Mayor John Lindsay and the New York Teachers Strike of 1968

Written by Olivia Howe

As part of the University of Manchester’s History and American Studies degree, second year students are trained to make use of the rich archival collections held around the city relating to the history of the United States. Students work with collections held at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, John Rylands Research Institute and Library, the Working Class Movement Library and the People’s History Museum, and are shown how to request, use, and interpret such sources in the context of the programme’s revamped module, AMER2002: US History Long Essay.

This blog post provides an overview of Olivia’s research.

The New York City Teachers Strike of 1968 was a product of historic racial inequality in the city’s communities and public services. The strike, a flash point in the city’s history of education and civil rights, halted education between May and November 1968 for 1 million students and 50,000 teachers. It shut down 57 schools following the dismissal of 19 mostly Jewish teachers from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, following accusations that they were underperforming, and amid a wider struggle between African American and Latino, and Jewish community leaders.

The strike placed the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), led by Al Shanker, against many parents and community groups, especially as the once-Jewish neighbourhood became increasingly African American and Latino. Despite union demands for increased salaries and decentralisation of school control, Mayor John Lindsay of New York City finally reached an agreement to end the strike after 36 days, returning all students to their classrooms and reinstating the 19 teachers.

Materials held at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre shine some light on this complex event and particularly on Mayor John Lindsay’s handling of the dispute. Lindsay, a white male Republican, and a rising figure in the Party, became mayor of the city at a transitional moment, in the aftermath of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The thirty statements held at the RACE Centre run from 9 September 1968 to 19 November 1968, and show Lindsay’s attentiveness to the issue, and offer a glimpse into his role as mayor.

Image of typed document featuring a statement, with hand-written note at the bottom.
Statement by an aide to the Mayor, 9 Sep 1968. New York Teachers Strike 1968 Collection, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, GB3228.31/1/01

Statements made by Lindsay lay the groundwork for his response to the strike. Among the first in the collection is one Lindsay gave on 9 September 1968, when he labelled the actions of the UFT an “illegal strike” and referred to the affected students as “innocent victims.” Such statements stood in contrast to union leader Shanker’s responses, including his “calling the situation a firing” rather than a dismissal, which as scholar-activist Marian Swerdlow points out only stoked racial divisions between teachers and communities. From the start of the strike, Lindsay was consistent in fighting for the city’s children to return to school promptly, and he publicly claimed that the city’s school boards also “wanted the schools to open as scheduled.” His statements consistently foreground the impact of the strike on the children. Ultimately, in his statement on 18 November 1968 Lindsay expressed his joy at young people returning to school, while also commenting that “no one is fully satisfied” in recognition at the frustrations among UFT members, and that the union’s leader Al Shanker did not receive the desired outcome. Subsequently, stricter regulations on strikes came into force, limiting the UFT’s ability to organize.

Statement by Mayor John V. Lindsay, 18 Nov 1968. New York Teachers Strike 1968 Collection, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, GB3228.31/1/30

In the years following the passage of major civil rights laws, the late 1960s proved to be an uncertain and tumultuous time in relations between citizens of New York City. These sources show that it also marked a new juncture in the fight for equality of education across the city, especially in the diverse communities of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Although the dispute was one of the longest teacher strikes in US history, Lindsay’s fight for young people to return to education was somewhat successful, and his attempts at peaceful negotiations, and administration of the city’s public services can be admired.

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