New York City History

The 1964 Freedom Day Boycott in New York City

Black and white photo of black students in classroom standing in the front of the class.


In 1954, the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education struck down the legal basis of school segregation outlined in Plessy vs Fergusson and maintained by the false “separate but equal” doctrine. The ruling had a profound impact on school districts in the Jim Crow south, where the codified, legal structures of segregation could now be targeted and eliminated by federal integration programs. Brown vs Board would prove much more difficult to enforce in the de facto system of school segregation that existed in northern cities.

In the decade after the Supreme Court ruling, schools in New York City experienced an increase in segregation along with declining conditions in public schools for Black and Puerto Rican students. This pattern of entrenching segregation was the result of Redlining and housing discrimination, as well as the public-school system’s antiquated zoning laws and fierce opposition to integration among white parents. The number of schools considered segregated grew from 52 in 1954 to well over 200 by 1964.

Activists also drew attention to the worsening conditions in minority majority schools. While public schools in white neighborhoods were only half full, Black and Puerto Rican schools were overcrowded, underfunded, and poorly staffed. Harlem, New York’s largest Black neighborhood, had only a single high school by the early 1960s. In Harlem and other neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and the Lower East Side, students were forced to attend school in half day shifts to accommodate the overcrowding and teacher shortage. Public schools in Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods also lacked libraries, gymnasiums, or special education classes, most notably English education. In 1964 only 18% of Puerto Rican students on the Lower East Side were fluent in English at or above their grade level.

Black and white photo of children picketing

In the late 1950s and early 60s, organized opposition to conditions in New York City public schools began to grow. Several civil rights groups protested in front of the department of education headquarters and parents in Harlem boycotted the schools by keeping their children home until demands for integration were met.

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Reverend Milton Galamison, a prominent civil rights activist and pastor at Siloam Presbyterian Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant emerged as the leading voice in the fight for integrated schools in the city. After years of pressure by Galamison and other activists, the Board of Education announced a modest reform plan in 1963 that would see the integration of some city schools over a period of five years. Unsatisfied with the narrow scope of the plan, Galamison began to organize a mass protest against the Board of Education. Working with Bayard Rustin, the architect of the previous year’s March on Washington, a coalition of civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, CORE, and the National Urban League, as well as parents and students’ groups formed to facilitate a large scale, single day protest. Rustin called the action the Freedom Day Boycott, planned to launch the protest in early 1964.

School Boycott! Flyer, 1964, Courtesy Elliott Linzer Collection, Queens College Civil Rights Archives, City University of New
School Boycott! Flyer, 1964, Courtesy Elliott Linzer Collection, Queens College Civil Rights Archives, City University of New

On February 3rd, 1964, over 460,000 students stayed home or walked out of class to join the Freedom Day Boycott. The protesting students were predominantly Black and Puerto Rican and made up 45% of the citywide public-school population, although in some areas of Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx absentee rates reached 75%-95%. Nearly 4,000 public school teachers defied warnings from the Superintendent and Mayor and joined the boycott and large crowds of parents further swelled the ranks of the protests.


Demonstrations took place at 300 of the city’s 860 public schools, as well as in front of City Hall. Over 90,000 students attended classes at “Freedom Schools” in parks, churches, and private homes organized by boycotting teachers. The day’s events culminated in a march across the Brooklyn Bridge and a mass rally by the Board of Education headquarters in Brooklyn. The Freedom Day Boycott was the largest protest of the Civil Rights Era, over twice the size of the March on Washington.

Photo: Eddie Hausner/The New York Times

In the wake of the boycott, the Board of Education announced a much more ambitious integration plan, and even began a pilot program to bus students from minority majority neighborhoods to underfilled white schools. This progress was short lived, however, as the policies were met with swift backlash from affluent white parents. One month after the Freedom Day Boycott, Parents and Taxpayers, a newly formed organization of white mothers opposed to integration staged a counter demonstration. Led by Rosemary Gunning, a conservative activist from Queens, the counter protest symbolically marched in the opposite direction across the Brooklyn Bridge as the Freedom Day demonstration and drew a crowd of 15,000 white parents from Queens and Brooklyn. The Parents and Taxpayers protest was notable as an early example of anti-civil rights groups coopting the tactics and language that had come to define the Civil Rights Movement. Gunning’s group marched with picket signs, shouted slogans and sang songs normally associated with anti-racism protests, and framed their opposition to integrated schools as a matter of their own civil rights.

Despite being a small fraction of the size of the Freedom Day Boycott, the Parents and Taxpayers and other white parents’ groups successfully pressured the city to abandon its integration plans. The failure of the Freedom Day Boycott to sway the school board led to a massive shift in the Civil Rights Movement in New York City. Abandoning plans for integration, Civil Rights groups began to call for better funding and community control of minority majority schools. Later that year, the Civil Rights Act would outlaw state-imposed segregation of public schools, but included crucial loopholes that prevented busing and other policies of “forced integration” in northern cities. Today despite massive improvements in the quality of public-school education across the city, the problem of school segregation persists, with the New York City school system continuing to rank as the most segregated in the nation.

By Dolan Cochran, Educator Coordinator for Public Programs and Content

Steven H. Jaffe, Activist New York: A History of People, Protest, and Politics. New York University Press, 2018.
Matthew F. Delmont, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation. University of California Press, 2016.
Clarence Taylor, Knocking at Our Own Door: Milton A. Galamison and the Struggle for School Integration in New York City. Columbia University Press, 1997.
Clarence Taylor, ed. Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era. Fordham University Press, 2011.