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Beyond Civil Rights

Ever since the 1960s, the term "civil rights" has come to mean many things. It is now synonymous with campaigns both against police brutality and for affirmative action. After the successes of the civil rights movement in eradicating formal segregation in the mid-1960s, civil rights leaders have pushed for enforcement of laws against discrimination as well as advancement into the political and economic mainstream. The term also invokes the legacy of mass protest of the 60s, suggesting that, if necessary, activists will march, sit-in, and launch other public actions in order to attain their goals. Whether the term fits the actual agenda being pushed by various black leaders today is another story.

In her important new book, To Stand and Fight (Harvard, 2003), Martha Biondi shows that in the postwar New York City variation of the civil rights struggle, the ideal that most galvanized progressives of all colors to action was "equality"—or, more precisely, the cause of "Negro equality." As the black actor Canada Lee stated in a 1945 commencement speech at Vassar College, "Our struggle must be for equality with meaning… toward economic equality—an equality with significance." Lee, of course, would later be blacklisted, and the movement itself soon would be irrevocably fissured by the Red Scare.

But a half-century later, the cause of racial equality is no less pressing. Which isn’t to say that the struggle for civil rights—or equality before the law—is over. Instead, the efforts to preserve legal equality and to attain economic equality can be waged simultaneously. As Biondi shows, this two-front strategy was indeed present after World War II. "With its large Black population, progressive race leadership, strong trade unions, and progressive print media," Biondi writes, New York City "became a major battleground in the postwar push for racial equality." There are numerous lessons to be learned from those battles, precisely because the terrain is potentially so similar today.

The standard timeline of the civil rights movement begins with Rosa Parks initiating the Montgomery bus boycott in late 1955. Yet, according to Biondi, by this time in New York City "the civil rights struggle was already ten years old and had already endured a volatile rise and fall." The racial climate, of course, was not the same in New York as it was in Montgomery, or between the North and South in general. The North had neither legal segregation nor as entrenched a pattern of racial violence (although both problems did exist), and the South had not seen the rise of an industrial black working class. As blacks fled the South to find wartime work, the black population of Northern cities grew rapidly— New York’s more than doubled during the 1940s, reaching over one million by 1950.

Why New York City saw the growth of more black activism than other Northern cities during this time is an important question. Biondi’s implicit answer—because New York City was home to the Communist Party and its affiliated unions—is sure to set off sectarian alarm bells among those scholars and editors who reject any such activism as Stalin’s handiwork. But, as Biondi argues, the Communist-led left’s "appeal to African Americans flowed not from its advocacy of a Soviet-style government, but from its rejection of gradualism and its willingness to engage in an uncompromising struggle for civil rights." Rather than rely on the far-sightedness of the courts or the goodwill of liberal politicians, the Communist-led left advocated mass protest as the surest means of effecting change.

Not every labor strike or mass rally necessarily proved successful, of course, but the threat was always there. Take the example of Jackie Robinson’s integration of the Dodgers. The two best books on the subject—Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment and Arnold Rampersad’s Jackie Robinson—give short-shrift to left activism on the issue. Yet in the six months prior to Branch Rickey’s initial signing of Robinson in the fall of 1945, the New York City Council unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by Communist City Councilman Ben Davis condemning racial exclusion in professional baseball, a variety of "End Jim Crow in Baseball" rallies were held throughout the city, and the left press kept the issue on the front page. It would be wrong to suggest that the Communists muscled Rickey into signing Robinson, but it’s also inaccurate to portray Rickey as acting solely on fair-minded, farsighted grounds.

The black left took on many other established businesses and institutions, and scored several less visible, but no less important, integrationist successes. The Pennsylvania Railroad, American Airlines, and local YMCA’s were just a few of the more prominent businesses that bowed to popular protest and ended their exclusionary and/or discriminatory practices. Equal access to the state’s dental and medical schools also came after a long campaign that started in the City Council and ended in Albany. But it wasn’t only obvious private and public racial barriers that the era’s activists sought to tear down.

In the case of Stuyvesant Town, the civil rights left fought precisely against the fusion of private and public segregation. In 1943, MetLife, then one of the nation’s largest corporations, joined with the City to build thousands of modern, low-cost apartments for returning vets—but not for black returning vets. "Negroes and whites don’t mix," said MetLife President Frederick Ecker, and "if we brought [Negroes] into the development it would be to the detriment of the city, too, because it would depress all the surrounding property." Robert Moses fully supported Ecker’s position, and fought hard for MetLife because he didn’t want public interference by "demagogues" of all sorts obstructing the public-private partnerships he planned across the city.

While the NAACP, American Jewish Congress, and ACLU waged a principled legal battle against the use of public money and other forms of assistance to build segregated housing, the CP-led left mobilized a mass campaign. Many Party members and fellow travelers lived inside of Stuyvesant Town, and they helped form a tenants committee that quickly grew to over 1,800 paid members. Black spokesmen ranging from Father Divine to Paul Robeson spoke out against MetLife’s Jim Crow practices. In 1951, after MetLife began to evict tenant-activists, the City Council intervened, eventually forcing the company to accept integration of the project. Although the actual process of integration proceeded with extremely deliberate speed, the campaign laid the groundwork for the successes of the fair housing movement over the next few decades.

The focus of the era’s black left was not simply on integrating housing developments like Stuyvesant Town or Levittown, however. Kenneth Clark and other black leaders also exposed the degree to which school segregation was shaped by "public policy decisions, from the selection of sites for new schools to the drawing of district lines." On the jobs front, left union leaders pushed beyond anti-discrimination laws, which employers historically have circumvented, and instead demanded full and fair employment. The point is not whether each effort succeeded or failed. Rather, it’s that the precedents were set, with all of the various campaigns moving beyond the narrow definition of civil rights as simply the acquisition of legal equality and protection.

Biondi’s work opens up several possible lines of pursuit for progressives today. One needn’t be a Communist nor a Black Nationalist to think that racial equality is still an ideal worthy fighting for. Liberals will certainly agree that the cause is right, although they generally argue that the enforcement of existing laws is sufficient to insure fairness. Yet the pressing issues right now are primarily economic, and in many ways shielded by laws. Predatory lending and other discriminatory consumer practices can be framed as legitimate business, and glass ceilings remain intact across the city.

As discussed in these pages earlier this year, Mayor Bloomberg, ostensibly a racial liberal, overrode the City Council’s attempts to curb predatory lending (see "William Thompson’s Challenges," March-April 2003). The Mayor also represents a sector of the economy—the Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate (or FIRE) sector—with a terrible track record in terms of integrating. And the last thing that corporate business types will ever willingly accept is public input into their hiring and firing practices. In other words, in the city at the moment, a liberal regime may be in place (especially compared to the Giuliani years), but fundamental inequities will continue to grow.

Some creative current solutions arise from the various campaigns Biondi discusses. The battle for Stuyvesant Town allowed activists to expose the degree to which any joint venture between the city and private enterprise inevitably involves public commitments, and therefore merits public oversight. Mayor Bloomberg, of course, recently claimed to have "ended corporate welfare as we know it." But even though the city may be curbing its Giuliani-era practice of openly giving money to major corporations "to keep them from leaving," any major development deal inevitably involves some combination of public funding, tax abatements, land-use agreements, and so on. This is clearly the case in the public-private development schemes underway along the East River waterfront and in downtown Brooklyn, among other areas.

The "public" half of public-private partnerships provides the opportunity for various groups—perhaps working through the radical City Council—to pressure the city into making racial equality a core component of future development. As Williams Cole and I have discussed (see "Inequality in Brooklyn," Aug.-Sept. 2002), one way to accomplish this is by requiring that any business working in the city adopt genuine measures aimed at shattering the glass ceiling. A company could do this either in terms of direct hiring or via funding education and training programs. This idea may sound utopian, but it is far more realistic than the notion that private employers will integrate on their own initiative. If the civil rights struggle in New York City proved one thing, it’s that change will never occur without people being ready—in the words of Biondi’s title—"to stand and fight."


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2003

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