Remembering The Civil Rights Struggle
by Alice Bernstein
“Will you go to jail for freedom? Will you die for freedom?”
A powerful rendition of the song, Do You Want Your Freedom? was sung by Sandi Blair, with Dionne Freeney on piano, to open a remarkable event sponsored by the Brooklyn Public Library's central branch at Grand Army Plaza: “I Remember: Civil Rights Activism in Brooklyn 1960-1965.”
It was a celebration of an important chapter in the borough's history, and honored activists in as radical a civil rights group as any in the early 1960s—the Brooklyn chapter of the national organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
Elizabeth Harvey, Local History Librarian in the Brooklyn Collection, introduced the moderator, Dr. Brian Purnell, lecturer on African American History at Fordham University who is writing the history of Brooklyn CORE ( Brooklyn CORE). Dr. Purnell assembled an interracial panel to discuss their work in the 1960s, including Arnold Goldwag, Rioghan Kirchner, Msemaji Weusi, Nandi Weusi, Dr. Ed Lewinson, Congressman Major Owens, Jerome Bibuld, Princene Hyatt, and Larry Cumberbatch.
Reunion of Brooklyn CORE Activists (l to r) Msemaji Weusi, Jerome Bibuld,
Edith Diamond, Arnold Goldwag, Ed Lewinson. Photo credit: Doug Diamond
“We're sitting amongst heroes today!” Dr. Purnell declared, “The songs are history—the history of struggle, of pain, and of hope by people in Brooklyn CORE, and the fights they waged against racial discrimination.”
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 Brooklyn Public Library, for the oral history project and television documentary I'm working on with cameraman David Bernstein, who is my husband. I have been traveling across the United States and interviewing people whose courage and kindness were part of the dynamic force of the civil rights movement. My purpose is to document and encourage study of what the American philosopher Eli Siegel (1902-78), founder of Aesthetic Realism, explained: that there is a force of ethics working in people throughout history, and very much in the great struggle for civil rights in America.
People at the Brooklyn Public Library event were celebrating the insistence in various individuals on ethics, on people getting more of what they deserve—which resulted in an increase in justice and happiness in their neighborhoods.
“Brooklyn CORE,” said Dr. Purnell, “was made up of unsung heroes, including some no longer with us, like Oliver Leeds and his wife Marjorie Leeds. While the movement was about politics and picket-lines, it was about so much more. It involved families who also celebrated together and took care of each other's children. The way they used television and newspapers to publicize, advertise and highlight issues of racial discrimination was genius.”
He described Brooklyn CORE as the most active chapter in the North from 1960 until about 1965, initiating actions against racial discrimination in housing, employment and quality of life issues like garbage collection in predominantly black neighborhoods. “They took on the city at its highest levels of government,” he said, “and they were innovative, creative, dynamic.”
One of the largest campaigns was opening up housing—public and private—for African Americans. When new homes were created, Brooklyn CORE would investigate and test. Rioghan Kirchner was a white “tester.” She would apply for an apartment or home and usually received an application to fill out, but when an African American applied—for instance, Edith Diamond—she was rejected. Then the activists enacted civil disobedience in front of any places where black people were not able to live. They slept in the houses if they had to, and paraded in front of the buildings with placards.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the 1960s while racism was raging in the South, it was also shamefully virulent in Brooklyn and elsewhere in the North. The reason is explained by Aesthetic Realism: each of us is in a fight every moment of our lives about whether to respect the world and people or to have contempt, the “addition to self through making less of something else.” Contempt is the cause of racism and every injustice. We all have a desire for justice more than we know, and we also have contempt more than we know. Racism will end when people learn how to criticize contempt, including in ourselves, and to see people different from us as having the depths of feeling we give to ourselves.
In the summer of 1962 Brooklyn CORE organized a campaign for employment equality in the construction of Downstate Medical Center. To highlight racial discrimination in hiring, they paraded through the streets with a coffin on which was written, “Bury Jim Crow.” Dr. Purnell told of how Isaiah Brunson, a leader of Brooklyn CORE, worked with Rev. Milton Galamison, Rev. Robert Kinloch, Rev. Garner Taylor, the late Rev. William A. Jones from Bethany Baptist Church. During the campaign, Brooklyn 's most prominent ministers joined with CORE in one of the most exciting, dramatic demonstrations in the city.
Sit-down protest against employment discrimination at construction site of Downstate Medical Center. Rioghan Kirchner in center. Courtesy of Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Ebinger's Bakery & Operation Clean Sweep
I was astonished to learn that Ebinger's Bakery whose products my family and so many others loved—like black-out and julip cakes—was a company that discriminated against black people, Latinos and Jews. Brooklyn CORE led a major demonstration against employment discrimination at Ebinger's, and creatively made discrimination real and visible. They blocked trucks, picketed, boycotted, and stopped business as usual. As a result, Ebinger's was forced to change its prejudiced hiring practices.
Operation Clean Sweep was another success. Unlike surrounding areas, the entire neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant had garbage-filled streets. Arnold Goldwag—Brooklyn CORE's Community Relations Director, along with others, investigated the schedules of the Sanitation Department and found that Bed- Stuy only received garbage pick-ups three days a week, while other neighborhoods—Marine Park, Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay—were served five days a week. Their research found that Bedford-Stuyvesant was the most densely populated neighborhood in New York City, with the largest black population—700,000 by 1970. When the Department of Sanitation refused to issue emergency funds to increase the number of pickups, Brooklyn CORE decided that: “We're going to show you what it's like to have garbage on the steps of your home.” They brought the garbage to the steps of Borough Hall. Their point was made masterfully, out in the open for all to see and judge, and this made for change.
It was change on behalf of a world more just and beautiful—which is what human beings of all races hope for. Another speaker on the panel, Msemaji Weusi (then known as Maurice Fredericks), recalled: “My wife and I were walking down Fulton Street in the early 1960s and we saw a demonstration. It was strange to see whites and blacks on the same side and the same picket line, saying ‘Brother, come and walk the line.' I was so impressed by their discipline, integrity and determination that I joined them.”
Rioghan Kirchner, Housing Chairman and later Vice Chairman of Brooklyn CORE in those years, has donated photographs, news clippings and memorabilia about civil rights to the Brooklyn Collection.
Alice Bernstein is a journalist, originally from Brooklyn, and editor of Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism (Orange Angle Press).
© 2006 by Alice Bernstein. For permission to reprint please contact me at Ajoybern@nyc.rr.com, or call (212) 691-2978.