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Incidences de l'événement

Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry
Claudine Raynaud

II. Les temps de l'histoire/the times of history

(Pre)figuring the 1960s “Urban crisis”: The Fate of the African American Rights Struggle in Postwar New York City1

Martha Biondi


This article argues that framing the Birmingham struggle of 1963 as the critical moment when the southern civil rights movement became a national civil rights struggle problematically marginalizes the long history of antiracist activism in the US North and West. New York, like many other northern and western cities, was reshaped by the enormous in-migration of black southerners throughout the 20th century. While they discovered that segregation was present and lawful nationwide, these migrants and their children seized on the comparatively greater political opportunities in New York to wage a comprehensive fight for racial freedom. The many defeats and setbacks of this northern civil rights movement constitute a backdrop to the unrest of the late 1960s.

Cet article soutient que choisir les événements de Birmingham en 1963 comme moment-clé de la transformation du combat sudiste pour les droits civiques en mouvement national pose problème et marginalise la longue histoire de lutte anti-raciste dans le Nord et dans l’Ouest des Etats-Unis. New York, comme de nombreuses autres villes du Nord et de l’Ouest, fut transformé par l’arrivée massive de migrants noirs en provenance du Sud tout au long du vingtième siècle. Alors même qu’ils découvraient que la ségrégation était présente et inscrite dans les lois de la nation tout entière, ces migrants et leurs enfants ont profité de perspectives politiques plus grandes à New York pour organiser un combat de grande ampleur en faveur de la liberté raciale. Les échecs et revers multiples de ce mouvement nordiste pour les droits civiques ont constitué la toile de fond des remous de la fin des années soixante.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Some of the information presented in this paper was included in my book To Stand and Fight: The Str (...)

1The periodization of the civil rights movement, which makes Montgomery to Selma (or Birmingham) the movement’s beginning and its end, its Golden Age, its official and “authentic” narrative, is embodied in most treatments of the civil rights movement, both in popular culture and in the academy. However, this periodization is an historiographie frame that is open to challenge from various angles. For example, one could ask whether the black consciousness/ Black Power phase of the movement should be characterized as a declension, as it so often is. Or, one could argue that the movement has not ended, as struggles against police brutality and school segregation have continued and the campaign for reparations has intensified. Indeed, the last presidential election revealed to us that the right to vote, which is usually seen as a clear-cut victory of the civil rights movement, is highly contingent and vulnerable in the US, and, in fact, is not guaranteed by the Constitution.

  • 2 See generally Biondi, 2003a. For postwar civil rights struggle in other cities outside the South, s (...)

2This paper, however, shifts attention to an earlier phase of the civil rights movement—the post-World War II struggle for African-American equality in New York City. This early period reveals that the issues commonly represented as arising in the mid-to-late 1960s such as police brutality, economics, affirmative action, institutional racism, and U. S. imperialism—were actually at center stage when the modern civil rights movement began. The dominant narrative and periodization of the modern Black Liberation movement omits the northern civil rights movement and misapplies the chronology, worldview and issues of the southern civil rights movement onto a national terrain. In 1945, New York City had the largest urban black population in the world. In favorable ideological environments, first antifascism and later the Cold War, Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants mobilized politically to win the first antidiscrimination laws in the nation since Reconstruction. (A fair employment law in 1945, a law barring discrimination in higher education in 1948, a series of fair housing laws in 1944, 1949, 1951, and others later). The anticommunist crusade, however, strengthened anti-statist and white supremacist forces in the 1950s, undermining many of the achievements of the movement, and short-circuiting its momentum. The gap between what activists wanted and what they got was widely noted and debated in the mid- 1950s. New Yorkers faced a failure or crisis in Cold War racial liberalism a decade before the decline of the southern civil rights movement. This mid-1950s impasse or backlash also reinvigorated Black Nationalism in New York City, a development which is also commonly located in the mid-1960s. The urban rebellions in the North during the mid to late 1960s should not be viewed as a post-Birmingham phenomenon. They have their own local historical backdrop, and followed various ill-fated efforts to end residential apartheid, police brutality, job discrimination and plant relocation.2

3I am not going to try to summarize the postwar movement in New York, but instead reflect on how its inclusion in the civil rights narrative alters our interpretation of the 1960s. The story of the northern African-American rights movement alters our understanding of the nature of racial inequality, the goals of the civil rights movement, and its direction in the late 1960s.

  • 3 There is a growing literature on reparations for African Americans, mostly by legal scholars and ph (...)

4One common (mis)representation of white supremacy in the US is the notion that, in contrast to the de jure racial segregation of the South, there was de facto segregation in the North, and that this de facto segregation is too difficult to combat with federal civil rights laws. This view holds that market forces and the personal discriminatory choices and behavior of whites, rather than government laws or public policy, created racial segregation in the North. This view tends to relieve the state of responsibility for producing racial equality and it promotes the idea that racial segregation is too difficult to thwart. However, the category de facto is a political construction, representing a contemporary propagandistic and legal maneuver, rather than an objective, accurate description of state and municipal policies in the post-Plessy North and West. Historians have extensively documented the Federal government’s role in the spread of residential segregation, by making racial restrictive covenants a condition of a mortgage until 1948, and then financing whites-only communities by other devices in the following decades (see for example Jackson, 1985; King, 1997; Massey & Denton, 1998). Is a government-insured cheap mortgage to someone who openly refuses to sell to black buyers an example of de facto segregation? Was the intentional failure to enforce state and federal fair housing laws de facto segregation? In New York state, black tax dollars were used to construct rent-controlled apartments that were explicitly leased to whites only. Although this racial exclusion was not required by the law, the racist policy by the government-subsidized landlord was lawful. Is de facto really an adequate or illuminating lens for this phenomenon? Similarly, state employment agencies, such as the New York State Employment Service, filled racially identified job orders for at least two decades, maybe more, after a state law barring job discrimination was passed. Was that de facto segregation? The New York City Board of Education’s efforts to maintain racial segregation right after Brown are another example of the deceptiveness and obfuscation in the term de facto segregation. Why does this point matter? As the federal judiciary further eviscerates the 14th amendment by insisting on proof of intentional discrimination, lawyers will increasingly need to rely on historical evidence in class action lawsuits; scholars must not rehearse the narrative of the innocent North vs. the guilty South that has been so widely promoted about twentieth century US racial history. The contemporary reparations movement is reminding us that slavery, state-sponsored segregation, and corporate racism were all national rather than regional or sectional phenomena3.

5The history of affirmative action also forces us to re-think notions of the movement’s decline in the 1960s. Affirmative action is often portrayed by its opponents as a deviation from the individualist, integrationist ethos of the “classic” phase of the southern civil rights movement. But affirmative action did not first arise as a mechanism of desegregation in the mid-1960s, displacing a supposed color-blind integrationism; its origins are in the 1930s, if not earlier. Affirmative action was the methodology of the struggle for jobs waged by black migrants in the urban North. Numerical or proportionate hiring goals and statistical measures to assess outcomes characterized the fair employment struggle from its inception—they were used in the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” boycotts that arose during the Depression to pressure businesses in black neighborhoods to hire black workers (see Naison, 1983; Greenberg, 1991). After World War II, many black trade unionists (especially in left-wing unions) advocated affirmative action to protect the jobs won during the war that were threatened during reconversion. Their proposal sparked heated, intense debate in the CIO, underscoring that there was fierce opposition in liberal white quarters to the kinds of re-distributionary measures needed to bring about racial equality—long before urban violence or H. Rap Brown came on the scene. After New York state passed antidiscrimination laws in employment, education and housing a clash developed between civil rights leaders and the administration of Republican Governor Thomas E. Dewey over the nature of their implementation.

  • 4 For the struggle to desegregate American workplaces in the 1970s and beyond, see MacLean, 2006.

6The state argued that integration equaled the absence of legal sanction for discrimination, rather than African American advancement or a desegregated workplace. Thus, a government official charged with enforcing the fair employment law said in 1948 that “a climate of equal opportunity … is no guarantee of substantial minority group representation in the employment pattern” (Biondi, 2003a, 98). Conservatives argued then, much as they do now, that civil rights laws are no guarantee of equality of representation, or even of access. In its first decade, the new State Commission Against Discrimination shunned vigorous law enforcement, adopted the rhetoric of a “color-blind” state and a strategy of passivity—advertising with pride that it had not forced compliance in a single instance. Civil rights leaders were alarmed at the state’s interpretation of the law and at the commission’s lackluster performance. They proposed a series of reforms, including affirmative action style remedies. They urged the state to conduct industry-wide investigations and use race-conscious strategies and statistics to judge compliance. They expected the new laws to change social reality—not simply formal policy and government rhetoric. Reflecting the worldview of their New Deal generation, they saw the law as an instrument of social change that made government into an active agent in the desegregation process, which they understood as beginning, rather than ending, with the passage of legislation. The governor refused to take any of their recommendations, but it is important to recognize the deep roots of group-conscious remedies in antiracist advocacy, as well as a widely-held definition of integration that emphasized collective black advancement as much as individual black advancement. Affirmative action was advocated by Black Nationalists in the 1930s, black leftists in the 1940s and Black liberals in the 1950s. Another point about affirmative action that destabilizes the post 1964 narrative of decline: affirmative action began to accelerate and gain legal acceptance in workplaces and universities in the late 1960s and beyond, precisely during the so-called decline. Maybe it is more accurate to argue that the movement was accelerating rather than declining in the late 1960s and 1970s.4 Indeed, perhaps the demise of integrationist rhetoric constituted a return to main traditions of black community aspiration and struggle.

7The rise of Black Nationalism in the late 1960s is often blamed for the unraveling of mainstream political support for civil rights. But perhaps its emergence is a more complicated product of the suppression of the left and of the growth of white conservatism. The rise of Malcolm X and other nationalists in Harlem at precisely the moment the southern civil rights movement was scoring its biggest victories suggests that limits to northern white support for substantive desegregation had already surfaced. On the eve of the March On Washington, Malcolm X said “the government has failed us” (Malcolm X, 1965). While this could be marginalized as an excessively bleak black Nationalist trope, it is not so different from what Kenneth Clark, and other leading integrationists were saying when Harlem exploded in one of the first riots of the decade in 1964. As many scholars have noted, the rise of Black Nationalism was, in many instances, a reaction to white resistance, rather than being the cause of the nation’s political move to the right. The defeat of the school desegregation battle and subsequent rise of the community control movement in New York in the late 1960s is a perfect illustration of this trajectory (see Taylor, 1997).

8How do the politics and agenda of the postwar northern civil rights movement fit with the prevailing model of the 1960s? The politics and agenda and reform proposals of northern civil rights leaders do not fit into the simple binary of integration vs. Black Nationalism, an ideological divide that is often used to explain the socalled decline of the movement in the late 1960s. The New York civil rights movement best fits into a different category, the black progressive or radical tradition. Manning Marable calls this third category transformationist (Marable, 1984). The black radical tradition is neglected in accounts of the civil rights/black liberation movement, but it was highly influential, especially in the urban North and West. Whether called communists, socialists, leftists, left-liberals, radicals, or progressives, they were the most dynamic leaders in the postwar New York movement. In order to appreciate both their stature and their subsequent erasure, we need to recognize that the modern civil rights movement began before McCarthyism, in an era when the left was a formidable force in reform circles (see Home 1984, 1994 and 2005). Leftists such as Paul Robeson, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Ben Davis, or W. Ε. B. Du Bois, were not politically isolated or unique: they were emblematic of the era. To be sure, most black leftists or radicals were not members of the Communist Party. The left’s popularity flowed, not from its advocacy of a Soviet style government, but from its rejection of gradualism and its willingness to engage in an uncompromising struggle for equal rights.

9Narratives of the civil rights/Black Liberation movement typically assert that the movement ignored or downplayed questions of class and foreign policy until after 1965. This, like many of the generalizations about the US civil rights movement, better describes the southern civil rights movement which reached its peak at the height of the Cold War, rather than the northern civil rights movement. The postwar black rights movement that began before the Cold War narrowed the parameters of dissent. Its agenda was expansive. Far from being marginal, questions of economics launched the movement. During World War II, black workers experienced full employment and the biggest jump in earnings since emancipation. The rise of a civil rights movement in cities in which they moved during the war revealed their determination not to go backward—to keep their hard-fought piece of the industrial pie. The northern civil rights movement called for full employment, public hospitals, affordable higher education, reform of welfare laws to bring dignity and autonomy to recipients, and free milk in public school. In other words, it was social democratic. Adam Clayton Powell’s shepherding Great Society legislation through Congress was no mere coincidence, but part of a history of black advocacy for social and economic rights, in addition to political and civil rights.

10In calling for police reform, free health care, and full employment, the Black Panther Party and other 1960s urban leaders represented continuity with an earlier generation of Black radicalism that was crushed during the red scare. And would be again by COINTELPRO (see, for example, Joseph, 2006).

11Similarly, the rise of internationalism in the Black Liberation movement during its era of supposed decline, needs to be inserted in a longer historical narrative. The African-American struggle for equality in the United States was part of the global rise of people of color after World War II. It was, in a sense, an anti-colonial struggle. Leaders in the New York civil rights movement endorsed the call for colonial freedom, and attacked the efforts of the European empires to reassert their power in Africa and Asia in the postwar period. They had a global understanding of white supremacy that saw colonialism and Jim Crow as quests for control over labor, culture, bodies, land and natural resources. So much so, for example, that a candidate seeking to become the first black state senator in New York in 1946, called for a free India, Caribbean self-determination, and international cooperation in the United Nations, alongside calls for full employment, fair housing laws, and end to police brutality, was not exceptional but emblematic and typical. The red scare silenced African-American critics of US foreign policy—a silence that was bequeathed to Martin Luther King Jr. and the southern civil rights movement as it began. But the revival of open African-American criticism of US foreign policy, especially the Vietnam War, marked the reemergence of a longstanding and venerable tradition in African-American antiracist protest. This is unfortunately told as part of the narrative of decline, fragmentation and disarray of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, but maybe we should shift our perspective, and view it as an acceleration of the movement, its growth. Indeed, this is certainly the direction black activism traveled in the 1970s and 1980s as solidarity work with African liberation movements and the anti-apartheid movement intensified.

12In conclusion, framing the explosions, agendas and discourses of late 1960s urban America as a bracket to the struggle against southern Jim Crow is misleading and incomplete. Omitting the narrative history and main characters of the northern civil rights movement has contributed to a confused, fractured portrait of the midto-late 1960s. Representation of the era has suffered absent concrete knowledge of the achievements and defeats of the North’s own hardfought desegregation struggle.


Works Cited

Biondi, Martha. 2003a. To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press;

——— 2003b. “The Rise of the Reparations Movement.” Radical History Review 87, Fall, 5-18.

Brooks, Roy L. 2004. Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations. Los Angeles: University of California Press

Countryman, Mathew. 2006. Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. 1991. Or Does it Explode? Black Harlem in the Great Depression. New York: Oxford University Press;

Jackson, Kenneth T. 1985. Crabgrass Frontier. The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Horne, Gerald. 1984. Black and Red: W. Ε. B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War. Albany: State University of New York Press.

——— 1994. Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

——— 2005. Red Seas: Ferdinand Smith and Radical Black Sailors in the United States and Jamaica. New York: New York University Press.

Joseph, Peniel. 2006. Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. New York: Henry Holt.

King, Desmond. 1997. Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the Federal Government. New York: Oxford University Press.

Maclean, Nancy. 2006. Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Marable, Manning. 1984. Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1982. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi.

Massey, Douglas & Nancy Denton. 1998 [1993], American Apartheid. Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Naison, Mark. 1983. Communists in Harlem During the Depression. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Self, Robert O. 2003. American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, Clarence. 1997. Knocking at Our Own Door: Milton Galamison and the Struggle to Integrate New York City Schools. New York: Columbia University Press.

X, Malcolm. 1965. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” In Malcolm X Speaks. Ed George Breitman. New York: Merit Publishers.


1 Some of the information presented in this paper was included in my book To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).

2 See generally Biondi, 2003a. For postwar civil rights struggle in other cities outside the South, see Self, 2003, on Oakland, and Countryman, 2006, on Philadelphia.

3 There is a growing literature on reparations for African Americans, mostly by legal scholars and philosophers; see for example Brooks, 2004; for an overview of the movement, see Biondi, 2003b.

4 For the struggle to desegregate American workplaces in the 1970s and beyond, see MacLean, 2006.


Enseignant chercheur en études africaines-américaines et en histoire à l’Université Northwestern est l’auteur de To Stand and to Fight : The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Harvard University Press, 2003) et prépare actuellement un livre sur le mouvement étudiant noir et les origines des départements d’études africaines-américaines dans les universités américaines entre 1966 et 1980.
An Associate Professor of African American Studies and History at Northwestern University, she is the author of Tο Stand and to Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Harvard University Press, 2003) and is currently writing a book on the Black Student Movement and the Origins of African American Studies, 1966-1980.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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