What did you learn at the Encampment? We learned about political structures, organizing, history that I didn’t get in high school — American history. There were lectures by Hank Herman and Al Black. Al Black told us that there’s always danger in a democracy and we have to be vigilant. We talked about leaders like Hitler and the anti-Japanese sentiment that allowed Japanese-Americans to be interned. We had to memorize the preamble of the Constitution. We were encouraged to be “we the people” and act on that knowledge.
I met people I would never have met otherwise: Blacks who had never gone to school with Whites; Whites who never did anything with Blacks and didn’t want to touch them — that didn’t last long, because we shared meals so we were passing food. We were all in bunk beds at the Fieldston School. One of the Encampers from Arizona or Nevada had to back home twice during the Encampment to attend the funerals of relatives who had been killed in mining accidents — twice in six weeks! Encampers from the Great Plains — who thought of the Great Plains until we met young people from there? The EFC puts together people who [otherwise] would never talk to each other. It makes you more open to new ideas and learning new things and finding out what’s really true. EFC did a marvelous job of helping us to look at things with different eyes and more clarity.
What is your favorite memory or story from the Encampment? It was a fairy tale summer. The food was fabulous — worthy of a five-star hotel! We played “water homicide” (water polo), basketball and volleyball. It was “people to people” — that’s what the EFC is. We had butter on the table and margarine because the Encampers from Wyoming protested, saying, “We have cows — you’ve got to buy American products, not fake butter.”
How has the Encampment influenced your life? It strengthened my commitment to: “Wherever you are, make it better — that’s what life is about.” I was a teacher in Boston and I wanted do something to improve education for Black students. I ran for the Boston School Committee and I was elected as the first Black woman in their history.
I helped to establish METCO (the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities, Inc.), a voluntary school desegregation program in Boston that buses students of color in Boston to predominantly White schools throughout the Boston suburbs, to receive better education from well-funded schools. I was the executive director from 1973–2016. [Editor’s note: In her positions on the school committee and as director of METCO, McGuire was known for her tireless commitment to the students she served. Beyond her work in Boston, McGuire’s career also had national impact: In 1975, she went to Washington with a group of 33 Black Boston leaders to discuss school desegregation with the Massachusetts Congressional Council and the White House.]
Why is the EFC important now? The same issues are still with us — racism and sexism are rampant. That is because this country was created out of a concept that slavery was the norm. The thought processes of identity about who gets what in society were formed by White males. Our real estate and banking processes are based on this prejudice about the color of a person’s skin. You can’t tell a person’s religion, their language, their culture — but you can see their skin color. There’s only one race — homo sapiens — and we come in different colors and sizes, but we are the same under the skin.
U.S. history is full of anachronisms and lies with a focus on significant dates and wars — it’s really about White male militarism and threats of war, and not about the disparities in American life where people are hungry. I received a piece of art that showed “Black Leaders” and it was a beautiful picture with Gandhi and MLK and Malcolm X talking in a living room — but no women — all those women who powered the Civil Rights Movement, and they are not in this picture or standard history.
The EFC has a role in educating young hearts and minds about democracy. It’s important to get young people together who are open to more expansive ideas and to help them support the democratic institutions that maintain freedom of expression and our other rights.
Left: Jean with Encampers Leon and Angel at the 2016 Encampment. Click here for a video clip of Jean recorded in 2016.
UPDATE, October 2022:
1948 EFC alum, Jean McGuire, a civil rights pioneer, while sustaining multiple stab wounds, used self-defense training to fight off an attacker. She was released from Boston Deaconess Hospital yesterday: https://www.bostonherald.com/2022/10/18/civil-rights-icon-jean-mcguire-reflects-on-franklin-park-stabbing-rescuers/
Her family announced the Jean McGuire Educational and Health Fund in her honor: https://www.tbf.org/jeanmcguirefund