“The Revolutionary Column” is our monthly series by raptivist Bella BAHHS where she spits revolutionary commentary on politics and pop culture. 

It’s a new year. 2022. Martin Luther King Jr Day. 

Last Friday, hundreds of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students walked out of their classrooms and marched onto CPS headquarters downtown in protest of the decision to return to in-person instruction amidst a local and national surge in COVID-19 omicron variant cases. Students, teachers, activists and allies are calling for the resignation of the CPS mascot Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

And I can’t help but think we’ve been here before. 

Oct. 22, 1963. Freedom Day. A one-day boycott of CPS organized by Albert A. Raby and the Coordinated Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). An estimated 200,000 students skipped class in protest of segregationist policies that relegated Black children to subpar and isolated learning environments.

Flyer advertising Freedom Day School Boycott, an event to protest school segregation, Chicago, Illinois, 1963. Headline reads: Wanted - Thousands of Freedom Marchers. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Black schools were overcrowded and outdated but instead of sending Black students to nearby underpopulated and updated white schools, then-Superintendent Benjamin Willis opted instead to have more than 600 mobile trailer units — infamously remembered as Willis Wagons— placed on the parking lots and playgrounds of Black schools to house the excess children. 

Tens of thousands of students joined their parents and teachers with civil rights activists and allies — including then-University of Chicago student Bernie Sanders — in marching downtown to the Board of Education’s headquarters demanding Willis’ resignation. 

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the “Get Rid of Willis” campaign 56 years ago in January 1966 when he announced that he and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) would partner with Raby and the CCCO to co-lead the first major northern civil rights campaign, the Chicago Freedom Movement.

King praised Freedom Day as “significant as any campaign ever organized in this country.” And, he said, the efforts to raise awareness of the ways in which Black children in Chicago slums were being denied their civil right to equal educational opportunities represented “foundation stones upon which any movement must build.” 

King would be proud of the students who organized and participated in last week’s walk-out.

Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr leading thousands of marchers on State Street to City Hall to demonstrate for quality integrated education, Chicago, Illinois, July 26, 1965. (Photo by Chicago Sun-Times Collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
On Jan. 14, 2022, hundreds of CPS students walked out of their classrooms and marched onto CPS headquarters downtown in protest of the decision to return to in-person instruction amidst a local and national surge in COVID-19 omicron variant cases. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

King’s parallel “Open Housing” and “End Slums” campaigns in Chicago were inspired and informed by the 1963 CPS boycott, and are blueprints for the newly emerging community architects inspired to design a more equitable system of education. 

The campaigns taught us that segregated and inadequate education — what King called slum schools — are a byproduct of segregated and inadequate housing and segregated and inadequate opportunities for social advancement.

With school boundary lines drawn to align with neighborhood racial segregation, CPS is a foundationally segregated and fundamentally inadequate school system. Lightfoot agreeing to send additional masks and COVID-19 tests to schools is like Willis sending aluminum mobile trailers — insufficient and insulting. 

According to an analysis by WBEZ, omicron is killing Black Chicagoans “at rates four times higher than Asians, three times higher than Latinos, and nearly two times higher than white residents.” The omicron variant is new, but Black children being born into environmental and economic conditions that make them more susceptible to disease and health problems isn’t.


We don’t have to recreate the wheel; organizers of the Chicago Freedom Movement exposed the link between slum housing and environmental health problems in children 56 years ago.

In 2006, reflecting on his own work with the “End Slums” campaign, Bernard Lafayette Jr. — a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island — wrote:

“In the process of organizing the tenants [union], we discovered that young children were experiencing severe health problems. Young children suffered from swollen stomachs, blindness, damaged internal organs, vomiting and paralysis due to ingestion of peeling lead-based paint chips from the interior walls of the slum housing.” 

Lafayette helped educate the community about the dangers of lead poisoning and trained high school students to collect urine samples from children who needed to be tested and treated for it. 

“The high school students who participated consequently saw improvement in their grades, specifically in the areas of science. Some of these students even went on to become medical professionals,” Lafayette wrote in his reflection. Talk about alchemy.

All of our lives would be enriched by investing in transformational and empowering educational opportunities for Black children. They’re so special, so resourceful, so creative, so capable of greatness and so deserving of so much more than what CPS has ever conceded to give them.

In 1963, more than 900,000 students were enrolled in the Chicago public school system. In response to the Freedom Day protest, CPS conceded to release its racial breakdown for the first time that year: 50.8% of students were Black, 46.2% were white and 3% were other races. 

Now, according to CPS, their district-wide enrollment for the current 2021-2022 school year is 330,411. Only 10.8% of students are white, 36% are Black, 46.6% are latino, and other races account for 6.6% of students. The dramatic and continued exodus of white children from CPS underscores the fact that white parents in the North have always been just as resistant to integration as white parents in the South.

Southern Black migrants who relocated to Chicago seeking sanctuary from racial strife during the Great Migration found that northern whites hadn’t really embraced integration so much as they had embraced opportunities to reap benefits from and reengineer the exploitation of Black bodies, labor and votes. 

Thanks in part to King’s “Open Housing” campaign, white Chicago residents don’t violently attack Black people for moving into their racially restrictive neighborhoods anymore. But according to a report titled “Still Separate, Still Unequal,” released in 2013 by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), “segregation of Black students in Chicago Public Schools has worsened even as segregation of Black residents across the city has mildly fallen.”


CPS and the city of Chicago must accept corporate culpability for cultivating the conditions wherein majority Black and low-income school populations are the very same populations that are most vulnerable to the omicron variant, gun violence, police violence, asthma, joblessness, underemployment, homelessness, school closures, opioid overdose, infant mortality, maternal morbidity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, voter suppression and everything else ailing this city.

Implementing metrics to temporarily convert individual schools to remote learning doesn’t fully address the larger systemic issues at hand. Black poor students, teachers and their families are not only disproportionately endangered by a return to in-person instruction, but they’re also disproportionately disrupted by remote learning due to things such as internet and childcare insecurity. It’s a Catch-22 situation. 

If Lightfoot and CPS are going to implement metrics to do anything, they ought to be implementing metrics to eradicate childhood poverty. There can be no safe return to schools for students living in unsafe homes and communities. As long as slums exist, slum schools — whether physical or virtual — will persist in producing a permanent undereducated underclass.

On this King Day, Chicago, let us not forget that schoolchildren here inspired him to spend his final years organizing to abolish poverty and all the immoralities that come with it. So that no child would have to grow up in the type of housing he moved his children into on the West Side of Chicago.

The assignment he left us was clear, revolutionaries. Now it is up to us to do the work.

(Black Ancestors Here Healing Society) is a Chicago-based raptivist and revolutionary, nationally known for making sedition irresistible through her art, activism and advocacy.