Harlem and the Civil Rights Movement

We think of the American South as the center of our country’s struggle for civil rights for its Black citizens. While the North did not have its own explicit Jim Crow laws that segregated Blacks in schools and public places, dictated neighborhoods where they could live, banned them from voting, and moreover legalized state-sanctioned violence and terrorism against them, racism was and is rampant in many places that we believe tolerant and liberal, and the struggle was alive in New York City.

Harlem has been a hotbed of cultural and political progression and a microcosm of the Civil Rights Movement. For much of the 20th century, it was inhabited mostly by the city’s population of Black people who had made their way north during the course of the Great Migration, and found that one of the few places welcome to them in New York City was the uptown neighborhood that had been overdeveloped with too few tenants. The location of Ralph Ellison’s famed literary work “Invisible Man,” where the nameless protagonist is caught in the fury of a riot after the death of a Black teenager at the hands of a policeman, the often invisiblized people of Harlem had altogether ignited an artistic Renaissance and raged through the tempestuousness of fighting for their humanity. In honoring Black History Month and African-American heritage, NYXT.nyc highlights our partner Harlem One Stop to show Harlem’s role in the fight for equal rights, and how the specter of Jim Crow followed Black southerners above the Mason-Dixon line.

June 1964 was the season of the Freedom Summer, where volunteers from around the country emigrated to Mississippi to aid in voter registration for the state’s Black residents. States’ rights implemented in Mississippi made it one of the hardest in which Blacks could vote; poll taxes, literacy tests, proof of land ownership—criteria that white counterparts were not held to—in addition to racial terror that loomed over Southern Blacks whenever they exercised their right to the ballot after the fall of the Reconstruction, created an atmosphere wherein Mississippi had the lowest registration rates for Blacks in the United States. Freedom Summer was the product of years of labor by grassroots organizers from the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an offshoot of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC).

This pivotal Summer was one of many events that contributed to President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act into law, and the efforts of the organizers and volunteers created schools and libraries for Black students to supplement subpar “separate but equal” institutions, and housing for those who faced intimidation for exercising their voting rights. The volunteers were mostly rich white Northerners, including Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both from New York City. The two young men had been involved in social activism in the city, Goodman from a liberal family, while Schwerner organized in CORE’s NYC unit. Shortly after their travels to Mississippi with other CORE members, alongside Black Mississippi native and activist James Chaney, they were targeted by Ku Klux Klan members, who shot and buried them and set their car afire. Discovered weeks later, their deaths, and the deaths of many innocent lives along the way, galvanized the movement towards equality. While Mississippi is miles away, New York tributes these fallen activists through a memorial in Harlem, at Hostelling International’s Peace Garden, mere blocks away from Goodman’s home. Mississippi’s history is New York’s history, as centuries of inhumanity are intertwined between the two, but driven by the radical desire for equality.

Safe, affordable housing and equal employment opportunities have been rallying causes for Black people since their existence in America. Although Harlem was in the midst of a Renaissance as 125th Street flourished with new and attractive businesses that Black residents were finally able to patronize, many of these shops would not employ Black people, disenfranchising them in their own neighborhoods and relegating them to lesser opportunities, if any were found at all.

Minister Adam Clayton Powell Jr. attended school in NYC and eventually made his home in Harlem, where he rose to prominence as pastor of the landmark Abyssinian Baptist Church. He became the first Black person elected as city councilmember, and four years later, he was elected the first Black member of the Democratic House of Representatives from New York. Aghast at the gulf of inequity between Black citizens and their white counterparts, Powell used his platform to advocate for civil rights and made it his mission to provide for people who were systemically designed to struggle through racial or religious oppression, and deprived of basic human necessities and rights.

Focusing on the neighborhood’s working class, he advocated for raising the minimum wage, labor regulations, job training, and resources for the disabled. In his provocative oratorical style, he openly challenged his fellow politicians over segregation when few would speak, demanding a higher standard of living for the disenfranchised. Alongside journalist and activist Ida B. Wells and many others, he denounced the primarily Southern practice of lynching, which while utilized on people of all races, was a weapon of terror against Blacks specifically as it was a leveraged as a means of social control to keep populations docile as their post-Emancipation rights evaporated. Powell was able to achieve a position of political power when many Blacks were barred from being able to vote. Harlem remembers Adam Clayton Powell Jr. always as his namesake avenue runs through the roads of the vibrant community he helped build, as he forced accountability onto oppressors through citywide protests and boycotts, and stood up for and handed power back to the people who were political pariahs.

Housing, jobs, land ownership, and the ballot were not the only places Blacks were excluded. Many artistic enterprisers sought to ostracize them from the arts as it was believed they did not have the ability to partake in what were considered elitist endeavors. Black people performing ballet, in Harlem, seemed a near impossibility before the 1950s. But the arts have long been used by oppressed people as a means to protest and exact social change, and dancer Arthur Mitchell set out to achieve just that.

With an early inclination towards performing arts, Harlem-born Mitchell joined the School of American Ballet, and then training under the renowned George Balanchine, joined the New York City Ballet as the first Black principal dancer in 1955 in the midst of America’s initiative to desegregate schools. In a country where laws were created to keep Black men from fraternizing with white women, to the degree where doing so could get you killed, having interracial dance partners performing onstage was radical and propelled Mitchell into iconic territory. “I am a political activist through dance,” says the 83-year-old dancing veteran.

Founding several diverse dance companies in the 1960’s, Mitchell rose to prominence as a trailblazer for Black artists. But what catalyzed his propensity towards dance-as-protest was the murder of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April, 1968. Mitchell’s efforts towards equality was to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem, wherein Black dancers would be given the opportunity to dance ballet where there previously had been none, and to disprove the stereotypes that Black people were too brutish and inelegant to participate. Mitchell used ballet as defiance, a way to refuse to allow others to define him and his people, in the same way activists around the country practiced civil disobedience through political protest. Even today, as Misty Copeland laments the lack of diversity in ballet, pioneer Mitchell continues to actively challenge its exclusivity by influencing a new generation of dancers, arts supporters, and activists. Recently, he donated decades of dance artifacts to Columbia University, and the archives are now on display on the campus’ Wallach Art Theatre from now until March 11, 2018. More tours of Harlem’s history are available through Harlem One Stop.

For decades, Black Americans were told to wait their turn for equality, that freedom would come at the right time with patience and obedience, but as countless activists have learned, freedom isn’t given, it’s taken. From artists to politicians to volunteers who risked their lives for profound change, as injustice evolves, so does protest, and has transformed into the myriad movements we see alive today.  We are all given gifts with which to express ourselves, it is up to us to use them well and the young, gifted and Black spirit of Harlem will always be alive.

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