How New York Changes the Story of the Civil Rights Movement

By Biondi, Martha | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2007 | Go to article overview

How New York Changes the Story of the Civil Rights Movement


Biondi, Martha, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


When most people say "the civil rights movement" they are referring to the struggle against southern Jim Crow. They don't think to call it the southern civil rights movement because the southern-ness of the movement is taken for granted. But we actually should call it the southern civil rights movement, because there was a northern civil rights movement that needs to be recognized and understood on its own unique terms. The southern civil rights movement was preceded for over a decade by the northern civil rights movement. This northern civil rights movement had as its major center, New York City. The movement arose during the mass migration of Black southerners in the 1940s, which gave New York the largest urban black population in the world.

The early civil rights movement in New York is the story of Jackie Robinson to Paul Robeson to Malcolm X, a trajectory from integrationist optimism to Black Nationalist critique, with a flourishing African American left at its center. Since this trajectory foreshadows what would happen nationally in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the move from liberalism to Black Power, the early experience in New York has much to teach us about activism and resistance in the urban North. Yet despite this significance, the northern civil rights movement has been largely "forgotten," and omitted from the standard narrative of the U. S. Civil Rights Movement. (2)

In this essay I will provide some examples of the multiple struggles of the New York civil rights movement, but my primary focus will be to explain why they matter, and to illustrate how the northern movement alters the larger portrait of the American Civil Rights Movement. First, I want to emphasize that it is not new to assert that the civil rights struggle was a national movement. Indeed, we know from historian Clarence Taylor that the largest civil rights boycott of the era took place in New York City in 1964 when 465,000 children stayed home from school to protest racial segregation. (3) But typically, the urban North and West enter the historical narrative after 1965 with the urban uprisings, the Black Panther Party, the Black Arts movement, campus rebellions, and Black feminism. So we have a portrait of the civil rights movement in the south, and the 'Black Liberation movement' happening later in the North and West.

Revising the chronology and geography of the Civil Rights Movement has many implications. For one, it makes us re-think the geography of racial segregation in the US. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision had national reach and authority. It not only legitimized segregation in the South, but anywhere it might be imposed in the United States. Such major national institutions as the military, interstate train and bus lines, federal public housing, major league baseball, YMCAs, and indeed the federal government itself practiced racial discrimination. And states all over the country permitted hotels, restaurants, realtors, swimming pools, landlords, employers and banks to openly and systematically practice racial discrimination.

To be sure, scholars have documented northern segregation since the antebellum period, but writing on the civil rights movement still tends to frame the story of segregation in an exclusively southern context. The black migration propelled the civil rights movement, in part because the massive northern and western shift of the African American population brought into greater public view, and into the consciousness and experience of the migrants themselves, that American apartheid was national rather than regional, and was dynamic and capable of expansion. Segregation in New York was not only widespread and lawful, but government and public policy sanctioned it and helped to create it: there were whites-only signs in Manhattan apartment buildings, racially restrictive covenants in property across the region, whites-only classified job advertisements, whites-only hotels and restaurants in the heart of Manhattan, and segregated seat assignments by American Airlines at La Guardia.

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