Challenging Jim Crow in New York City

Silent protest in New York City, 1917, (LOC)

Conversations in BlackFreedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Blackfreedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the planned discussion on The Struggle Against Police Brutality, Mass Incarceration, and Educational Discrimination in the Jim Crow North on May 2nd, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests.

Dr. Clarence Taylor was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He received his undergraduate degree from Brooklyn College, and his MA from New York University. While teaching in the New York City public school system, he pursued his doctorate in history at Graduate School of the City University of New York. In 1991, he received his PhD in American history and began teaching at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. Professor Taylor’s research interests are the modern civil rights and Black power movements, African-American religion, and the modern history of New York City. He is the author and editor of several books including, The Black Churches of Brooklyn from the 19th Century to the Civil Rights Era, Knocking At Our Own Door: Milton A. Galamison and the Struggle to Integrate New York City Schools, Black Religious Intellectuals: The Fight for Equality from Jim Crow to the 21st Century, Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era, and Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights and the New York City Teachers Union. His latest book is Fight the Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City. He is Professor Emeritus in history at Baruch College, CUNY.

Dr. Kristopher Burrell is an Assistant Professor of History at Hostos Community College. He earned his doctorate in U. S. History from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2011. His research interests include the civil rights movement in New York City and twentieth century African American intellectual history. Dr. Burrell published “Where From Here? Ideological Perspectives on the Future of the Civil Rights Movement, 1964-1966” in the Western Journal of Black Studies and has just published a chapter titled, “Black Women as Activist Intellectuals: Ella Baker and Mae Mallory Combat Northern Jim Crow in New York City’s Public Schools during the 1950s” in The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle outside of the South.Dr. Burrell is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled, Outsmarting Racism: New York’s Black Intellectuals and Theorizing Northern Racism, 1945-1968. He is proud to have been born and raised in Harlem, New York.

CBFS: Given your recent publications of new works on the Jim Crow North, can you tell us about what you’ve written and how you came to study this?

Clarence Taylor: My interest in the New York City civil rights struggle has to do with my growing up in the 1960s and experiencing gross civil rights violations by police, teachers and school administrators, store owners and their employees, and many others in authority. I also witnessed these same forces violate the civil rights of other Black people. I was aware at an early age that racism was not confined to the South. As a graduate student focusing on the civil rights movement I decided to research and examine the Jim Crow North and how Black people attempted to eradicate racial barriers and structures that relegated them to the lowest social and economic positions in the city. I am one of a handful of scholars whose work focuses on the civil rights struggle in New York City. My second book, Knocking at Our Own Door: Milton A. Galamison and the Struggle to Integrate New York City Schools, is the most extensive work on Milton Galamison, leader of the New York City School integration struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. This work challenges the southern paradigm on civil rights historiography by exploring the efforts of civil rights activists and organizations in New York to end city-wide segregation of New York City public schools.

In my latest book, Fight the Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City, I examine how over seven decades, Black people in New York City battled police brutality. I argue that relying on those in power to end police brutality has never worked. Even when there have been sympathetic elected officials who promised to take steps to end police abuse, the forces of reaction have silenced them. Organized resistance has been the most effective way of challenging police brutality. My book moves us away from liberal schemes of addressing police brutality such as diversity training, sensitivity training, making the police force more diverse, better technology such as cameras, community policing, and advisory civilian boards. Instead, I maintain that citizens must be given greater authority in determining how police will operate in their communities.

Kris Burrell: My chapter in The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North details and analyzes the intellectual theorizing and tactics of Ella Baker and Mae Mallory, in their efforts to eradicate Jim Crow segregation in the New York City public school system during the 1950s. It is important to study and highlight the efforts of Black women in the Black freedom struggle, and also to talk about these women as both activists and intellectuals.

I began studying the Civil Rights Movement in New York City while in graduate school, under the direction of Clarence. My dissertation focused on the ideologies at work guiding activists’ efforts to either forge or block working alliances. In terms of specific issues, my dissertation focused mainly on the struggles to desegregate the public school system between 1954, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down, and 1965 when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Typically, these years bookend what Jacqueline Dowd Hall termed, the “classical civil rights movement.”

The chapter in The Strange Careers, more specifically, grew out of the National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar I participated in in 2015. As a result of this seminar, facilitated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, I met nearly two dozen other scholars from around the country also working on the civil rights and Black Power movements outside the South. This seminar helped me greatly evolve my thinking about my own work, as well as the movements more broadly.

CBFS: Can you share a story of a struggle, or a figure from these struggles, that our readers might not be familiar with?

Clarence Taylor: An important force in the fight to end police brutality, in the 1940s was a little-known Black weekly entitled the People’s Voice, created by the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. The reporters at the People’s Voice carried out a courageous anti-police brutality campaign, that included challenging the racist narrative of the police, mainstream media, and political leaders who all depicted Black victims of police brutality as criminals. I argue that the People’s Voice became an advocate for those victimized by the police. In its battle to end police terror, the newspaper challenged the popular narratives of the Black criminal propagated by law enforcement, the white-owned press, and the city’s political leaders. By providing a counter narrative to the police and white media’s story of the Black criminal preying on communities, the People’s Voice hoped to verify to its readers that the police assaulted Black people solely because they were Black.

Beyond this newspaper, I also write about organizations. In one of my previous books, Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights and the New York City Teachers’ Union, I explore the battle over teacher unionism in New York City and the entire nation. By 1935 the Communist-dominated Rank and File caucus gained control of the TU and immediately faced a great deal of opposition. By 1941 it had its charter revoked by the American Federation of Labor. The New York City Board of Education campaign to destroy the union resulted in the loss of thousands of its members and its banning from the New York City Public schools. Despite this attack on academic freedom, the union remade itself into a forceful civil rights pressure group, advocating the teaching of Black history, the elimination of racist and biased textbooks in the schools and the hiring of Black teachers. The union also forged a strong alliance with Black and Latino communities which has never been duplicated. However, because of the protracted attack on the TU, it eventually folded.

Kris Burrell: Fewer people seem to have heard of Mae Mallory compared to Ella Baker. But if people do know of Mae Mallory, they probably associate her with the litigation she initiated along with eight other Harlem mothers in 1958. Mallory was part of the group, nicknamed “The Harlem Nine” in the Black press. She and the other parents were ultimately vindicated in their decisions to remove their children from inferior Harlem public schools when Justice Justine Wise Polier ruled in favor of two of the parent-defendants in December of 1958.

However, I think another story is just as illustrative of Mallory’s incisive analysis of New York City’s systematic discrimination against Black and Puerto Rican children. At a public hearing with the Board of Education in the summer of 1957, Mallory told the Board that the school her children attended was “just as Jim Crow” as the one she had attended back in Macon, Georgia. She called out Superintendent William Jansen and the rest of the Board for not dealing with racial segregation in NYC’s schools in anywhere near a comprehensive way. Nor would she allow the Board to get away with using language that attempted to mask either the extent of the discrimination in the city’s school, or its systemic character.

CBFS: Considering the continuing fight for Black freedom today, how does this history help us understand or even act in our current moment?

Clarence Taylor: One important point I make in Fight the Poweris that relying on those in power to end police brutality has never worked. Many in power usually side with the police because politicians have exploited the crime issue. Even when there have been sympathetic elected officials who promised to take steps to end police abuse, the forces of reaction have silenced them. Organized resistance has been the most effective way of challenging police brutality.

Kris Burrell: Studying the movements for Black freedom outside the South should completely reorient our conception of Jim Crow and the history of racial discrimination in the United States. This history, and other studies that focus on the North and West, completely upend the popular understanding of racial segregation as a southern phenomenon, and of northerners as always more enlightened with regards to racial equality. It is necessary to talk about Jim Crow as a national illness embedded into our social fabric and look at northern governments as the originators and perfecters of the racially discriminatory systems that have existed historically, and still operate today.

My particular chapter, as with the larger book project I am working on, also asks the questions: What does a movement for civil rights look like in a city where people are told racial discrimination does not exist and where people are told that the racial disparities that they experience on a daily basis are the result of organic market forces, and are no one’s fault, perhaps except their own? Under these conditions, how would Black activist-intellectuals develop strategies and tactics to eradicate Jim Crow when they also have to convince political leaders and the public that Jim Crow exists? These are some of the questions that I think distinguish northern Jim Crow from southern during the 1950s and 1960s, but by now, perhaps we as a nation need to come to grips with the fact that, “the whole United States is Northern!”

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