Bill-O and the Fox: Linkage and Leverage in Postwar Harlem Politics, 1945-1950

Article excerpt

In 1945, change was in the air. The war was over, and millions of Americans celebrated the two-front victory over fascism and the homecoming of their loved ones. And nowhere was the celebration bigger than in New York. The crossroads of the world welcomed thousands back to America's shores, whether they came by ship or by airplane. Some would return for college careers under the G.I. Bill, while others would return to civilian jobs. For a returning Brigadier General named William O'Dwyer, the next stop would be a destination he had sought four years earlier--City Hall.

A former policeman, lawyer, and Brooklyn District Attorney, Democrat William O'Dwyer had run strongly against popular incumbent Fiorello La Guardia for mayor of New York City in 1941. La Guardia had won reelection back then, but four years later things were different. The mayor was attacked for spreading himself too thin; as Director of Civilian Defense, he shuttled back and forth to Washington each week, and his critics claimed that his defense work distracted his attention from important city business. La Guardia's weakening ties with the Republican Party made it all but certain that he could not get their nomination a fourth time. And the American Labor Party (ALP) was divided between its Communist and non-Communist supporters. It would be tough for La Guardia to balance his former coalition through yet another election. The mayor had also entertained frustrated ambitions for higher office, and he no longer looked forward to staying at City Hall. So he said good-bye.

Since their most charismatic potential opponent had decided not to seek reelection, the Democrats were optimistic about their chances in 1945. And the friends of "Bill-O" Dwyer prevailed upon party leaders to give the returning general one more try at the mayoralty.

O'Dwyer was born in Ireland in 1890, had spent time in Spain studying for the Jesuit priesthood, then changed his mind and sailed to New York in 1910. After a series of jobs as a construction worker, plasterer's assistant, coal fireman, and bartender, he became an American citizen in 1916 and joined the police force in Brooklyn. Attending law school at night, he eventually set up his own legal practice, and rose to become a city magistrate and Kings County Court judge. In 1939 O'Dwyer was elected Brooklyn district attorney, and his crusade against the "Murder, Incorporated" syndicate led to his solving more than eighty murders in two years. Democratic leaders portrayed him as a rival to Republican crime-buster Thomas E. Dewey, and pitted O'Dwyer against La Guardia for the mayoralty in 1941. Following his loss to "the Little Flower," O'Dwyer enlisted in the Army, where he did humanitarian work with the Allied Commission in Italy and was eventually promoted to brigadier general. His background and war work made "Bill-O" a strong candidate among Irish and Italian New Yorkers. He had the bearing of a determined fighter for justice. He was tall and broad-shouldered; when he was in a pensive mood he sported a trademark pipe reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. Most importantly, O'Dwyer earned a reputation for independence. His efforts to distance himself from Tammany and run as a "New Deal" Democrat instead, combined with his seeking the support of the ALP's non-Communist wing, strengthened his appeal among Jewish voters. (2)

O'Dwyer had only taken an average of 24 percent of the Harlem black vote in 1941, compared to La Guardia's 50-plus percent on the Republican ticket alone. (3) In the four intervening years, particularly following the 1943 riots, Harlem had become an important political symbol. A candidate's popularity in Harlem gave an impression of his dedication to civil rights and racial harmony. So O'Dwyer had to improve his standing among Harlem voters. But whom among the black political leadership should he turn to first?

He was initially advised to consult Dr. Channing Tobias, a leading intellectual and NAACP official. …