Remembering the Civil Rights Struggle in Brooklyn, NY

By Bernstein, Alice | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Remembering the Civil Rights Struggle in Brooklyn, NY


Bernstein, Alice, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


"Will you go to jail for freedom? Will you die for freedom?"

A powerful rendition of the song, "Do You Want Your Freedom?" was sung by Sandi Blair, with Dionne Freeney on piano, to open a remarkable event in February, 2006 at the Brooklyn Public Library's central branch, Grand Army Plaza: "I Remember: Civil Rights Activism in Brooklyn 1960-1965." It was a celebration of an important chapter in the borough's history, and honored activists in as radical a civil rights group as any in the early 1960s--the Brooklyn chapter of the national organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Elizabeth Harvey, Local History Librarian in the Brooklyn Collection, introduced the moderator, Dr. Brian Purnell, lecturer on African American History at Fordham University who is writing the history of Brooklyn CORE. Dr. Purnell assembled an interracial panel to discuss their activism. The panel included Arnold Goldwag, Rioghan Kirchner, Msemaji Weusi, Nandi Weusi, Dr. Ed Lewinson, Congressman Major Owens, Jerome Bibuld, Princene Hyatt, and Larry Cumberbatch. "We're sitting amongst heroes today!" Dr. Purnell declared, "The songs are history--the history of struggle, of pain, and of hope by people in Brooklyn CORE, and the fights they waged against racial discrimination."

I was privileged to videotape this event at the invitation of Dr. Purnell, and with the kind permission of Jay Kaplan of the Programming Department of the Brooklyn Public Library, for the oral history project and television documentary I'm working on with cameraman David Bernstein, who is my husband. I have been traveling across the United States and interviewing people whose courage and kindness contributed to the dynamic power of the civil rights movement. My purpose is to document and encourage study of what the American philosopher Eli Siegel (1902-1978), founder of Aesthetic Realism, called "the force of ethics" working in people throughout history, and very much in the great struggle for civil rights in America. "Ethics," he stated, "is a force like electricity, steam, the atom--and will have its way." (2)

People at the Brooklyn Public Library event were celebrating the insistence in various individuals on ethics, on people getting more of what they deserve--which resulted in an increase in justice and happiness in their neighborhoods. "Brooklyn CORE," said Dr. Purnell, "was made up of unsung heroes, including some no longer with us, like Oliver Leeds and his wife Marjorie Leeds. While the movement was about politics and picket lines, it was about so much more. It involved families who also celebrated together and took care of each other's children. The way they used television and newspapers to publicize, advertise and highlight issues of racial discrimination was genius." He described Brooklyn CORE as the most active chapter in the North from 1960 until

about 1965, initiating actions against racial discrimination in housing, employment and quality of life issues like garbage collection in predominantly black neighborhoods. "They took on the city at its highest levels of government," he said, "and they were innovative, creative, dynamic."

One of the largest campaigns was opening up housing--public and private--for African Americans. When new homes were created, Brooklyn CORE would investigate and test. Rioghan Kirchner was a white "tester." She would apply for an apartment or home and usually received an application to fill out, but when an African American applied--for instance, Edith Diamond--she was rejected. Then the activists enacted civil disobedience in front of any places where black people were not able to live. They slept in the houses if they had to, and paraded in front of the buildings with placards.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
--Martin Luther King Jr. (3)

In the 1960s while racism was raging in the South, it was also virulent in Brooklyn and elsewhere in the North. …

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