Marjorie Murphy discusses the lasting effects of a Brooklyn teachers’ strike

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Professor Marjorie Murphy of the History Department gave the first faculty lecture of the spring semester about the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teacher’s strike. One of Murphy’s primary historical interests is in labor history, specifically in the history of education and teacher’s unions. Although Murphy’s lecture was difficult to follow without previous background on the subject, she offered an interesting perspective on the problems of public education today.

She began by asking why minority parents see public education as “an educational death sentence for their children,” describing our current system in the United States as “an apartheid system of education.” While middle-class white students get a good education, “colored students get experiments in privatization.” Murphy believes that the current stagnancy of efforts to reform public education can be traced in part to this 1968 strike, since “the progressives shattered into fragments after this strike and the neo-conservatives took power… other historians have told me that the strike touched off a veritable race war.”

Murphy contended “the strike happened in a watershed moment in US history… this period saw more strikes, more riots, more peace marches, and more assassinations than any time in US history before or since.” She also related the Ocean Hill Brownsville strike to a strike in Memphis Tennessee and to Martin Luther King Jr.’s last campaign, which saw “the merger of the civil rights and labor movements.”

She continued by giving brief biographies of some of the individuals involved in the strike. McGeorge Bundy was once Kennedy’s architect of the Vietnam War, but once he left the White House, he came to the Ford Foundation in 1966 and cast about for a good investment for the foundation’s funds. Murphy characterized Bundy with quotes from historian David Halberstam, who has called him “an elitist prig.” During his tenure in the White House, many people reflected that “his arrogance and hubris might not be good for the country.” Murphy continued to say that “he was shallow, smug, insensitive, and believed in the right of the elite to decide things on their own terms.”

Once at the Ford Foundation, Bundy decided that the Black Power movement would be a good investment. He funneled money into two projects, one to elect the country’s first urban black mayor, who became Carl Stokes of Cleveland, and another to decentralize public schools in New York City. Murphy described him as someone who “admired angry black leaders… he would use the money to help channel black rage in the urban north.” He thought that “a little black power in the classroom would be good.”

Bundy soon came into contact with Sonny Carson, a member of the Ocean Hill school board and a leader in Brooklyn CORE. “Carson was not hesitant to use insurrection as a tool,” said Murphy, “he wanted to remove all white people from the district, including union teachers and principals.” When the Ocean Hill teachers joined a city-wide strike in September of 1967, he became furious. In October he began working to create a “kibbutz-like colony of blacks in his own neighborhood… where whitey would have no reason to trespass.” Carson brought guns into the schools and threatened the teachers who he wanted out with violence. Murphy went on to explain that Carson “was later involved in a murder case… he was involved in nearly every racial incident in Brooklyn in the late 20th century.” In the Ocean Hill Brownsville strike, said Murphy, “whenever a loaded moment began, Sonny was there with a match ready to go.”

Another important figure was Dick Parrish, a New York City teacher and labor leader. He was a World War Two veteran who became a teacher in 1947 and who rose to prominence when he challenged the segregation of his trade union, which lost twenty percent of its membership as a result. He became vice-president of the union in 1960 and was part of the Freedom Summers that sent teachers South to educate southern blacks. He also worked to combat de-facto segregation, since “most urban schools were entirely segregated.” Unfortunately, his coalition fell apart in 1967.

A teachers’ strike in the summer of 1967 coincided with the “Vietnam Summer” and the summer of major urban riots, including one in Detroit which left forty-three people dead. “The turmoil in the nation was continuous,” said Murphy, who cited the statistic that there were 169 strikes in 1967 and 254 in 1968. After the violence of that summer, “school officials looked to teachers to clam urban restlessness, but they weren’t in any mood to be the calmers… the teacher’s union held the board responsible for the terrible conditions of the city schools… teachers pointed to false promises made in Harlem and Ocean Hill, they pointed to the rise in crime statistics in city schools, and they asked for power to remove disruptive students from their classrooms.”

Security was an issue for students and teachers alike at the time. “The urban crime wave had come into the classroom and children were carrying arms.” Black leaders focused on this issue of disruptive children because it “bypassed the touchier issue of community control of police.” To many of the community leaders of places like Ocean Hill, it seemed that “white teachers wanted to kick kids out of schools.” This issue was being debated across the country, but Murphy claimed that “the only city with a major urban strike was New York City.” In Detroit a similar strike lasted for only a day and the teachers ultimately won. There was actually a public outcry because the teachers were asking for a salary “that would be only a little bit below the national median salary.” At the time, teachers were making six hundred dollars a year more than sanitation men.

During the teachers’ strike, black community leaders “charged the union with callousness towards slum children.” In Brooklyn, CORE set up its own school system and claimed that it could run it indefinitely. Sonny Carson of CORE demanded that all white teachers be removed. Instead of creating progress, “Bundy’s experiment was a jumping-off point for a new segregated vision of race relations.”

At this point in time, there were strikes all over the country in all kinds of industries. Murphy surprised many in the audience when she revealed that “even the Rockettes were on strike for a month!” The sanitation men of New York City started a strike on February 3rd, 1968 which went on for nine days as the city was forced to pick up its own garbage, which reached up to two feet high in places. Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee were impressed by their victory, and after being short-changed on a paycheck and having two of the members killed in an accident, thirteen hundred workers walked off the job, and it took two months and the assassination of Martin Luther King for the strike to end. King originally saw such strikes as an irritant to his program, “but as time went on he saw it as a key element to his program of economic justice.” After his assassination, “cities across the country exploded in violence.”

Ocean Hill and Brownsville in Brooklyn were no different. Brownsville was on fire, and rioters shouted “Kill Whitey” in the streets. The school districts were organizing with help from the Ford Foundation. The districts dismissed thirteen white teachers and six principals, accusing them of sabotaging the project of community control. Teachers went on strike in protest, and were then locked out. Union leader Albert Shanker “would not allow a face-saving end to the strike,” explained Murphy, and she feels that the bitterness created by this strike “broke apart any possibility of Martin Luther King’s dream.”

Even today, she concluded, “there’s so much bitterness over this strike that maybe we won’t be able move forward in our lifetime… and wouldn’t that be a shame?”

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