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Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era.

Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era

Edited by Clarence Taylor

Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2011

176 pages; $35.00 [cloth]

This book edited by Baruch College (CUNY) professor Clarence Taylor is an anthology of historical studies that contributes to and continues the scholarly discussion into what civil rights movement scholars like Jacqueline Dowd Hall, Eric Arnesen, Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, and Clarence Lang are debating is "the long civil rights movement". This compilation effectively adds to the historical research that establishes that not only was the Civil Rights Movement temporally long but also geographically broad. Along with recent scholarship by Robert O. Self, Komozi Woodard, Jeanne Theoharis, and others this compilation, though focused on New York City, confirms not just the early, but also the varied, presence of civil rights organizations and protests in the North as well as their urgent role in helping to develop the Civil Rights Movement in the South. As the editor notes, this book "is unique because it is the only anthology that focuses on the civil rights movement in New York City from such a variety of perspectives" (p. 4).

Due to the historical interpretation by the authors of these chapters of a diverse array of leaders, organizations, and community struggles, this book dismisses the easy periodization and false characterization of an earlier, southern, united, civil rights movement and then later, more militant, fragmented, urban, identity-based power movements. In fact, according to Taylor, "in their challenge to the southern paradigm, scholars not only have questioned the 1954 starting date of the civil rights movement" but have also challenged the "portrayal of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s as a force that derailed the 'triumphant' struggle for civil rights" (p. 2). This scholarly refutation of a political dichotomy between the civil rights movements of the 1950s vs. the identity/power movements of the 1960s has effectively defeated the view of a "good vs. bad Sixties" once and for all. Instead, it reaffirms the perspective of a longer and broader "freedom struggle" by various oppressed nations and people of color against a colonizing and racializing capitalist "world-system."

The book is arranged chronologically, which helps to develop one of the main themes shared by many of the book's authors. Over time, the chapters reveal the tensions between the liberalism of the post-World War II era and the civil rights movement's challenges to liberal notions of race, merit, governance, and equality. These chapters indirectly build on each other in articulating the political conflicts critical to the conceptual and organizational development of civil rights praxis. The chapters, while not organized thematically, also focus on similar topics that in their pattern of similarity reveal the main concerns of civil rights organizations and oppressed communities of color in New York City. There is however, a subset of chapters that should be read in conjunction due to their political or organizational themes. Half of the articles are on the struggles for school "desegregation," specifically understood as not "integration," and therefore against educational apartheid. In fact, in her chapter on the civil rights struggle concerning the City University of New York, Martha Biondi reiterates that education struggles have been central to civil rights movements and that "the integration of CUNY has been the most significant civil rights victory in higher education in the history of the United States (p. 161). Besides the already noted focus, and subset of five chapters, on teachers, schools, and public and higher education that are spread out within the anthology, two by Clarence Taylor himself, there are chapters on housing (by Peter Eisenstadt) and public services (by Brian Purnell) that jointly show the difficulty with attaining liberalism's manifest goal of integration as "possible, practical, and necessary" (p. 78) as well as showing how "the New Deal played on racial fears and prejudices" (p. 53), in effect supporting and facilitating "white flight" into the suburbs.

The chapters on Bayard Rustin (by Daniel Perlstein) and the Young Lords (by Johanna Fernandez) are another subset that further explores and exposes the crises of liberalism, along with the growing radicalism that challenged it and emerged as a result of liberalism's failures to address "the social and structural roots" of what Reverend Milton Galamison, a major civil rights leader who is a prominent and controversial figure in several of the studies presented in the book, called "social sins: racism, militarism, and class exploitation" (p. 103). In fact, the failure to meet the basic civil right for public sanitation advocated for in the early 1960s by CORE's Operation Clean Sweep led to "the fire, next time" of the "Garbage Offensive" by the Young Lords in 1969. As stated by Johanna Fernandez, this new militant activism and insurgent politic was "rooted in a deep social disenchantment at worsening objective conditions" (p. 159), which was a response to the failure of the "social service-oriented antipoverty strategy" (p. 160) of urban reformers. These two chapters are very effective in explicating the "dead end of despair" that Bayard Rustin felt was the reason for nationalist ideals and demands for community control and that ultimately, as Daniel Perlstein concludes, may have actually been the reason for his own political and pessimistic slide away from earlier held ideals.

Of particular interest to CENTRO Journal readers and scholars of Puerto Rican studies is the chapter on "Local Politics and Global Ideologies: NYC in the 1950s" by historian Barbara Ransby and her use of Ella Baker's Puerto Rico files, located at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In her decade-old book on Ella Baker (Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, 2003), which this chapter is a part of, Ransby reveals the organizational and political relationships between Blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York City during the 1950s, focusing on the organizing by Black and Puerto Rican "Parents in Action against Educational Discrimination," and how for Ella, some of these relationships lasted until the 1970s and influenced her to politically support and organizationally join the movement in solidarity with Puerto Rican independence.

Ransby lists Ella Baker not only as a member of the Puerto Rican Solidarity planning committee for the politically famous yet academically neglected Puerto Rican Independence Rally at Madison Square Garden in 1974 but also as one of the keynote speakers. In addition, she notes that Ella Baker was a "spokesperson for the U.S Peoples' Delegation" to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization in 1978, where the case of Puerto Rico was discussed. While these details form a brief part of the chapter, they suggest the organizational presence of a long- suspected yet under-researched understanding about the political and community dynamics between politically organized Blacks and Puerto Ricans. This brief history will hopefully stimulate more scholarly and archival research into the connections and relations between diverse political and cultural communities before the 1960s.

Overall the chapters work well in establishing both the depth of early civil rights organizing in New York City and their longevity from the World War II era until the early 1970s. However, the addition of the final two chapters by Wilbur Rich and Jerald Podair detailing the racial tensions in New York City during the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations don't work as well in trying to lengthen the reach of the civil rights movement into the present. Instead, they reveal the historical gap of, and leap over, the 1970s and 1980s. This is significant because of recent scholarship by Jefferson Cowie, David Harvey, Kim Phillips-Fein, and others into that time period that suggests that the resurgence of both right-wing racism and economic neoliberalism occurred then as a political backlash against the cultural and legal/legislative gains made by workers and minorities during the 1950s and '60s. The configuration of our present conjuncture is shaped by this backlash.

This anthology reveals the political and theoretical conflicts between sectors of the Left, the labor movement, and community organizers that ultimately limited and shaped the development of civil rights movements while also clarifying the role played by a militantly antiracist socialist, Communist, and radical democratic Left in obtaining economic and social goals that were further and more "anti-systemic" than the civil rights imagined by liberals. As Clarence Taylor suggests, had more socialist and communist influenced organizations been able to operate without the repression and hysteria of the Cold War then "history might have been very different" (p. 31). Read this book to comprehend what was in order to then understand how the present came to be. As the saying goes: if we don't learn from history, we will repeat it.

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Author:Colon, Saulo
Publication:CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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