“There will come a time, here in Brooklyn and all over America,” wrote Walt Whitman, “when nothing will be of more interest than authentic reminiscences of the past.” The truth of those words was vibrantly alive at t he Brooklyn Public Library event “I Remember: Civil Rights Activism in Brooklyn 1960-1965.” A rapt audience at Grand Army Plaza heard a panel of men and women, black and white, recall their work against racial discrimination during those crucial years, in the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
The event was hosted by Dr. Brian Purnell, lecturer on African-American History at Fordham University, whose dissertation “A Movement Grows in Brooklyn,” tells the little known story of Brooklyn CORE at the forefront of the civil rights struggle. Dr. Purnell described their imaginative, highly visible campaigns for equality in housing, employment, education, i.e., their boycott of Ebinger's Bakery which forced the owners to begin hiring black and Latino workers. And Operation Clean Sweep, which shamed the Department of Sanitation into increasing garbage pickups in densely populated Bedford-Stuyvesant. The activists made the injustice visible by bringing garbage to the steps of Borough Hall.
Their actions illustrate what the American philosopher Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism explained: there is a force of ethics in the world, working in people of all races throughout history against injustice. I was privileged to videotape this event at the invitation of Dr. Purnell, and with the kind permission of Jay Kaplan of the Programming Department of the Brooklyn Public Library, for the oral history project and television documentary I'm working on with cameraman David Bernstein. My purpose is to show, through the lives of people in many cities, evidence of the power of ethics in the struggle for civil rights. Eli Siegel defined ethics as “the art of enjoying justice,” and one heard this pleasure as speakers from Brooklyn CORE told of their work in behalf of justice.
Dr. Purnell showed a slide of a child on a garbage-stewn street, holding a sign: “Give Us a First Class Bedford Stuyvesant.” Brooklyn CORE, he said, was one of the first chapters to implement the tactic of peaceful arrest by going limp, or lying down and refusing to move. One slide showed Arnold Goldwag doing just that, as police officers carried him away. Mr. Goldwag was community relations director of Brooklyn CORE, and he made sure their protests were covered by the media. “We knew what we had to do,” said Arnold Goldwag, “and we did it with pizzazz!” This was clear in slides of women with CORE embroidered aprons sweeping the streets during Operation Clean Sweep; one showed Marjorie Leeds receiving a summons from police officers—a $5 ticket. Dr. Purnell stated that at the hearing Mrs. Leeds said, “I refuse to pay—you can send me to jail right now.” The judge banged his gavel, dropped the charges, and dismissed the case.
The Fight between Contempt and Respect
Aesthetic Realism explains that every moment of our lives we have a choice either to respect the world and people, or to have contempt: “the false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” Contempt is the cause of all injustice, including racism, and the feeling that some children deserve inferior textbooks and schools, and some people should be paid a pittance for their work. Only when contempt is criticized is it on the road to ending.
Elaine (l) and Jerome Bibuld (r) and their children
Brooklyn CORE made New York aware that Jim Crow wasn't only in Alabama and Mississippi, but right here. In the ‘60s the need to integrate schools was also in Brooklyn and shamefully, in many ways, still is. Dr. Purnell described efforts to make schools for black and Puerto Rican children as good as schools for white children. This was tackled in a major way by Jerome and Elaine Bibuld, whose children complained about the lack of books and supplies at school. Their complaint began a campaign of demonstrations and sit-ins at the Board of Education. Dr. Purnell recalled Elaine Bibuld speaking about what it was like when people threatened the lives of her children. “They needed a police escort,” he said, “to get from their home in Park Slope to a public school in the Bensonhurst-Bath Beach section, because someone threatened to throw battery acid in the faces of their children.” Many slides captured the solidarity in Brooklyn CORE—the friendships and care for each other's families—and the tremendous price that people put themselves on the line to pay.
I learned more about that price by studying CORE documents and memorabilia which Rioghan Kirchner contributed to the library's Brooklyn Collection. I was moved to learn that many children participated in demonstrations against employment discrimination during construction of Downstate Medical Center in 1963. Thirteen youngsters, ages 5 to 17, were arrested along with adults—the first arrests of children in New York City! One unforgettable photo shows two little boys being placed in a police car.
"History is the essence of innumerable biographies "
This statement by the 19th century Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle describes the individual Brooklyn men and women who made history. It was a privilege to get glimpses into the biographies of such courageous people as Arnold Goldwag, Rioghan Kirschner, Msemaji Weusi, Nandi Weusi, Dr. Ed Lewinson, Congressman Major Owens, Jerome Bibuld, Princene Hyatt, and Larry Cumberbatch.
Brian Purnell described Brooklyn CORE's participation in national campaigns, including to desegregate eateries along Route 40 to Maryland, and introduced two of the Freedom Riders.
Msemaji Weusi (then Maurice Fredericks) remembered: “The object of the rides was to break the back of racial segregation by bringing the world's attention to this evil. We were a diverse group—college students, blacks and whites, male and female, and a number of ministers and rabbis. We were schooled on the CORE rules which included not retaliating if cursed at or abused. If one couldn't or wouldn't abide by the non-violent rules, they were not allowed to participate. We were also taught, if attacked, how to protect our vital organs. My hat is off to all those who did brave the real dangers by taking the struggle to the deep South.”
Arnold Goldwag recalled: “I went to Cambridge, Maryland in 1962 and met Gloria Richardson and people from SNCC, including Stokeley Charmichael. I was arrested there three times. In a restaurant in Abingdon, the owner was behind the bar with a shotgun waiting for us. If the police hadn't gone in before us, we would have been blasted right through the door.”
In 1963 Brooklyn CORE organized a large group for the March on Washington, and a smaller group who courageously walked all the way. Larry Cumberbatch, then 15, walked from Brooklyn, arriving in Washington in time for Dr. King's speech. He said: “As a teenager I was involved with all the activities. We picketed White Castle on Empire Boulevard and Utica Avenue—that was when the waitresses would skate up to your car. I picketed to get jobs at Downstate Medical Center, and I remember Malcolm X used to stand on the Northeast corner and make commentary to the news reporters. We also went to potato farms in Riverhead, Long Island to give meals and support to migrant workers there. Anything that was important, Brooklyn CORE was involved in.”
Congressman Major Owens (serving Brooklyn 's 11th Congressional District since 1982) was, in the mid-1960s, president of Brooklyn CORE and was influential in leading rent strikes. The Congressman said: “We upset both the black establishment and white estab-lishment and were considered troublemakers. We moved from focusing on civil rights to making a first class community, trying to get rid of slum lords.” Recalling the sign carried by the child in Bedford-Stuyvesant, he said, “Think of what that sign might look like today: ‘We want a first class Ninth Ward, ' or ‘I want a first class New Orleans—for the people who live there!'—if you want to know where the civil rights movement should be going now.”
Congressman Owens continued: “I consider myself the greatest beneficiary of Brooklyn CORE, where I learned more in three years than I learned in years of college and graduate school. I owe a great deal to people like Oliver Leeds who never stopped going. As soon as we finished one project, he'd say ‘What are we going to do next?' That's dedication! Arnie Goldwag doesn't tell you the heroic nature of what he did. He was arrested 27 times, not all in Southern jails—it was right here! The Bibulds sacrificed tremendously in battling with the Board of Education. It's important to bring back some sparks and make people understand the dedication and drive—we didn't get a Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act or a concern in city government because somebody was goodhearted! It was because of struggle and people making great human sacrifices.”
There is much more to the history of Brooklyn CORE, which you can learn about in the library's Brooklyn Collection.
Alice Bernstein is a journalist and editor of Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism (Orange Angle Press). See www.OrangeAnglePress.com
[Note: This article has also appeared in newspapers in Brooklyn, NY and elsewhere.
Photo credits for Brooklyn Public Library event: © 2006 by David M. Bernstein. ]