Few Portlanders knew of the Black United Front before the group invited reporters to a news conference at the King Neighborhood Center in Northeast Portland on July 11, 1979.

Black parents and community members had been calling on the Portland Public Schools for years to address racial disparities in schools.

To integrate its schools, PPS had scattered African-American students throughout the district and closed predominantly black schools, including all middle grades in inner North and Northeast Portland. The district in effect put all the burden for integration on black students, leaving whites' schools largely untouched.

Ron Herndon, an activist and education advocate, called PPS's approach "the most racist form of integration I've ever seen."

Portland's all-white, all-male school board, which along with Superintendent Robert Blanchard had strong support in the business community, seemed immune to protests.

So at the news conference, the Black United Front pushed a radical idea, calling on 7,400 African-American students enrolled in PPS to boycott their schools when classes started in September. 

The district declared the boycott illegal, and Blanchard said he was confident "responsible black leadership would not participate."

Blanchard and the board misjudged the organization behind the boycott, as it became clear that July night. At the King Center, a reporter asked, "Are you all prepared to go to jail for this?"

Herndon got ready to answer until the Rev. John Garlington kicked him under the table. "It was like he was saying, 'Let me handle this,'" Herndon says.

Garlington, pastor of the nondenominational Maranatha church and president of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, was a prominent figure white officials assumed would not condone radical action. Garlington had a different message.

"Jail is not a scary possibility for us," Garlington said, as Herndon recalls it. "Most of the Old Testament was written in jail."

The Black United Front represented an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination with 15 Albina churches, the local NAACP and eight neighborhood associations. Leaders had arranged for alternative schools to be ready for the children who took part in the boycott.

Herndon knew the boycott had to work until October, when schools took the official head count that determined how much state support they received. If the boycott could affect the district's finances, that would get the board's attention.

It was a level of political threat and organization white Portland had not expected, and by the end of August, PPS gave in to most of the demands. The Black United Front called off the boycott.

The group called a successful one-day boycott in April 1980 after the district didn't move fast enough on its reforms. Three new members had been elected to the board that spring, and they built a narrow majority to fire Blanchard in June.

Some things changed over the next few years. More black teachers were hired, and for the first time they were allowed to teach in majority black schools. PPS established magnet schools in black neighborhoods and tried to make the curriculum more culturally inclusive.

PPS continues to struggle on racial issues. The district eventually closed or consolidated some of the schools the Black United Front fought to keep open.

The graduation rate for black students is 19 percentage points lower than for white students, and African-American students are four times more likely to be suspended and expelled than whites. 

From the Archives:

September 14, 2007: "School Colors."