In July 1964 New York City erupted in what Michael W. Flamm terms a riot but what residents of affected neighborhoods in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant (Brooklyn) routinely denote as a rebellion. They prefer the latter term to signal that the underlying reasons for this mass unrest was unemployment, racism, substandard housing, and police brutality. Though not as well known as a similar episode in Los Angeles in 1965, in some ways the events in Gotham formed the template for what was to come. Still, there were unique aspects to what befell the Big Apple. For example, Roy Wilkins, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader, happened to be vacationing with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller at the latter's plush estate in Wyoming, a coincidence that did not necessarily endear him to those left behind in the steaming concrete canyons of Harlem. James Farmer, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality, bewilderingly demanded the deployment of the National Guard to confront the protesters despite these soldiers' lack of training in handling civilian unrest and their tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. When his comrade, the celebrated Bayard Rustin, arrived at the epicenter of the unrest, he was greeted unceremoniously with a torrent of boos and catcalls, causing him to flee in tears. “The dramatic moment,” the author says accurately, “was a symbolic showdown between two versions of the freedom struggle, two visions of social protest. … a clear sign of the changing times” (p. 102). The author observes tellingly that both the White House and local elites tended to blame “outside agitators,” notably Communists (some of whom resided in Harlem—for example, the lawyer William Patterson of Scottsboro fame). The author, and President Lyndon B. Johnson, should have concluded that what helped create the “two versions of the freedom struggle” engaged in the “showdown” in Harlem was precisely the defenestration of a third option—represented by Patterson and his wounded comrades. This lack of a third way created an ideological vacuum and debilitated militant trade union forces that could have provided viable options for youth who saw no alternative to an inchoate insurrection. This well-researched, pungently written book takes advantage of the detailed coverage from newspapers that no longer exist. In light of the current surge of right-wing populism in the United States, it is instructive to quote an electrical engineer from Little Italy who announced during this conflicted era, “I'm for Medicare, I'm for unions, but damn it, I'm gonna vote for [the GOP presidential candidate Barry] Goldwater to show the politicians we're sick and tired of cannibals,” meaning African Americans (p. 194). Even today, pollsters and politicos grossly and incompetently misread the U.S. reality: there are those who back social democratic measures—but solely for those like themselves. For bringing this and other voices to our attention, the author richly deserves our thanks. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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