Since the 1960s most US history has been written as if the civil rights movement was primarily or entirely a southern history. Of course this is incorrect. The fight for civil rights has always been a national struggle. For many years now historians have been attempting to correct this view. My own contribution to this effort has focused on the struggle in New York City through a history of the black churches in Brooklyn, a biography of one of the most prominent religious leaders in New York City, and a forthcoming history of the teachers union. I also co-edited a survey history of the civil rights movement that emphasizes the national-both northern and southern--character of this ongoing struggle. One of the first chapters in that book discuses the fight for school integration in Boston in 1787. (2)
Of course, no one has been alone in this work. There is a new generation of scholarship rewriting our understanding of this history. This special issue of Afro-Americans in New York Life and History represents one of the first compilations surveying this effort. The essays chosen for this volume, which will later be expanded in book form, focus on this northern history from a New York perspective. (3)
In their challenge to the southern paradigm of the movement, scholars have not only questioned the 1954 starting date of the civil rights movement but have argued that voting rights, public accommodation, and integration were not the only goals of civil rights campaigns. Jeanne F. Theoharis, for instance, has argued that the northern wing of the movement embraced black economic empowerment, and a fairer distribution of governmental services and resources. Campaigns outside of the South, she argues, did not limit their approach to non-violent protest but adopted self-defense and Black Nationalism in some campaigns. Theoharis and other scholars of northern civil rights struggles also challenge the portrayal of the Black Power Movement in the late 1960s as a force that derailed the "triumphant" struggle for civil rights.
Periodization is also an important question in this literature. There are some who contend that the objectives that would later be identified with the black freedom struggle of the late 1960s were evident in the late 1940s and 1950s. Not only have northern civil right studies been more geographically inclusive, they have also moved beyond the white-black dichotomy so pervasive in studies on the South and have turned to the plight and agency of other people of color, especially Latinos and Asians. Some scholars have also disputed the portrayal of the classification of segregation in the North as de facto, arguing that northern segregation was sanctioned by the state. (4)
There are at least three important components noted by scholars studying northern civil rights. The first component was a secular left that included members of the American Communist Party. Despite attacks on the party during the Cold War, many members did not abandoned racial justice movements, but instead joined national and grassroots organizations. For example, Annie Stein became active in the Brooklyn branch of the NAACP in the 1950s where she championed the cause of school integration.
Communists were not the only leftist fighting for racial justice. Other members of the secular left included anti-Communist democratic socialists and social democrats. A good example is Bayard Rustin who was the main organizer of the February 3, 1964 New York City School Boycott. Some historians have also noted the pivotal role of trade unionists in civil rights campaigns outside of the South. (5)
The second important part of the northern civil rights movement was made up of a religious component. Various religious communities, including ministers of different denominations and non-ministerial lay people were at the fore, organizing, and carrying out demonstrations. It was not just in the South but many places outside of the southern region that black churches became the center force of civil rights campaigns. …