A few weeks ago, I wrote about a dive into my archives to revisit the work a colleague and I did in one of the early anti-poverty programs in Mississippi. At that point, my impression was that the archive consisted entirely of the manuscript of an unfinished book about that experience.
That dive has been a lot deeper than I anticipated, and I’m finally coming up for air. It turns out the box, which bears the scratch marks of several generations of family cats, contains the evidence of another historic immersion which was related to, yet dramatically different from, the Mississippi experience. It’s a story that’s fading from public memory, and it’s worth resurfacing for two reasons. First, for my teacher friends and colleagues, it’s an important part of the tangled history of the labor unions which have represented us. Second, it has some troubling parallels to current rifts within the progressive/liberal community, including upsurges of antisemitic and anti-Black speech and action.
In late 1967, during the time we were preparing to leave Mississippi, the Ford Foundation funded a study of the New York City public schools, which contained radical recommendations to decentralize a huge and sclerotic system serving more than a million students. The report, which recommended creating 30 semi-autonomous districts, serving 3-35,000 students each, won the support of the then mayor of New York, John Lindsay. It immediately caught our attention because we recognized that the community people charged with operating these decentralized districts would face the same challenges as the local Mississippi folk with whom we had labored for the past several years. Few of them would bring experience with managing large institutions, so they would be starting at a serious disadvantage.
When we arrived in New York at the start of 1968, both the machinery for implementing the decentralization plan and the opposition to it were already humming along. Although our primary job was to work on the book about our Mississippi experiences, we could not resist entering into the unfolding efforts to which we somewhat arrogantly and naively assumed we had something unique to contribute.
To begin with only a few of the 30 districts would be designated as demonstration districts. Almost all the attention and publicity was focused on an area in Brooklyn called Ocean Hill/Brownsville where the population was almost entirely African American. I knew the area well from my childhood because my Tante Leah and her family lived there and my Uncle Laibl had a grocery store catty-corner from their apartment building. The area showed signs of the neighborhood’s struggles since then. There were boarded up buildings and empty lots where I remembered stability, albeit on a very modest level.
I’m going to give you the equivalent of a one-minute synopsis of a Shakespeare play. The new district board hired its own chief administrator, Rhody McCoy, who dismissed a number of teachers assigned to his schools and replaced them with his own recruits. In response, the powerful union president, Albert Shanker, called a city-wide strike because he saw the district’s actions as a violation of the contract the union had negotiated with the central board. The strike lasted 36 days, the longest on record before or since. It dominated the news for that entire period. The union’s membership and leadership was heavily Jewish, while most of the key actors on the community side were Black. The result was a horror show of antisemitic and racist invective that crippled the city for decades after. For those who think the current Palestine-related rifts between people of color and Jews, between progressives and liberals, is unprecedented, think again.
My archive box is overflowing with notes from dozens of community meetings we attended around the city about the decentralization plans, none of which imprinted themselves in my memory. There was one exception, a raucous meeting on the Lower East Side which ended in chaos when an angry member of the audience hurled a water pitcher at a man, probably off-duty cop, who had approached her menacingly. This was a different kind of violence from what we were accustomed to in Mississippi.
What became increasingly clearer was that the focus on both sides of the conflict was solely about power. The major lesson of our Mississippi attempts at a more democratic distribution of power was on the preparation that was needed to use that influence for the general good. That work was built on thousands of hours the Movement had invested in building relationships, while at the same time convincing people that they were capable of taking the necessary steps to lead their own institutions.
None of that groundwork had been done in New York, so the chance that anything transformative would come of it were slim indeed. To complicate matters further, the opposing forces, particularly the teachers’ union, was far more sophisticated than anything we faced in Mississippi, which relied primarily on brute force and fear. In the end that sophistication resulted in the passage of a watered-down union-backed reorganization of the NYC schools, which stripped the legislation of any meaningful community control. The status quo now wore a different mask, and another great opportunity to build a stronger base to our democracy was lost.
You’re welcome to stop here, but for those who still have the stamina to continue, I’m including here the closing section of what was intended to be the final chapter of our book about the work in Mississippi. It was written at a time when our disappointment with the New York work was still burning hot, an emotional state that’s hard to reconstruct from scratch today.
What we do know with some certainty is that anyone who is trying to build new institutions or to alter sharply the quality of existing institutions still faces the same frustrations and uncertainties which marked our experience with CDGM. What we know cannot be spoken of without a certain tone of shrillness. It is all so intangible that it’s hard to convince anyone it’s there at all. We know that our society has precluded any fundamental change in the areas which really matter. We ‘re not speaking of employment, income distribution, health, though precious little change can be expected for some time to come in these vital areas either The fundamental change we are speaking of is not even the realignment of power, to allow excluded groups to share a portion of it. The true transformation which has been blocked is in the very nature of how people perceive and relate to authority. The idea that people at varying levels of authority could relate to each other in any way other than the traditional patterns of dominance and submission has been made to appear visionary and unattainable. The message that such a thing cannot happen is hammered home implicitly by the very structure of the institutions in which we spend most of our lives – school, industry, government, social clubs, political organizations, professional groups Such a goal has even been written off or disregarded by the radicals who presume to be seeking the most thorough-going revolution of our society. Their increasing preoccupation with the rhetoric of power and their arbitrary and capricious style of behaving toward their own constituents as well as non-supporters, makes it seem very unlikely that the psychological revolution in attitudes to authority would be achieved any more quickly under their jurisdiction than it is at present. When people remain bound to the same authority patterns there is little hope that our aspirations for the creation of structures in which people are allowed to work to the fullest capacity of their creativity can be realized either. If one has become accustomed to viewing radicalism purely in terms of battles for distribution of power and resources, our objectives may seem ludicrous – true democracy and individual self- fulfillment