In 1963, a student filmed history. Today, his movie is earning Oscar buzz.
Gordon Quinn’s ’63 Boycott depicts historic city-wide walkout against school segregation
When nearly a quarter-million students walked out of Chicago Public Schools on Oct. 22, 1963 to protest segregation, University of Chicago student Gordon Quinn knew he had a chance to document history.
A half-century later, the original 16mm footage Quinn captured as 21-year-old has new life, providing the foundation of his documentary ’63 Boycott.
The 30-minute film weaves the black-and-white scenes with archival materials, new interviews and shots of modern-day protests—connecting those historic Freedom Day demonstrations to contemporary issues of race, education and youth activism.
Recently shortlisted for an Academy Award, ’63 Boycott also represents the latest example of Quinn’s filmmaking philosophy, an activist bent honed by his transformative undergraduate experience at UChicago. The heady mix of literature and philosophy in the classroom inspired an artistic commitment to impacting the world outside it.
“You have to make people feel something if they’re going to see the world from a different perspective,” said Quinn, AB’65, whose non-profit Kartemquin Films produced the award-winning Hoop Dreams and The Trials of Muhammad Ali. “If they’re going to empathize with somebody, you have to stir them in that emotional way. I saw that documentaries had the capacity to do that.”
At UChicago, Quinn and his friends belonged to the student film society Doc Films and were also active in the Civil Rights Movement. Local activists told them a massive march was approaching, one that would be worth preserving on camera. To follow the protestors, Quinn set out early that morning with a group that included eventual Kartemquin co-founders Gerald Temaner, AB’57, and Stan Karter, X’66.
In addition to the crew’s handheld cameras, Quinn set an 80-pound device up on a wooden tripod to shoot from inside a Volkswagen minibus. After demonstrators from across the city marched downtown, Quinn returned to his Hyde Park apartment near 54th Street and University Avenue, where he cut a short to use at meetings with activist Al Raby.
The rest of Quinn’s footage, which he believes is the only surviving film of the march, fell by the wayside.
“It was there, always nagging at me,” he said. “We didn’t have any money for it. It was not an easy film to raise money for.”
Piecing together old, new stories
About seven years ago, Quinn decided to work on the film again in earnest, hoping to have a final product for the protest’s 50th anniversary. He began screening a version in 2013; that year, protests against Chicago school closures provided a new way to frame the narrative.
The Chicago History Museum helped with early production, paying to digitize part of the footage to use in an exhibition. In 2016, the film got another boost thanks to Sen. Bernie Sanders. Footage Temaner had shot of another protest in August 1963 appeared to show Sanders getting arrested. Kartemquin posted the clip online asking for public confirmation; eventually, Sanders’ presidential campaign licensed it for an ad.
That buzz helped the filmmakers gain access to even more archives, including those of the Chicago Tribune.
While Quinn is the film’s director, the documentary wouldn’t exist in its current state without producers Tracye Matthews—a historian who leads UChicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture—and Rachel Dickson, an independent filmmaker who began working on ’63 Boycott as a Kartemquin intern.
To identify documentary subjects, Kartemquin built a website with a photo gallery, asking the public to point out faces they recognized. The filmmakers also asked local activists for leads.
“It was kind of word of mouth,” Dickson said. “It was piecing together all the different people in the story, interviewing them, and then finding all the archival footage in order to flesh out the story and tell the context.”
Quinn conceived the documentary as a way to show how the boycott shaped the lives of student protestors such as Sandra Murray, now a professor of cell biology at the University of Pittsburgh. But Matthews wanted to also highlight the organizers, shedding light on the logistics behind such an enormous demonstration.
“We’d been told by teachers and organizers that it was very useful in that way,” said Matthews, who has curated museum exhibitions and developed other documentary projects. “It conveys the idea that everyday people can do extraordinary things. A lot of groundwork and organizing happens to make these events happen, and the struggle is ongoing.”
Responsibility to educate today’s youth
One prominent face in the documentary is Rosie Simpson, a longtime Chicago activist who coined the term “Willis wagons.” Those were the aluminum trailers that then-CPS Superintendent Benjamin C. Willis placed near overcrowded black schools—his alternative to integrating students into nearby white schools.
Last month, Simpson attended a screening of ’63 Boycott at Lenart Elementary Regional Gifted Center on Chicago’s South Side. Afterward, she and Dickson took questions for over an hour.
One student asked Simpson how it felt to have paved a path for integrated schools like Lenart, a high-performing school where black students, who make up nearly 60 percent of the student body, can learn alongside their white, Asian and Hispanic peers.
“I felt it was my responsibility,” Simpson said. “At some point, our lives are going to meet. Our kids’ lives are going to meet with yours. Not knowing anything about each other or each others’ culture—that’s why we have the disagreements we have now, and the fear of one another.”
Kartemquin is now building a school curriculum around ’63 Boycott, developing it in conjunction with the non-profit Mikva Challenge. The program was co-founded by Abner Mikva, JD'51, who served on the UChicago Law School faculty.
The filmmakers hope to inspire students to do their own research, and to help them understand how modern inequality is rooted not only in personal enmity but in a legacy of systemic oppression.
“People often claim not to know how we ended up where we are,” Matthews said. “But there are concrete policies and political decisions that continue to affect public schools in Chicago and across the country.”
The inequalities in Chicago’s public school system persist today. Last May, the UChicago Consortium on School Research released a study on the city’s closing of 50 schools in 2013—closures that disproportionately affected black neighborhoods. The report found that 11,000 students who were forced to switch schools saw a decline in math scores, a decrease that still existed four years later. The closings also created a “period of mourning” in those communities, especially at schools that had been open for decades.
But Quinn sees reason for hope. He highlighted the National Teachers Academy, a high-performing grade school in Chicago’s South Loop with a mostly black student body. In 2017, CPS announced plans to convert the campus into a high school serving new neighborhood boundaries, stretched to include parts of Bridgeport, Bronzeville and Chinatown.
Arguing that the closure of the elementary school discriminated against low-income black students, NTA parents sued—and won.
“It’s incredibly discouraging that we’ve made so little progress,” Quinn said. “On the other hand, it’s incredibly encouraging to see that people are out there in the streets. They’re going to fight these battles until there’s some kind of real equity in education.”