Members of the Detroit Board of Education and Samuel Brownell, Detroit Public Schools superintendent | Detroit Federation of Teachers photo
On May 28, 1963 the Detroit branch NAACP demanded that the Detroit Board of Education adopt an aggressive plan to increase race integration within the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) staff ranks.
The branch, the largest in the national civil rights organization, also called on the district to hold an election for teacher union representation. The actions helped to set off years of increased activism by the local branch.
By 1963, whites were no longer the majority of students enrolled in the 285,000-pupil district. Detroit at the time had the largest Black population of any American majority city. African-American children became the majority in the
district but most of the teachers and administrators were white. Only one of the school board’s seven members, Dr. Remus Robinson, was Black.
Edward Turner, Detroit NAACP president, called on Superintendent Samuel Brownell to chart a path for change.
“There cannot and will not be any relaxation in this just demand of the Negro community until such realistic and meaningful action is taken,” said Turner during the public meeting.
Until that time, Detroit educators, including teachers, counselors and other instruction staff, were represented by the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT), which was affiliated with the AFL-CIO. The two organizations often feuded with each other over salary concerns, work rules and which union could better represent more than 10,000 employees. There also was a concern that management too often pit the organizations against each other to create a divide-and-conquer situation.
The following year in 1964, teachers voted to have the DFT serve as the sole collective bargaining unit. Edward Simpkins became DFT’s first African American to serve as vice president.
That year, the school board appointed two African Americans, Jessie Kennedy and Leonard Sain, to serve as high school principals — only the second and third African Americans to lead a city high school in DPS history.
In 1966, the school district hired Arthur Johnson, a former Detroit NAACP executive director, as its community relations administrator. However, believing that integration was not moving fast enough, the civil rights organization filed a race discrimination class action suit against the Detroit Public Schools and the state of Michigan. The branch called for mandated student busing to achieve social equity.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, rejected the argument in 1974.
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