Brooklyn Stands With Selma

The following excerpt comes from the conclusion of my book, Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013). Given how much attention the movie Selma has received from scholars and critics, and the intense spotlight the Black Lives Matter Movement has shone on racism outside the South, it is fitting to remember a brief historical moment when the liberal North used the racist South to forget completely, once again, about the racism that existed in its own backyard.


At 5:00 PM on Thursday, April 8, 1965, nearly one month after the violent, chaotic standoff between nonviolent activists and police officers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, political and religious leaders from throughout New York City held a rally in Brooklyn, New York’s downtown district to express their solidarity with southern civil rights activists, and to voice their outrage against the South’s state-sanctioned suppression of democracy. 1,000 people gathered in front of the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. Brooklyn Borough President Abe Stark organized the “Brooklyn’s Stand With Selma, U.S.A.,” rally and sent special invitations to U.S. Senators Jacob K. Javits and Robert Kennedy; all the members of the Kings County Congressional delegation in Washington; the Brooklyn members of the State Legislature, City Council, and judges of the Brooklyn courts. The Borough President even invited Martin Luther King, Jr., but King’s spokesman responded that, given the Southern Christian Leadership Conference president’s pressing commitments in the South, his attendance was unlikely. Even without King present, the rally organizers were determined to put on a public spectacle that spoke to the nation and demonstrated New York City’s disgust, shame, and hope. Stark told the city’s African American daily newspaper, the New York Amsterdam News, he had prepared a formal proclamation that condemned, “acts of brutality and terror perpetuated by racist elements of Alabama in their attempts to block Selma’s citizens from gaining their civil rights.” He made no comments, however, about condemning local acts of brutality and terror, which would have been relevant and timely. Less than a year earlier a New York City police officer, Thomas Gilligan, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, James Powell, a murder that sparked several days of rebellious unrest in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant.  Instead of recalling these moments of racism, Stark announced to the crowd, “We are here to demonstrate our support of, and our spirit of solidarity with, the courageous Negro citizens of Selma Alabama” and he declared that “Brooklyn would give to the nation and the world the example of harmonious relationship between people of all races.” [1]

Two women running from police during Bedford-Stuyvesant uprising, July 1964

That 1965 gathering to show solidarity with the people of Selma certainly seemed to confirm Stark’s assessment of Brooklyn as an exemplary multi-racial, multi-faith democratic society. The city’s main black daily newspaper, the New York Amsterdam News, reported that people “of all races, creeds and standing in life,” attended the rally, and the event became a mixture of interfaith prayer vigil and political grandstanding. A Jewish rabbi and a Christian minister delievered convocations that made veiled references to local racial strife, but none of the opening prayers clearly connected the violence in Selma with the violence that beset Brooklyn the previous summer. “Our brothers in Selma,” the rabbi declared, “and in the tragically-numerous Selmas in this land, have been enchained, brutally oppressed and defiled.” The Christian minister even issued a challenge for the audience “to examine our daily lives as we communicate, the one with the other – Black and white, rich and poor, Roman Catholic and Protestant and Jew.” Without reference to the actual strife and power imbalances that shaped social relations between those groups of New Yorkers, the words seemed to ring hallow. [2]

The rally’s most personal denunciations of the violence in Selma, and Southern racism in general, came from Robert F. Wagner, Jr., New York City’s mayor. The son of the New Deal-era senator, Robert F. Wagner, Sr., who passed historic housing and labor legislation, Mayor Wagner’s words that spring evening were designed to confirm his own liberal credentials and to express his heartfelt commitment to civic equality. “Personally, the spectacle of Selma cut me as if it were a knife,” the mayor exclaimed. “I assure you that I would react the same way to police brutality wherever it might take place – whether on the highway between Selma and Montgomery, or in Fulton Street in Brooklyn.”[3]

Mayor Wagner offered more than his personal sympathy and commitment that evening. He also shared with the crowd his analysis of how the civil rights movement existed beyond the South’s borders. Indeed, Wagner pointed out that this struggle was connected to everyday life and politics in New York City. But, in his condemnation of racism as a national problem, not merely a regional problem isolated in the South, Wagner also took advantage of the opportunity to stress publically that, although it was not perfect, New York City’s government was exceptional, indeed more democratic and egalitarian, than the southern municipal and state governments that sanctioned an atrocity like “Bloody Sunday.” “The struggle for equal rights isn’t just taking place in Alabama,” Mayor Wagner reminded his audience in his concluding remarks.

It is taking place in a far different form in New York City, too. The difference is that here in New York City, the government is for equal rights for everybody. Here, the government wants everybody to vote. Here, the government wants to see every New Yorker regardless of color, race or origin to have an equal chance for a good education, for decent housing, for decent health and hospital care, for a decent job and a decent life. We haven’t achieved our goal yet by a long way, but it is our official goal. To the extent that New York City becomes a safer and better place to live for all of us, Selma will be avenged, and the cause of justice will be served.[4]

But as the history of the civil rights movement in Brooklyn indicated, Wagner’s record on local civil rights issues was, at best, mixed. His political impact on racial segregation in New York City neighborhoods and schools, tensions between African Americans and the New York City Police Department, and employment discrimination in private and public sectors did not always match his idealistic rhetoric or his personal sentiment. While Wagner’s personal dedication to civil rights policies, programs, and principles was genuine, some of his policy initiatives did little to address entrenched patterns of racial inequality in housing, education, and employment, just as the city was developing huge African American and Puerto Rican communities.[5]

Wagner had a chance at the “Brooklyn Stands with Selma” rally to speak about the ways racism affected social life in New York City, how it limited opportunities for some New Yorkers to exercise their full citizenship. He also had an opportunity to point out the local nonviolent activists who were engaged in divisive struggles over the future of New York City schools and neighborhoods. Wagner chose instead to deliver platitudes that celebrated New York City’s progressiveness and decried the South’s backwardness. He said nothing about New York City’s school integration battles, the fights to integrate the city’s racially exclusive building trades industries, the rising rancor emanating from white neighborhoods, and the increasing militancy from black activists. Despite his claim that he would react strongly against local forms of police brutality, similar to Stark he failed to mention once the ways a police officer’s murdering of a black teenager the previous summer had sparked riots in the city’s black neighborhoods. He also said nothing about his lack of support for a civilian review board of the police department. His speech that day, and many of his positions on racial issues during his three-term tenure as mayor, reflected Wagner’s reluctance to implement decisive policy initiatives that might address the systemic ways racial discrimination shaped life and social power in New York City.

Perhaps, as Wagner stood in the shadow of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall and spoke about New York City government’s commitment to racial equality and civil rights he had forgotten the city’s recent tumult over public school integration, and the riots that seven months earlier had erupted in the city’s two major black communities. Wagner also forgot all of the civil rights activism that had occurred in Brooklyn and the rest of the city since 1960. He forgot the dramatic housing campaigns, the citywide protests against racial discrimination in the building trades industries, the civic calls for improved sanitation collection, the tumult that surrounded the opening day of the 1964-1965 World’s Fair, and the ongoing dissatisfaction that black and Puerto Rican parents expressed with the city’s segregated public schools. But how could he forget such major moments that shaped the city he led, especially when they connected to issues that had defined national policies ever since he took office in the mid-1950s?

It is more likely that Mayor Wagner saw these social trends and activists’ varied responses to them, but could not recognize them as products of a social system shaped by racism. He had to have known that racism existed in New York City, and it was a powerful and destructive force in city life, but when he had a chance to illuminate the ways Brooklyn and Selma shared the similar struggles with racism, his worldview of the South as “exceptionally” racist and New York City as “exceptionally” democratic only allowed him to laud New York City’s progressiveness and condemn Selma’s backwardness. Such rhetoric only hid the realities of racism in New York City, as well as the important work activists did to try and ameliorate the city’s social relations.

Such beliefs, Jeanne Theoharis has summarized, “naturalize the Northern racial order as not a racial system like the South’s but one operating on class and culture with racial discrimination as a byproduct.”[6] The mechanisms and methods of Jim Crow racism in Brooklyn may have looked different when compared with those in the South—black people in Brooklyn were not turned away from the voting booth with the threat of deadly violence, for example—but in both regions the social effects of racist social systems that characterized America’s Jim Crow era were largely the same. Black people in Brooklyn and black people in the South occupied a lower tier of citizenship and suffered from damaging racial ideologies that equated skin color with social undesirability; and local state officials in both regions proved incapable of counteracting such racism with solutions that were effective, tangible, and immediate.

Though racism certainly looked different in each region, one of the most significant contrasts was the way southern Jim Crow–era elected officials, police officers, realtors, bankers, store owners, and everyday citizens openly recognized and publically supported the racism in their societies. In such places as Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Saint Louis, almost everyone pretended that racism just did not exist; when power brokers in cities outside the South did acknowledge the ways their societies were plagued with racism, they usually delayed action, responded to civil rights activists’ demands with piecemeal solutions, or blamed problems connected with the racialized ghetto directly on the racialized residents of the ghetto. Despite these tactics, or perhaps because of them, the urban crisis intensified. So did local activists’ demands and tactics.[7]



[1] Quotes from New York Amsterdam News, April 3, 1965, p. 49, and April 17, 1965, p. 30. On the “Brooklyn Stands With Selma, U.S.A.,” rally see, Ibid. April 10, 1965, p. 27; New York Times, April 9, 1965, p. 38; J. Rudolph, New York in Black and White (Radio documentary, WNYC, 2000; CD copy and transcript in author’s possession). Rudolph’s documentary contains clips of sound recordings of speeches delivered at the rally, which come from the WNYC radio archives.

[2] New York Amsterdam News, April 17, 1965, p. 30. Rabbi and minister quoted in J. Rudolph, op. cit.

[3] NYT, April 9, 1965, p. 38. To date there is no full-length historical biography of Robert F. Wagner, Jr., that analyzes his three consecutive terms as Mayor of New York City (1954 through 1965) and the impact of his administrations on city life. For Wagner’s obituary, see NYT, February 13, 1991. See also, F. Siegel, The Future Once Happened Here, 24, 33-35, 56; C. Morris, The Cost of Good Intentions, 15-24.

[4] J. Rudolph, New York in Black and White (8:20-9:20)

[5] C. Morris, The Cost of Good Intentions, 20. S. Roberts, America’s Mayor, 4-18.

[6] J. Theoharis and K. Woodard, Freedom North, 3. 

[7] Excellent discussions of racism in cities outside the South can be found in M. Biondi, To Stand and Fight; M. Countryman, Up South; A. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto; P. Jones, The Selma of the North; C. Lang, Grassroots at Gateway; G. Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle; D. Murch, Living for the City; J. Ralph, Northern Protest; R. Self, American Babylon; T. Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis and Sweet Land of Liberty; C.Taylor, Civil Rights in New York City and Knocking at Our Own Door; Theoharis and Woodard, Freedom North and Groundwork; H. Thompson, Whose Detroit?; W. Trotter, Black Milwaukee; J. Wolfinger, Philadelphia Divided; K. Woodard, A Nation within a Nation; and J. Sokol, All Eyes are Upon Us.

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