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MAY 2018 FINAL EDITION

HARLEM’S FRUSTRATING CYCLE OF SOCIAL REFORM MOVEMENTS A Reflection on 1960s and 1970s Harlem

BY EMILY LARCHER


Introduction and Foreword I feel that the history of Harlem is one that is incredibly rich and should be taught widespread. Harlem is a location full of artistic endeavors, as well as being the place for various influential social justice movements. The period from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s proved to be an incredibly turbulent time for Harlem in regards to their social, racial, and economic prospects. Inspired by the Civil Right movements occurring all over the nation, revolutionary leaders decided to invoke initiatives that would reform various aspects of Harlem life, such as housing, education, and police brutality. As we learn about these movements and their outcomes, we were to see a similar cycle unfold. Although ambitious projects were cultivated in order to improve the quality of Harlem residents, lack of organization and political and economic controversies would soon end them, reverting the community back to its original state.


1964 Race Riots What were these riots and what caused them? One notable protest for social reform in Harlem came through via the Harlem Race Riots Strikes in 1964. Although the Civil Rights movement appears to have primarily been associated with the Southern United States, race riots actually occurred in cities all across America. The Harlem Race Riots resulted from the death of fifteen-year-old James Powell, who was shot by an off-duty white police officer, Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan on his way to summer school. This event sparked a widespread riot in Harlem, in which about eight thousand Harlem residents protested in what they believed was “an act of police brutality”. The protests lasted for six violent days, in which residents from Harlem and also Bedford Stuyvesant set fire and looted local businesses, resulting in numerous injuries and one death.

Images during the riot, that convey the brutal police response to the protests, 1964.


Race Riots Outcome Democratic Response An initiative proposed by President Johnson in 1965 was Project Uplift, which had the objective to help the youth of Harlem to obtain more job opportunities to end the cycle of poverty. Such a project would also try to decrease the rate of juvenile delinquency in that area, as well as try to prevent any future race riots. However, this program was mismanaged and disorganized, and soon ended after 1965. Unlike the restriction of laws, helping the black youth of Harlem to obtain summer jobs places a focus on reaching their potential, instead of wanting the support of white voters.

Republican Response The perceived violence against police officers alarmed Republican politicians running for office. In an attempt to win over the white voters during the 1966 Governor election, Ronald Reagan issued an “aggressive response” in quelling race riots in California, which did work to stop the protests. This sort of response referred to as “law-and-order politics” would continue to criminalize the black community in America for the decades to come, with rising rates of incarnations for black people over violence and narcotic use. In creating stricter policies for crimes related to violence, the actual roots of these issues are not truly addressed.


Housing Riots Jesse Gray's Protests Another important protest that also occurred in Harlem in 1963 and 1964 was the Harlem Rent Strikes. Led by Jesse Gray, these riots were an attempt to reform the disintegrating conditions of Harlem housing, as well as the landlord’s apathy towards repairs. Gray’s protest methods included having tenants take rats from their apartment to bring into a Civil Court hearing in order to increase pressure for reform In spite of sparking controversy with the New York media, Gray’s efforts failed to mobilize the poor inhabitants of Harlem long term. One of the primary reasons why his protests failed was because tenants in the area were looking for other solutions. Gray, similar to other radical Civil Rights leaders, perhaps joined the efforts to create a more flamboyant form of protesting, which he did with the housing riots. Even if his grassroots movement succeeded for a while, he might have failed in identifying the root causes of the Harlem housing crisis.  Instead of focusing his attention on just improving housing conditions and lowering rent, Gray should have protested for more opportunities for families to get housing in other areas of New York City. Regardless, this was an issue that was difficult to foresee, understanding that even Tenant Council Meetings was hard to assemble together in Harlem, due to its inaccessibility to regular citizens. 


Education Conflicts A Paradox of a System In spite of already being legally desegregated by the 1960s, the city was still hesitant to allow black and white students to attend school together. Throughout this period, the New York school system battled between “white teacher unionists and black activists”. The cause of this conflict lied in the fact that both sides were participating in a power struggle, notably with white teachers not wanting to give up job security. Having African American teachers is essential to education reform, not only for job prospects but to also create a multi-racial learning environment for more students. This type of inclusiveness helps students to relate and understand their instructors better, which may help to heighten academic performance in the process.

How can New York pride itself in its diverse image when it doesn't put it into practice?


Rustin's Protest Bayard Rustin 1912-1987

“It was not until Negroes assaulted de facto school segregation in urban centers that the issue of quality education for all children stirred into motion” – Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was a Civil Rights leader who was also active in the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin’s own beliefs were polarizing to some of his fellow colleagues, as he promoted ideas of pacifism and black equality within his communities.

Protest & Outcomes: On February 3rd, 1964, over 400,00 New Yorkers peacefully protested for school reform, led by Rustin for school integration In spite of Rustin’s persistent efforts, the School Board would continue to show apathy towards desegregating their schools. One of the difficulties behind Rustin’s protests was that desegregation was technically legalized in New York up to that time, but not enforced.


1970's Decline

Photo or Harlem, c. 1970, taken by Jack Garofalo

Throughout the 1970s, various areas of Harlem life suffered under the economic depression, as well the quality of life, employment, and housing. In regards to housing, beginning in 1970, Harlem buildings decayed due to residents moving to other boroughs and repeated acts of arson in the area. The housing in Harlem faced the critical issue of which that former Harlem residents found housing in other places, dropping the value of Harlem homes in the area. Once again, long-term plans to repair the Harlem buildings had the potential to better not only housing conditions but also the real estate of Harlem. In doing so, Harlem could have attracted new inhabitants to live and improve the uptown vicinity. However, due to production costs and federal regulations, it is difficult to tell what sort of effect this housing reform could have had on Harlem residents.Â


Reform Efforts Within the 1970s, programs were also implemented in order to help Harlem residents to obtain jobs. Such efforts were initially a success but soon dissolved into obscurity. However, in the mid-1970s, the national unemployment rate for the black population reached nearly 13.1 percent, while New York City itself has reached to 12.8 percent. However, it is important to note that the statistic that described here also needs to include the concept that black people often are less likely to be employed than their white counterparts. This issue was not a new one within the Harlem community, as conveyed before with schools in the area refusing the hire black teachers in the 1960s, as well.  The reform plans, such as creating a job program proved to be futile for Harlem residents, as some who joined never obtained employment. In retrospect, the program was not only useless to black members, but also did not tackle more deep-rooted issues behind the high rate of unemployment. 


Black Panthers in Harlem The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, California in 1966, established in order to combat police brutality against black residents living in urban areas. The organization would soon form into a national one, opening an office in Harlem in 1968, located at Seventh Ave. and 141st street. The primary ideology of the Black Panther Party, aside from dealing with police brutality, was to ensure that black members of a community had the necessary resources to participate in it.  For instance, the Black Panthers worked towards providing Harlem residents with free voting registration and classes about political education.   The actions of the Black Panthers demonstrated that protesting was not the only method to achieve social reform.  Instead, social justice can be created through educating members of the black community in regards to the politics around them. In having this knowledge, it would be easier to identify when their rights were being violated because of racial prejudices by authority.


Black Panthers Reform Efforts Image of a Newspaper Clipping, c. 1969

The Black Panther Party worked extensively towards reform within the education system in Harlem, as well as attempts to improve the quality of life of the youth living there. Some of the initiatives set up by the Black Panthers was a free breakfast program for schoolchildren, as well as a youth athletic sports groups for Harlem.  Instead of a government sanctioned program to help Harlem residents, perhaps social reform could have endured under the Black Panther Party.  Although their ideology may have been radical to some, the organization was more dedicated to developing initiatives to eradicate food insecurity and increase opportunity for local black youth.  What was helpful, in regards to the Black Panther Party, was that the manner in which it was run made it more accessible to Harlem residents, as they were also people of color combating similar issues of race, poverty, and police brutality. 


Reform Efforts (Cont.): Further education reform that was brought on by the Black Panthers was the inclusion of more classes about African culture into mainstream classes. In 1968, one of the Harlem Branch’s first missions was to boycott schools in order to get this desire fulfilled. On September 12th, 1968, the Branch leads a shutdown of Harlem schools, in order to protest for more classes about African culture, as well as employing black staff members. This event also appears to echo the previous school boycotts, which occurred several years earlier. Instead of arguing for desegregation with black and white students, the Black Panther Party also called for a desegregation within schools’ core curriculums.  By implementing more classes about African culture and life, the inherently white narrative told in schools would soon shift into one that was more inclusive. As a result, this nuanced version of education would also perhaps build a bridge in part for white students to better understand the backgrounds of their black academic counterparts.


FBI Meddling J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI., would refer to the Black Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”, and tried to disband the group. During the period of the late 1960s, the FBI began a covert operation referred to as COINTELPRO, which was used to discredit various civil rights movements, including the Black Panther Party. One of the tactics that the FBI employed, was to “encourage urban police forces to confront Black Panthers”, along with ensuring that the media would report the political organization as one of being aggressive toward authority.  The New York media especially had already been skeptical about the actions pertaining to the Black Panther Party, such as speculating that their breakfast program was used to influence children to adopt their own ideology about police brutality. In an attempt to craft this narrative of violence of black people towards police officers, the FBI was in essence, trying to fortify the stereotypes people already felt about black people. Another reason why the J. Edgar Hoover probably put an incredible emphasis on disbanding the Black Panther Party was to ensure he would not be alienating or scaring white people in America. In hindsight, the rapid disintegration of the Black Panther Party meant that minority communities would once again lose an organization used to help protect them against societal values that were inherently racist.


Conclusion Thus, Harlem, along with the majority of America in the 1960s and 1970s, endured a series of protesting and political activism in order to improve its community conditions. Short-lived programs were put into place as a result of the outcry of an unfair educational and economic system for people of color living in the area. However, factors such as a lack of funding and apathy from the government would soon rid of these programs, hindering various opportunities for Harlem residents. Even with the brief and transformative involvement of the Black Panther Party in Harlem, the FBI would quickly attempt to discredit the organization, conveying them to the media as violent political radicals. The protests of Harlem, in general, appear to produce a common narrative, which is one of a struggle against a system that is prejudiced against them, followed by a quick solution, which does not even begin to tackle the actual root causes of the community problems.


Works Cited


Works Cited


Works Cited

Harlem's Frustrating Cycle of Social Reform Movement  
Harlem's Frustrating Cycle of Social Reform Movement  
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