they can’t defend members’ jobs from arbitrary dismissal. Said Feldman, “From the point of view of the union, it was a totally basic issue. You’re talking about nineteen people who were told in effect: ‘You haven’t got jobs anymore.’ The Union really had no choice.”

The strike shattered the long alliance between Jews and African-Americans in New York politics. The UFT’s official stance on ethnicity was a melting pot idea that promoted teaching about ethnicity in the context of a Cold War nationalism that promoted individual achievement and consensus politics. The black activists in Ocean Hill-Brownsville rejected this liberal pluralism, especially the teaching of black history as equivalent to the European ethnic groups who had assimilated into American society. Of course black history is very different than European ethnic history, with systemic discrimination not only defining African-American life in 1968, but today. And many of the activists were openly anti-Semitic. One black teacher wrote a poem about Shanker that read “Hey Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head, you pale faced Jew boy, I wish you were dead.” Most of the New York left sided with the black activists, arguing the UFT was not acting in good faith. Others, including A. Philip Randolph and Michael Harrington, spoke out in favor of the UFT. Said Randolph, “If due process is not won in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, what will prevent white community groups from firing black teachers or white teachers with liberal views. What will prevent local Birchites and Wallaceites from taking over?” The AFL-CIO also supported their UFT brethren.

Mayor John Lindsey was initially supportive of the community control plan. But Shanker was frankly much more powerful than the people promoting this idea. The school year started with the entire school system going on strike for 36 days. 54,000 of the city’s 57,000 teachers walked out. The strike quickly forced Lindsay to backtrack. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools still operated despite the strike, although with the teachers striking outside, the education was not exactly effective. Over one million students had no school. Finally, on November 17, the state took direct control over Ocean Hill-Brownsville, ending the community control. The fired teachers were reinstated and the new teachers let go. Conflict at the school and in the community remained high. Albert Shanker became nationally famous over the strike.

Woody Allen would later portray Albert Shanker as the man who blew up the world in Sleeper. He would be posthumously granted the Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. Sadly, I don’t have to say which President Clinton.

I borrowed from Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, Peter Levy, The New Left and Labor in the 1960s , and Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession to write this post.

This is the 200th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • One thing for sure with the oncoming administration: everything old will become new again.

  • DAS

    Do leftover negative feelings from this strike and the events in part explain the eagerness of some in the African American community to embrace union-undermining charter schools?

  • LeeEsq

    Another factor contributing the stress was that many of the Jewish teachers might not have seen themselves as white. These were people who were the children or grandchildren of Jewish immigrants from Europe, predominately what used to be the Russian Empire. The probably grew up with family tales about persecution in the old country and Jews were still somewhat on the outside of mainstream American life in 1968. Many of the probably didn’t really see themselves as consciously see themselves white but as Jews.

    • DAS

      The probably grew up with family tales about persecution in the old country

      And economically disadvantaged, socially marginalized African-Americans rioting probably reminded them of economically disadvantaged, socially marginalized peasants getting sucked into pogroms.

      • The Dark God of Time

        Jews had become part of the mainstream New York City world by 1961:

        http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/12/business/judy-protas-writer-of-slogan-for-levys-real-jewish-rye-dies-at-91.html?_r=0

        Jews in Gentlemen’s Agreement by Laura Z Hobson certainly weren’t seen as white by the ruling Anglo class in 1948, or in the mid-50s, when Gore Vidal urged his life partner to hide his Jewishness when applying for a job in advertising, but by 1968 that sort of treatment was fast disappearing.

        So, no, LeeEsq, there’s no evidence for your silly supposition.

        • DAS

          If I am to understand LeeEsq’s position correctly, the issue is not whether by 1968 Jews were seen as white but rather whether Jews perceived themselves as white/mainstream. As you say “by 1968 that sort of treatment was fast disappearing”, which means it was still present not too long before 1968. And even in 1968 being Jewish was “exotic”, which your link doesn’t disprove. Considering how intense anti-Semitism has been, do you really think Jewish teachers in 1968 were comfortably “white”?

          • LeeEsq

            Exactly. This was only a generation after the Holocaust and a year after the Six Day War, which many Jews perceived as an apocalyptical assault on Jews at the time. It’s also when Soviet Jewry’s treatment began to become a big issue in Jewish politics. This was not a time when Jews felt anxious about their place in the world.

            • The Dark God of Time

              See below. My fellow Jewish classmates a mere decade later were indistinguishable from the middle-class kids that I grew up with here in the Gateway to the Gateway to the Sierras during that same time frame. Somehow the sense of being not-white which you attribute to their parents and older siblings was lacking in them.

              • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

                It really depends on how assimilated your parents were. My wife’s family are 5th/6th generation refugees from the pogroms who settled in the Bronx and Brooklyn at the turn of the century, and easily slipped into a thriving Jewish community. They all feel 100% American, and Israel has zero fascination for them. So they saw themselves as white.

                My grandparents both fled the Nazis as adults, settled in Portland and Seattle which had very small relatively new Jewish communities, never shed their accents, and their kids all spent at least a year living with cousins on a kibbutz and never felt 100% American. Also, in the 1950s Seattle’s Jewish community was centered in South Seattle, which was and is the center of its African American community, so their friends and neighbors were a mix of Jews and blacks.

                • It’s funny, a little, because I’m mostly 3rd generation and probably not more than 20 years older than your wife. My father was born in 1937 to people who arrived just before 1890 as small children. But also he grew up in a mixed Jewish and Italian neighborhood where both groups interacted with native Americans probably mostly through the police and the schools.

              • DAS

                I grew up in Orange County, CA. There were certain teachers at the local high school that would schedule exams on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Oh … and it’s the first exam, which is very important to setting the pace and tone for the year, so no make up exams! It was only in about 1990 that they finally were able to convince the teachers involved not to schedule exams on the Jewish high holidays!

                I was in high school after this mishigas was ended, but I still had a distinct sense that I was, in spite of my extremely pale skin and blue eyes, something other than fully white. At the very least, I was something other than fully American … after all, real American values are opposed to the values of Hollywood Cultural Elitists, if you know who I mean and I think you do.

                As to the time period in question, I know that many So. Cal. communities had anti-Jewish restrictive covenants in force even in the mid 1960s, although there were exceptions made (Hello dad’s maternal grandmother’s family!).

        • NewishLawyer

          Jews don’t consider themselves white because we are not considered white. Anti-Semitism was founded by people who thought Napoleon’s emancipation was a mistake and Jews were a separate race and could never assimilate into Europe culturally.

          Jews were a people apart in Europe and in many ways are still a people a part in the United States.

          I feel that Jews are the only people not allowed the right of self-identity on the left. We are considered white by those who consider white to be an insult and white-nationalists certainly don’t consider us white. I don’t think Jews should be stuck in the middle between two idiot armies.

          Are Jews from Iraq white? Egypt? Ethiopia? China? India?

          • aturner339

            I don’t think anyone outside the NOI considers “white” an insult. The left considers it a privilege largely because it is. Whether that privilege is extended to Jews largely depends on context. As you rightly acknowledged it is limited to Ashkenazim and as others have pointed out it is also very recent.

            I think today the answer would be “usually but with marked exceptions white”

            This is not an attack on Jewsih identity by the left it is rather one of the ways that white supremacy hurts even the putatively “white.” By erasing ethnic distinctions for racial ones.

            • Re. “Ashkenazim”: Jews from Holland are generally Sfardim, being originally of Spanish or Portugese origin, until 1492 or thereabouts. Therefore many English and West European (and American) Jews have been Sfardim, and these tend to be the most and earliest “Westernized”.

              • aturner339

                Fair point!

              • JL

                This is true (the earliest US Jewish senators were Sephardim, as was Cardozo, the SCOTUS justice). However (I expect that you know this, this is more for the sake of others reading), there are also large numbers of Sephardim in the US whose families came over comparatively recently from the Middle East, North Africa, or the Balkans, not Holland. These days I would expect those to vastly outnumber the old-school US Sephardim. Same in France. Not sure about England or other Western European countries.

                • Absolutely I agree. The blond, blue-eyed Ashkenazi with a Berlin gymnasium education is not the modal English or North American Jew. That is exactly my point.

                  (There are groups proselytizing for a Jewish cultural and religious essence that magically appeared in Russia in the late 19th century but really should have been known to everyone, but that’s even further off topic. Jews are ethnically, culturally, and even religiously diverse and denying that fact in reaction to Nazis is not helpful.)

                • vic rattlehead

                  My paternal grandfather was a Sephardic Jew. He converted to Catholicism to marry my grandmother (he was the black sheep of the family, I think the rest of his siblings married other Jews). He kept it on the down low but from what my uncle told me he still observed high holy days with his siblings into his 80s. He just never talked about it. I never really thought about it either-I never really saw that side of the family at all.

                  Anyway I didn’t know about this until I was in college because no one in my family ever talked about it, and for various reasons I never had much if any contact with my father’s extended family. But then some things started to make sense. I apparently looked Jewish enough to be made fun of by a bully in catholic school. I was always a fairly decent size though so it wasn’t that bad and I never brought it up to my parents.

                  But that experience is coming back to me. There are a lot of people out there now who are empowered to oppress people who they perceive as “looking” wrong and I just remembered that I may have a target on my back too.

                  I had a point when I started typing this and now I just forgot. You guys just reminded me of this I guess and now I’m venting.

                • cpinva

                  “The blond, blue-eyed Ashkenazi with a Berlin gymnasium education is not the modal English or North American Jew. That is exactly my point.”

                  wow, who did you grow up with, that this was a thing? my great-grandparents emigrated from Russia/Lithuania, in the 1890’s, my grandma being born in 1900. definitely Ashkenazi, and not a blue-eyed blond among them. I got my blue eyes from my dad’s irish/welsh side of the family, where I’m only second generation, and his mother was an irish redhead, whose hair color I definitely didn’t inherit, got mom’s hair.

                  I doubt I’ve ever met a “blond, blue-eyed Ashkenazi” in my life.

                • DAS

                  cpinva … you should meet some people in my family sometime then! Indeed, some of the blondest, most alabaster skinned people I’ve ever known are Ashkenazim.

                • I doubt I’ve ever met a “blond, blue-eyed Ashkenazi” in my life.

                  I’ll send you my mother’s number.

                  I used to know a Russian Muslim (from probably around Otto’s way) who had alabaster skin and Irish-red hair.

            • JL

              As you rightly acknowledged it is limited to Ashkenazim and as others have pointed out it is also very recent.

              I think today the answer would be “usually but with marked exceptions white”

              And of course, a movement that widely believes that Jews should be reracialized just had their candidate elected to the presidency.

              Sorry for the derail, but this has been fearfully discussed among myself and a lot of Ashkenazi and white-identified Sephardi Jews that I know, and a Jewish student at my majority-Jewish university was attacked this past weekend (someone shouted an anti-Semitic slur and threw beer on him).

              • aturner339

                Yes this may change again in the near future.

              • cpinva

                “(someone shouted an anti-Semitic slur and threw beer on him).”

                did he pick up a huge rock/brick and throw it back? only way to deal with those assholes. I got shit for my “jew boy” hair in high school. I played football, so I had no problem mixing it up with the racists, of which there were a lot down here in VA, in the 60’s & 70’s.

          • DAS

            I feel that Jews are the only people not allowed the right of self-identity on the left.

            Yep. This is true.

            As to non-white Jews, what about African-American Jews?

    • I’m still dubious about this. I remember the first time I heard a Jewish person say “I don’t consider Jews to be white” and it was a second-generation Latin American woman on PBS complaining about US Jews not supporting the Sandinistas or something. It feels to me like yet another instance of Southern cultural imperialism. I’m not convinced white-nonwhite was the salient distinction in the northeast.

      To whom would Jews seem to be nonwhite? Not, I’d think, to other recent immigrants from countries were nonwhite was not a useful category, and had other reasons to harass them. Not to wealthy people who knew perfectly well that not all while people were like them, and had no reason to tell them they were the same–and who did were used to more ethnic diversity than in the south within the class of the wealthy. Not to olive-complexioned Italians and Scots. Not to African Americans in Harlem, or for that matter working people in other neighborhoods, where many of the business owners and landlords were Jewish–not middlemen, small property owners in their own right. I honestly can’t remember ever thinking “nonwhite” as a category until recently–as opposed to “ethnic” or “exotic.”

      I’d guess the actual attitude of the Jewish teachers and union leaders involved will have varied depending on their relation with the old left, among other things.

      ETA And their family’s length of stay in the US, their country of origin, and so on. Though few public school teachers were Rothschilds, to be sure, or for that matter just off the boat.

  • No Longer Middle Aged Man

    One architect of the idea wanted to “destroy the professional education bureaucracy,” i.e., the unions.

    I do not know about this particular quote, but I remember Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The professional education bureaucracy that most people wanted to blow up was the NYC Board of Education, headquartered on Court Street in Brooklyn back then iirc. It was a large, bloated institution that was impervious to community demands for change and actively fought all efforts for greater local control of schools.

    My impression is that central Boards of Education are among the most authority-grabbing and least responsive to user wants/needs (where users are both students and their parents) of any organizations I know. This distance from and indifference to students and parents increases the attractiveness of charter schools, vouchers et al because they’re seen as potentially giving a voice and a chance to walk to people who don’t have either with respect to their BoE. It’s unfair to teachers, who are caught in the middle, and I certainly do not believe that for-profit chain charter schools are going to do anything good for public education, but centralized control of education isn’t exactly delivering stunning success these days.

    • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

      The old NYC Board of Ed was blown up, thankfully. I remember going to a meeting in their old HQ and attending a presentation in one of their old meeting rooms that had never been repurposed. It was every cliche of over-the-top opulent 1920s largesse and corruption: giant mahogany and marble inlaid conference table the size of a football field, 35-40 leather wing backed chairs, etc.

    • LeeEsq

      Education is an area where top-down centralized control and community control have some serious issues. Top down centralized control can lead to unresponsive administration and misuse of educational funds. Community control can lead to things like creation science being taught because the community is religious fundamentalist or really out there versions of history getting taught for similar reasons.

      • The Dark God of Time

        Accreditation agencies hàve the real power for anything above the local level, as the Bay Area has learned in recent years:

        http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/Accrediting-commission-sanctions-four-East-Bay-6373802.php

        If a local community wants to teach that gays cause earth tremors and quakes, as did the good Christian monarch Justinian did, what then? Is bigotry to be enabled under the rubric of “local control?”

        • LeeEsq

          That’s exactly the problem with local or community control of education. The community want all sort of idiotic or even outright evil things taught to their children. Centralized education can be unresponsive and corrupt but technocrats are usually able to avoid this.

          • I’m trying really hard not to reply to this with snark.

            • LeeEsq

              Texas being the exception to the rule.

          • (((Hogan)))

            What makes you think centralization and technocracy have anything to do with each other?

  • The Dark God of Time

    Yale gave up excluding Jews in the early 1960s.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1986/03/04/nyregion/yale-s-limit-on-jewish-enrollment-lasted-until-early-1960-s-book-says.html

    The problem you and Lee have is the evidence so far goes against your assertions. In 1961, what wxas exotic was non-Jews eating “Jewish rye bread”, in 1968 it became a punchline. The only folks who excluded Jews from the American mainstream at tha point in time was that influence political oranization, the John Birch society.

    Also, my experience in St. Louis amoung some of the Jews there during my days at the Harvard of the Midwest that began in 1977, was that they considered themselves as white as the next fellow, like me.

    Sorry to harsh your mellow so early.

    • NewishLawyer

      Why does your standard rule? Are you Jewish? Do you get to dictate how all Jews see themselves and their history? You sound awfully anti-Semitic by dictating how Jews need to see themselves.

      • The Dark God of Time

        I’m telling you what I observed. I’m sorry they didn’t conform to your idea of what they should be, but that’s what I saw and heard. Hell, I was mistaken for being Jewish a few times(which I always considered a compliment), and I had a Jewish roommate from Rhode Island who was aggressively proud enough of his heritage to wear a golden aleph on a necklace without thinking himself some sort of non-white.

        • rewenzo

          Clearly, The Dark God of Time has established his expertise on Jewish identity. He had a Jewish roommate! From Rhode Island! Merely being Jewish, and not a gentile expert on Jewish identity, I don’t know what Rhode Island adds to the story, but I assume it is significant.

          Additionally, it is absurd to criticize him as antisemitic, when he has been mistaken as Jewish. And not just once! A few times!

          But I would like to hear more of this paragon of Jewishness from the Ocean State. He wore a golden aleph on his necklace! No doubt he was the Jewish pope, or if we don’t have one of those (merely being Jewish and not possessing expertise in Jewish identity, I would not know), no doubt he was Elijah the Prophet come again.

          • The Dark God of Time

            I’m sorry I didn’t keep detailed notes, as even an amateur anthropologist should, but my experience included giving a Jewish art history major and dorm mate a quick lesson in Christianity, because he neglected that factor when picking an easy major; working with a group of young Jews, who like me, had volunteered to scavenge wood in the inner city of St. Louis for a program run by Lutherans, of all people, and they seemed as white as my classmates here in rural California.

            But I never kissed the editor of the Radio Times.

    • LeeEsq

      This like arguing that racism against people of color is no longer a problem because Obama won the Presidency twice and you know it.

      • The Dark God of Time

        Sorry, I was talking about how Jewish college students acted and regarded themselves around a goy like me. Your pathetic attempt to falsify my observations is duly noted.

        • Aaron Morrow

          You were talking about how Jewish college students acted and regarded themselves around a goy like you meant that others’ assertions were wrong.

          • The Dark God of Time

            See above.

          • Origami Isopod

            Seriously. Dude needs to stop goysplaining all over this thread.

            • The Dark God of Time

              My experience is goysplaing.

              Thanks for letting me know.

              • As far as I can tell your experience matches mine.

              • Origami Isopod

                /headdesk

    • cpinva

      “Also, my experience in St. Louis”

      St. Louis! good grief, no wonder you’re such a douchebag, you grew up in west sister fuck, MO. I hate to break the news to you, but your personal experience doesn’t define anything, for anyone else, just you.

      • The Dark God of Time

        The Harvard of the Midwest didn’t Have a lot of people from bumfuck, MO, attending there, although my best friend in college did hail from Springfield, MO and having been brought up Southern Baptist, was more wary of them than I ever was. I got in because of my high SATS, and the desire to get out of the Gateway to the Gateway to the Sierras.

        You might be good with numbers, but your reading comprehension needs work.

  • But that strike had an enormous effect on both: (1) the further development of the left and its relationship with mainstream liberalism. (2) How the liberal Jewish middle class, the circles where lots of adults were teachers and “Communism is a decent idea in theory but doesn’t work in practice” and “the thing is the Tsar was really bad” was given at least lip service well into the Carter Administration at least, saw its place in the world.

  • JL

    Is this why you were tweeting yesterday about how you love writing about labor struggles where every side acted badly?

  • Drexciya

    Most of the New York left sided with the black activists, arguing the UFT was not acting in good faith. Others, including A. Philip Randolph and Michael Harrington, spoke out in favor of the UFT. Said Randolph, “If due process is not won in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, what will prevent white community groups from firing black teachers or white teachers with liberal views. What will prevent local Birchites and Wallaceites from taking over?”

    lol, of course he’d say that.

    And this thread and post is a lot.

    • Linnaeus

      It’s the longest comment thread attached to one of Erik’s labor history posts that I’ve seen in quite a while.

      • Because none of the comments are actually about labor or the tricky issues at play in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, but rather about identity politics, in this case what it means to be Jewish. Which is fine of course, but telling.

        • Well, this was an inflection point, it seems to me. The AFT had become the establishment but still viewed itself as “labor.” The New Left had less use for traditional labor and even less than that for the bureaucratic structures that had housed do-gooding liberals for decades, and built up the schools (whether they built to last or not is another question); they wanted to rebuild society on democratic principles. This version elides most of the bad behavior but for most purposes it’s more important than the incident’s importance as a wedge between the Jewish left and the left more generally.

    • Is A. Philip Randolph some sort of sellout now?

      • LeeEsq

        Everybody has the potential to be perceived as a sell out if you squint hard enough.

  • anori

    According to everything I’ve ever read, it was actually a student who wrote the anti-Semitic poem, and her teacher read it on WBAI (Pacifica Radio). And yes, it is kind of ironic that some of the same people who believe Jews have something to fear from a Trump presidency also believe that we should stop whining because we’re just ordinary white folks.

    • LeeEsq

      My understanding was that it was a student to.

      The Jews have something to fear but nothing to fear because they are ordinary white people faction is called wanting to have it both ways. There has always been groups on the Right and the Left that simultaneously wanted Jewish support and pandered for it but also wanted to not fully include Jews at the same time. You see this with Evangelical Christians regarding Israel on the Right or certain groups regarding racial justice issues on the Left.

      • The Dark God of Time

        Can you put a name to any of these “certain groups?” And, no, BDS doesn’t count.

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