Myths and Truths: The Civil Rights Movement and African Americans on the Southern Tier of Upstate New York

Article excerpt

The Civil Rights Movement is commonly thought of as a southern movement to eradicate Jim Crow segregation, or as a "freedom Struggle" which broke down the barriers of a vicious southern racial caste system. Not until that movement reached beyond its southern confines and touched major northern and western urban centers did it dawn on the rest of the nation that the Civil Rights Movement was about the envisioning of a new America. (2)

Aptly dubbed the "Second Reconstruction," the Civil Rights Movement has received much attention from the recent generation of historians, former participants in the movement, and the news media. What is particularly heartening has been the recognition of the impact that the movement had on all Americans. Thus scholars and writers such as Clayborne Carson, Aldon Morris, Taylor Branch, and Vincent Harding have brought into view the activities of the many courageous women and men who struggled to make America a racially harmonious and egalitarian society. These historians have also had their work amplified and even revised by other writers. (3)

While most of this attention in Civil Rights Studies has focused on the political dynamics among black leaders and their organizations, African American intellectuals have focused a lot of attention on theoretical concerns for the movement, and the general effort to place pressure on the federal government to provide and enforce civil rights. African American grassroots participation in the South and subsequent confrontations in urban centers of the North and West have only recently been given attention. Additionally, studies showing the impact and effect that the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements have had on the rural regions of the Northeast, Midwest, and Western states are beginning to appear. (4)

This essay attempts to provide some impressions of the struggle for civil rights in upstate New York. The counties that are mentioned are in the Southern Tier of upstate New York; Broome, Chemung, and Steuben Counties. The central purpose of these impressions will be to focus some attention on these areas, and possibly to raise some questions and suggestions for further study.

In many respects, the struggle for civil rights has been an ongoing concern for African Americans since the failure of that grand experiment in democracy initiated after the Civil War, "Reconstruction." Black Americans who emigrated to upstate New York were driven by a desire for economic opportunity and a quest for freedom from racial oppression. They wanted to live peaceably and enjoy the benefits that America promised all its citizens.

Within these rather simple parameters, however, a constant and intense struggle for civil rights and respect was waged. These battles were waged sometimes individually and sometimes collectively. The existence of the Ku Klux Klan in the region in the 1920s comes to mind as an example of collective and individual struggle. Carlos Haley, James Stewart, and other African American men in the community of Bath traveled to Coming, Elmira and Binghamton to plead with the respective mayors not to let the Klan march in those communities. Back in the rural Steuben County seat of Bath, their wives subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) let their white female friends know that they found the activities of their husbands in the Klan to be distasteful and un-Christian.

These fervent attempts met with mixed results. While the Klan did march in those cities, they did so without their hoods. However, those members who lived in Bath did not participate. Thus, the close proximity and the tenuous social cohesion among Afro-Americans and whites in the rural communities exerted a somewhat positive, if not fully successful force for civil rights well before the national movement forty years later. (5)

But in other areas that proximity and social cohesion was not able to withstand the pervasive feelings of white supremacy and the deep-seated ideology of racism that permeated throughout the area. …