The early 1960s proved to be a turbulent time for African Americans due to the racist policies that limited their potential. One collective of voices that deserves more than a casual mention is Chicago’s “Freedom Day,” a protest involving thousands of Black students who demonstrated against segregation — and a lack of resources — in 1963.
Inspired by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) “Birmingham Campaign” in the spring of the same year and the “March On Washington” led by Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in August, Chicago civil rights leaders grew frustrated with the segregation and the underserved schools in Black neighborhoods when compared to their White counterparts.
According to research, the Chicago Area Friends Of SNCC (CAFSNCC) formed in support of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the South. Looking to replicate the SNCC’s efforts of galvanizing those who supported their cause, the leaders of the CAFSNCC staged the “Freedom Day” citywide boycott in Chicago. They aimed much of their ire in the direction of then-Superintendent Ben Willis, comparing him to Alabama segregationist George Wallace.
A reported 250,000 students were absent from school that day, leaving many buildings in the city’s South and West sides empty.
Watch news footage of this event here:
CAFSNCC members also set up “Freedom Schools” so children who didn’t attend class wouldn’t be idle. The apex of the boycott happened when 10,000 protesters marched to the Chicago Board of Education building, demanding a meeting with Willis. Unfortunately, police headed off the crowd before they could enter the building.
Although the group wasn’t successful in their request for an audience with Superintendent Willis, the boycott inspired similar protests against segregation and other such practices. The change, while slow to come, eventually took place and schools lifted the archaic ban, giving students opportunities not afforded to them earlier.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much written about “Freedom Day,” although there has been video and photos recently uncovered and curated by museums both in Chicago and abroad. This vital moment of African-American history deserves more attention. Hopefully, someone with intimate knowledge of the day will give the boycott its historic justice.