The Real McCoy

The Teachers Strike: New York, 1968

by Martin Mayer
Harper & Row, 122 pp., $3.95

Rhody McCoy
Rhody McCoy; drawing by David Levine

Martin Mayer describes his book on the New York teachers’ strike as “an attempt at history.” What he has written instead is a courtroom melodrama in which he himself plays the prosecutor, the judge, and the courtroom reporters, while the rest of the players, with a few exceptions to be noted later, sit speechless in the dock. This is not to say that the events he describes have no relation to reality though, as was bound to happen in such a complex scenario, many minor errors of fact inevitably turn up (John Lotz of the New York City Board of Education was never an executive of the Health Insurance Plan. Whitney Young of the National Urban League had nothing to do with an ad placed in the Times by the Urban League of Greater New York denouncing the strike. It is not true that John Doar, the Board President, has no children in the public schools. The mysterious dinner at Armando’s Restaurant, of which Mr. Mayer makes so much, was not called at the request of the Mayor nor was it attended only by the Mayor’s new appointees to the Board.)1

In addition to these minor matters Mr. Mayer’s book also includes several serious factual errors which result in (or from) considerable misconceptions of the complex events he has tried to describe. For example, a most important question is whether the governing board of the Ocean Hill experimental school district in the Brooklyn ghetto “fired” a group of teachers in the spring of 1968 or whether it ordered these teachers to report to headquarters for “reassignment.” The United Federation of Teachers insists that the teachers had been “fired.” The Ocean Hill governing board insists that they had been sent to central headquarters to be “reassigned.” The distinction is crucial because the UFT used the charge that the teachers had been “fired” to justify its three disastrous, city-wide teachers’ strikes whose origins and consequences are the subject of Mr. Mayer’s book.

Mr. Mayer quotes the letter of dismissal, which was sent on May 8, 1968, to the teachers from the Ocean Hill governing board and which, according to Mr. Mayer, supports the claim of the UFT that the teachers had been “fired.” Mr. Mayer says that he has quoted this letter in its “entirety.” He has not. He has omitted its crucial last paragraph, which advises the teachers “to report Friday morning to Personnel, 110 Livingston St., Brooklyn, for reassignment.” Mr. Mayer’s omission of this crucial passage may have been deliberate, in which case he is guilty of something worse than a factual error; or, as is more likely, he has been deceived by whoever gave him the truncated version, which may have been an earlier text of the letter, one that was never sent. Perhaps he got the letter from the UFT, from which source Mr. Mayer seems to have derived…

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