Robert Wagner, Milton Galamison and the Challenge to New York City Liberalism

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

Robert Wagner, Milton Galamison and the Challenge to New York City Liberalism


Taylor, Clarence, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


During the mayoralty of one of New York City's most liberal mayors, Robert F. Wagner (1954-1965) the city faced a great deal of racial turmoil. Despite its reputation as a bastion of liberalism and the mayor's efforts at making New York a place where harmonious race relations existed, Wagner found himself under siege by numerous racial protests. In 1963 a coalition of civil rights groups, including the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP, and the Urban League of Greater New York initiated a sit-in at Mayor Wagner's office demanding a halt to all construction sponsored by the city until all discriminatory hiring practices were "eliminated." CORE also began demonstrating at construction sites throughout the city demanding that the state and city governments and the Building and Construction Trade Council hire African Americans. In July of 1963, CORE forged an alliance with a group of Brooklyn ministers and led a huge protest at the construction site of the Downstate Medical Center where over 700 people were arrested becoming, "jailbirds for freedom" in an attempt to force the state to hire blacks and Puerto Ricans construction workers. (2)

The most dramatic civil rights protest in New York City took place on February 3, 1964 when civil rights groups launched a one-day boycott of the public school system over the issue of school integration. The school integration protest, led by the Rev. Milton A. Galamison, managed to keep close to a half million children out of the public schools in an attempt to force the New York City Board of Education to come up with a plan and timetable to integrate the school system. The event was so dramatic that it caught the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King who congratulated the demonstration leaders for their efforts for bringing New York City's racism to the attention of the nation. (3)

Without a doubt, Galamison and the movement for school integration directly challenged the image of New York City as a shining example of urban liberalism. They consistently argued that racial discrimination was not limited to the South; the largest school system in the country was also plagued by the problem of racial segregation. Black and Hispanic children were relegated to overcrowded schools, were provided fewer services than children attending schools that had a predominantly white student body, and children of color were given the least experience teachers. The goal of the civil rights movement in New York City was similar to that of the southern wing of movement; the creation of a harmonious community where racial barriers were eliminated and all were provided the opportunity to reach their full potential. Wagner, despite his liberal sentiment, was unable to solve the city's most explosive issue, school integration.

WAGNER'S NEW DEAL LIBERALISM

Historian Joshua Freeman notes that during the mayoralty of Wagner New York City labor reached its zenith of power. "Capitalizing on its long history of struggle and institution-building, and the impressive display of worker militancy after World War II," Freeman contends, "organized labor wielded its influence in ways unrivaled in the city's history to make working-class life more pleasant and secure." (4)

The Wagner years were a period where labor was able to build an infrastructure of social security, housing, and health care. In addition, car and home ownership among the working class increased and vacations and college education became a reality for the working class men and women and their children. To be sure, labor was able to succeed in gaining political influence because it forged a coalition with liberal politicians that helped create a positive political atmosphere. It was labor's efforts that helped bring Robert F. Wagner, the son of the famous New York City liberal senator, to Gracie Mansion. Wagner represented the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that stressed political inclusion of ethnic and racial groups. …

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