In August 1963, 21-year-old college student Bernie Sanders was arrested during a school segregation protest in Chicago. Sanders joined hundreds of demonstrators, most black parents and students, in protesting the installation of mobile classrooms to relieve overcrowding at black schools without transporting black students to white schools with open seats. Protestors barricaded the proposed construction site, and some physically blocked construction trucks and police cars. A new Sanders campaign advertisement features recently discovered video footage and a photograph of his arrest at this protest over five decades ago. “When I saw Bernie Sanders getting arrested for protesting segregation it was powerful,” actor and activist Danny Glover says in the ad. “The presidential candidate that has put himself on the line to be on the right side of history. I think Bernie is one of us. I think Bernie is with us.”
Sanders’s civil-rights record has been a subject of debate during this year's presidential campaign, and this school segregation protest is the most visible evidence of his activism. More important than strengthening Sanders’s credentials among black voters, his 1963 arrest is a window into the civil rights movement in the North and highlights a little-known turning point in the history of civil rights and education equality. The fights over segregation in Chicago are not as well known as the battles in Little Rock or Selma, but in the mid-1960s Chicago became the most important test case for implementing civil-rights legislation that prohibited school segregation.
The protest in which Sanders participated was part of a decade of civil-rights activism designed to force Chicago to address school segregation in the city. The demonstrations escalated in 1963 and included a massive “Freedom Day” school boycott organized by the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), a civil-rights coalition including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, black and white parents, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the organization with which Sanders was affiliated. Over 220,000 students (47 percent of total enrollment) stayed away from public schools on October 22, 1963, with many attending Freedom Schools at churches and community centers.