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PEP Feb 2004
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Public Employee Press

Media Beat: Book Review
New York’s postwar civil rights battle

   
 

HARLEM, 1950: Protesters battle exclusion of Blacks from Stuyvesant Town. DC 37 was part of Northern movement that fought job and housing discrimination.

 

In “To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City,” Martha Biondi examines a movement less known than the Southern struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, but historically important in making the city we know today.

While the Southern movement had to conquer the legal segregation of Jim Crow laws and win voting rights, the vibrant Northern movement of the late 1940s and the ’50s battled police brutality and discrimination in employment, housing, hiring and places of amusement. Economic and union rights were an integral part of the Northern struggle.

After fighting a world war to preserve democracy and defeat racism abroad, labor grew militant and African Americans demanded civil rights at home. Many of the leaders were radicals who were active in both the community and labor spheres, including African Americans Ewart Guinier of the United Public Workers, Charles Collins of the Hotel Workers and Ferdinand Smith of the National Maritime Union.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Congress, Benjamin Davis in the City Council and Manhattan Borough President Hulan Jack provided leadership from their important political positions.

A huge battle was fought to save the jobs at the huge IRS Center in the Bronx, which the federal government ultimately moved. Victories included the first law since Reconstruction barring job discrimination and the integration of the then-new Stuyvesant Town housing development.

By the end of the 1940s, the forces of reaction nationwide aligned against the civil rights, labor and progressive movements. Caught up in the Red Scare, many Black leaders lost their union and political positions. The defeat of Harlem City Councilman Ben Davis, who was arrested under an anti-Communist law, was a major setback.

Author Martha Biondi teaches us much about what a social movement looked like in our town. Her book is $40, but it is available in the DC 37 library.

To learn more about the labor and community struggles of the post-war period, read Josh Freeman’s “Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II.”

— Ken Nash
Ed Fund Library, Room 211

 

 
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