The desegregation of Chicago’s Public Schools played out as an epic drama in which Hal Baron spent years struggling against Superintendent Benjamin Willis and his inexorable network of allies.

Benjamin Willis—described in his Chicago Tribune obituary as “the highest paid and most controversial school official in the nation”—was superintendent from 1956-1966. He bitterly resisted integrating the Chicago school system.

In 1962, when the Citizens Schools Committee insisted on surveying the magnitude of overcrowding in Chicago’s all Black and mostly Black schools, Willis and the School Board could no longer deny the problem. To avoid integration, the School Board voted to add hundreds of mobile classrooms to the Black schools, while Willis reported that the white schools could not accept excess students because there were only 222 vacant classrooms in Chicago and the white schools would require all but 14 of them. Baron studied past reports and found a bare minimum of 382 classrooms that Willis had failed to mention—to this, Willis rejoined that Baron’s report was ”invalid and misleading” since he included 84 rooms that had since been demolished.

In an effort to discredit him, Willis insisted that the errors in Baron's report were deliberate since otherwise Baron would have attended a series of meetings with Willis; several members of the Chicago Urban League (CUL) responded with detailed receipts showing that, in fact, Willis was the person who failed to attend a single meeting. The School Board sided with Willis and continued their tradition of terrible non-solutions by using 86 dilapidated units in Robert Taylor and Washington Park Homes as temporary classrooms. Locked in these housing units with no educational facilities and minimum supervision, at least one child was paralyzed by falling debris.

As the Chicago Urban League was quickly learning, to oppose Willis was a maddening and dangerous endeavour. Earlier that year, the Chicago Defender published a photograph of a school picket in which CUL director Edwin "Bill" Berry can be identified. At the time, a member of the National Urban League's Board of Trustees and former CUL president, Dr. Nathaniel Calloway, claimed he was "very chagrined at this picture"; Berry responded that he was only observing the picket. Months go by and suddenly, just as Willis' attack on Baron's classroom report heats up, the CUL learns that Calloway has written to the national Urban League office and the CUL's major funders calling for Berry's removal. One funder responsible for 40% of the CUL's budget, The Community Fund, decided to investigate Calloway's claim before allowing the League to submit a budget for the next year. In short, they had to prove that all of the methods they used with Willis were consistent with goals of "fact finding, negotiation, education, and cooperation," in accordance with their mission statement. While the CUL was ultimately cleared in this investigation, the controversy required them to step back from the fight for school integration.

By 1963, protests and pickets were becoming commonplace. In the summer, a young Bernie Sanders was arrested for protesting the use of a warehouse as a school; in autumn, local activists such as Albert Raby of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), organized a massive boycott known as Freedom Day, in which 200,000 students participated. Try as they might, no one could budge Willis.

Benjamin Willis, who “reportedly drew the highest salary of any public official in the country with the exception of the U.S. president and the governor of New York,” had powerful friends, among them, Mayor Richard J. Daley. Daley rose to power through his leadership of Chicago’s southside Irish gang, The Hamburgs, and he may have played a key role in John Kennedy’s (and by extension, Lyndon Johnson’s) presidential elections. He decided to use this clout to end the careers of anyone who opposed Willis.

In 1965, the CCCO brought a complaint to the Commissioner of Health and Wellness (HEW), Francis Keppel, that Chicago Public Schools violated Title VI of the new Civil Rights Act. After a predominantly thwarted investigation, Keppel decided that the obvious gerrymandering of Chicago’s school districts disqualified it from $30,000,000 in federal aid. According to Washington correspondent Joseph Kraft, Daley accosted Lyndon Johnson while in line to meet the Pope with the result that Johnson called for Keppel to cease the investigation immediately and release the money on meaningless concessions from Willis. With one phone call to the White House, Daly reorganized the administration of federal funds and caused Keppel to leave government service. In a memo to Bill Berry, Baron contemplates backing Keppel’s play but ultimately decides that the CUL’s effort would be better spent desegregating public housing than continuing to slam against Daley’s political machine.

After years of long and largely unsuccessful campaigns—first by the Chicago School movement (of which Baron’s wife Paula Baron was a leader) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), later by CUL and CCCO—Chicago civil rights leaders begged Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come join the fight against Benjamin Willis.

Willis’ contract expired August 31, 1965, and the CCCO teamed up with the CUL and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to first register one-hundred million voters, and then to threaten to vote-out members of the School Board if Willis’ contract was renewed. As Dr. King explains in his autobiography, ”our main concentration would be on the school issue—a fight for quality integrated education which had been waged in that city for more than 5 years."

Even with King’s involvement, it took the School Board months to come up with a compromise: they would renew Willis’ contract for the full four years, but Willis would voluntarily retire by December 1966. When Willis ’retired’ he began his own educational consultation firm and got his same job as Superintendent, but in Florida.

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  1. “Benjamin C. Willis, Ex-City Schools Chief,” Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1988. AvailableOnline.
  2. “CF Review Committee.” (Chicago Urban League Records, October 9, 1961 - August 10, 1962) CULR-Series3, Sub-series 8.E, Box 230, Folder 2467, University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections.
  3. Chicago Urban League,“CF Review Committee," 1961-1962.
  4. Chicago Urban League,“CF Review Committee," 1961-1962.
  5. Anderson, Alan, Pickering, George W. Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago. Greece: University of Georgia Press, 2008.
  6. Strickland, Arvarh E. History of the Chicago Urban League. United States: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
  7. Strickland, History, 2001.
  8. Strickland, History, 2001.
  9. Chicago Urban League,“CF Review Committee," 1961-1962.
  10. Nichols, Jeff. “The Untold School Segregation Story Behind Bernie Sanders’s 1963 Arrest.” Chicago Reader, March 1, 2016. Available Online; “1963 Chicago Public School Boycott.” WTTW News, October 22, 2013. Available Online.
  11. Nichols, "The Untold Story," 2016.
  12. Cohen, Adam. Taylor, Elizabeth. American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley - His Battle for Chicago and the Nation. United States: Little, Brown, 2001; Hagedorn, John. “The Gangs Of ...” Chicago Tribune, January 19, 2003. Available Online; Bomboy, Scott. “The Drama Behind President Kennedy’s 1960 Election Win,” Constitution Center. org, November 7, 2017. AvailableOnline.
  13. “The Chicago Title VI Complaint to H.E.W.,” Integrated Education 3 (December 1965 - January 1966): 10 – 34.
  14. “The Keppel-Page Letter,” 30 September 1965, Integrated Education 3 (December 1965-January 1966): 35.
  15. Joseph Kraft, “Politics and School Fund Foul-Up,” Chicago Daily News (Chicago, Oct. 11, 1965).
  16. “Francis C. Keppel, 1916 - 1990.” State University, accessed August 29, 2020 AvailableOnline.
  17. Baron, Harold. ‘Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Federal Controversy in Chicago, A Memorandum," Unpublished, 1965; Cohen, American Pharaoh, 2001.
  18. Anderson, Confronting the Color Line 2008.
  19. Anderson, Confronting the Color Line 2008.
  20. King, Martin Luther, “Chapter 28: Chicago Campaign,” in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson The King Institute at Stanford, accessed August 20, 2020. Available Online.
  21. Chicago Urban League,“CF Review Committee," 1961-1962.
  22. “Benjamin Willis,” Chicago Tribune, 1988.