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Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn

Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings is a major contribution to the field of modern American history and the history of the civil rights movement. Purnell does a wonderful job highlighting the role that the Brooklyn branch of the Congress of Racial Equality played in New York’s civil rights movement, from housing, employment, garbage services, school integration, the construction industry, and the protest at the 1964 World’s Fair.”

—Clarence Taylor, author of Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights and the New York City Teaches Union   Read More »

Excerpt from Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn

Nostalgia, Narrative, and Northern Civil Rights

What was that place called Brooklyn really like back then, when you were growing up?
—Elliot Willensky,
When Brooklyn Was the World, 1920–1957

Only two things have remained constant in the history of race in Brooklyn: the social symbolism of color and the extraordinary maldistribution of power. The former has faithfully followed the career of the latter.
—Craig Steven Wilder,
A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn

On February 3, 1964, one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in United States history occurred. Nearly half a million students boycotted a racially segregated municipal public school system as parents and activists demanded a plan for comprehensive desegregation. Ten years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision had declared racially segregated public schools unconstitutional, this city’s government had failed to desegregate the school system. The integration movement rallied behind a Christian minister, a man known for his eloquent, trenchant sermons against racial discrimination and poverty. He transformed his church into a movement headquarters, which organized racially integrated “freedom schools” throughout the city. The man and the movement made history.

But this minister’s name was Milton, not Martin; and his church was in Brooklyn, New York, not Birmingham, Alabama.1

Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings narrates the history of the early 1960s civil rights movement in Brooklyn, New York, through an analysis of the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). This book highlights the ways northern civil rights activists worked diligently for roughly five years to make forms of racial discrimi- nation in New York City visible to the public and matters of political debate. The chapters that follow also examine how Brooklyn CORE developed a culture of interracial camaraderie through creative direct- action protest campaigns, and how it formed alliances with numerous community-based organizations and local civil rights activists, such as the Reverend Milton Galamison, referred to above. The demonstrations that clearly dramatized the everyday ways racial discrimination circum- scribed black citizens’ social lives and economic opportunities won Brooklyn CORE a seat at negotiation tables, and in some cases the chap- ter secured jobs, housing, and improved city services for black Brook- lynites. Mostly, though, an assortment of power brokers—union leaders, elected officials, real estate tycoons, business managers, and school board officials—ignored Brooklyn CORE’s protests, made limited con- cessions on certain demands, or used investigations and empty promises to delay dealing with widespread forms of racial discrimination. This book therefore pays close attention to Brooklyn CORE’s shortcomings and failures. Its narrative invites readers to question how any band of activists could eliminate systematic forms of racial discrimination, espe- cially without strong, clear, consistent government support, at both the local and national levels.

Most readers will come to this book familiar with what the civil rights movement veteran Julian Bond calls the “master” narrative of the movement. This version of the civil rights movement’s history covers the mid-1950s through mid-1960s, when national leaders and nonviolent activists eradicated Jim Crow policies in the South. The movement achieved major legislative victories in the form of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and moved the country closer to true democracy, but it declined when activists brought nonviolent protest tactics north. There the civil rights movement encountered riotous African Americans, black power activists, and white backlash. This master narrative is essentially built on a series of dichotomies: North versus South; racial integration versus black power; nonviolent pacifism versus self-defense and vio- lence; the “good early 1960s” versus the “bad late 1960s.” Like many heroic histories, the civil rights movement’s master narrative and its accompanying dichotomies overlook a far more complex, wide-ranging story. They limit civil rights movement history to roughly one decade of events that took place almost entirely in the South and in Washington, D.C. The rest of the country, and events leading up to and following the 1954–65 period, become background props in what is mostly a story of the nation’s triumph over its long history of racial discrimination.2

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