(Photo: Queens College Civil Rights Archives)
On Feb. 3, 1964, more than 450,000 of New York's schoolchildren stayed home to protest racial segregation in the city's schools.
The citywide boycott of the public school system was organized by Bayard Rustin, who had been the chief organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom the previous summer. The goal, according to the Civil Rights Digital Library, was to draw attention to the de facto segregation of African American and Puerto Rican students that persisted in the city's schools more than a decade after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which had declared that laws segregating public schools by race were unconstitutional.
"Despite the 1954 Supreme Court decision, there are more segregated schools in New York City today than there were ten years ago," wrote Rev. Milton A. Galamison, of the City-Wide Committee for Integrated Schools, in an open letter following the demonstration. "Segregated schools are inferior schools — North or South. Classes are overcrowded, the curriculum is below standard, and these schools are generally behind city norms. This means the children are not being properly prepared for tomorrow's jobs."
According to a New York Times article published the next day, a total of 464,364 pupils — almost half the city's public school students 1,037,757 students — took to the streets, along with teachers and advocates, at peaceful rallies at the Board of Education, City Hall and the governor's Manhattan office. Those advocates also set up so-called "Freedom schools" in various community spaces, where they were taught about the struggle for civil rights. According to a story on the Brooklyn Eagle, the schools were well-attended — although movie theatres were also reported to have long lines.
Despite the massive turnout, and subsequent smaller follow-up boycotts, the school board didn't take immediate action to implement an integration plan. Later that same year, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed major forms of discrimination across the country. In 2012, the New York Times ran a series of features on the persistence of de facto segregation in the city's schools.