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Black History and the Role of African Americans in Advocating for Civil Rights

May 18, 2023 at 12:15 am by PeterParker

nyc black history month nyc african american history month all 5 boroughs boros nyc manhattan brooklyn queens bronx staten island nyc african americans role in history nyc

* Black History Month in NYC

Scratching the Surface of Our Ancestoral African Roots

black history and the role of african americans in advocating for civil rights nycFebruary 7, 2023 / NYC Neighborhoods / NYC Things To Do Events / Gotham Buzz NYC.

Over the past few years I've come to enjoy a number of PBS programs that delve into our collective African American ancestoral roots. One of the shows is hosted by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wherein he researches various celebrities' ancestoral roots, digging up photos, slave ownership records, and connections to other celebrities by tracing DNA trails. The journey can lead to any number of surprises, such as when Gates found that one of actress Carol Burnett's ancestors joined the Confederate Army, and then deserted a couple of years later. Or when Gates uncovered that TV Producer / Writer Larry David of Seinfeld is a distant cousin to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

But for my money, the treasure trove of programming on PBS may be found in its rich collection of documentaries - both old and new. And among those documentaries are a wide number of films exploring the contributions and history of African Americans.


PBS Documentaries During Black History Month in NYC

I'm only going to touch on one of them now, and at a later date will return to engage in a deeper conversation about others. The documentary I watched on PBS this month, was entitled, The Blinding of Isaac Woodard. It was about how an innocent African American veteran was attacked by a white southern police chief [Lynwood Shull] from South Carolina who beat out Woodard's eyes and permanently blinded him in February 1946, while Woodard was changing buses at a bus stop. That's a mighty nasty way to welcome a WWII veteran home and thank him for risking his life to defend us.

Nonetheless, eight years later, the search for justice was fulfilled ... in a way. Of course the all white South Carolina jury let off Police Chief Shull. But that action so enraged President Harry S. Truman, that he ordered a federal investigation into the case. And actor / radio host Orson Welles, took up the cause too, helping make it known what sorts of racial injustices were being perpetrated upon African Americans living and working in the south.

The Role of Lewisohn Stadium in Harlem, Famous African American Musicians and Sports Figures & Judge Waring

In August 1946, Billie Holiday, Boxing Champion Joe Louis, and others hosted a benefit concert at Lewisohn Stadium in Harlem for Woodard. Lewisohn Stadium was built on a CUNY property in 1915 between 136th and 138th Streets and between Amsterdam and Convent Avenue. It was demolished in 1973 and replaced by the North Academic Center in 1985.

In November of 1946 Police Chief Shulman stood on trial, and was - as expected - acquitted after only 30 minutues of deliberation. The deliberation would have been far shorter had the Judge, Julius Waring, not stepped out of the court room for a walk. The Judge was so outraged at the police chief's behavior and that of the jury as well, that he decided to make them wait.

Anyhow, the justice comes years later, when JudgeWaring presided over another trial, Briggs vs Elliot. Like the Woodard case, it was argued that the racist Jim Crow laws of South Carolina, claiming separate but equal, were a farce and therefore unconstitutional. Judge Waring wrote the dissenting opinion of that case, which like Woodard's case, had been wrongfully decided, and the court had aided in making justice go awry.


Attorney Thurgood Marshall Eventually Becomes the First African American Supreme Court Justice

African American Thurgood Marshall prosecuted the case, arguing for equal treatment and resources, for the poor black children of Clarendon County South Carolina. He proved that they were being harmed by this treatment. And while Marshall lost in the state court of South Carolina, he won a unanimous verdict from the Supreme Court in 1954. This decision by the Supreme Court was a pretty 'radical' decision for the time, and their decision read pretty along the lines of Judge Waring's dissenting opinion in the Briggs vs Elliot case, which had been joined with others in Brown vs the Board of Education. This was the beginning of the end for racial segregation.

Thurgood Marshall would eventually go on to become the first African American Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1967.


The Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King, the Kennedys & Johnson

The Freedom Riders came next, in 1961, wherein they protested the racist separation of blacks and whites in intra state buses and stations. The focus of the rides was between Alabama and Mississippi, likely the two most racist states in the nation. In this situation, in May of 1961, Martin Luther King came into support the freedom riders, but he chose not ride with them.

As part of their organizing, there was a large gathering of African American civil rights protesters in a Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. While they were meeting inside the church with Dr. King and other leaders, an even larger white crowd gathered around the church, determined to 'teach a lesson' to these civil rights activists.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy was determined to help African Americans attain equal status under the law, including exercising their right to vote. He managed to use his influence to get Alabama Governor John Patterson to call up the National Guard to help disperse the white crowd and maintain the peace. Kennedy had to strong arm the Governor, who at one point said he could protect everyone in the church except Dr. Martin Luther King. Kennedy held his ground and told the Governor that that was unacceptable, so eventually the Governor backed down, and the situation was safely defused.

The Kennedys pushed to pass a Civil Rights Bill in 1963 which failed. It took the assassination of JFK and Lyndon Johnson's skillful politicking to pass the bill in 1964, with more to come in 1965. In 2008 the first African American, Barack Obama, was elected President, but the work toward true equality is not yet done, as the George Floyd murder and numerous other subsequent deaths have shown.


Black History Provides Another Important Perspective & Therefore Understanding of our Past

Racism is still alive and well, not just in our country, but around the world. And it's not just people of color, but people of other ethnic groups, like Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, Hindus, Chinese, Uighurs and on, and on, and on. But for all the bad news, we are making progress ... albeit slowly.

I'll have more on African American history, specifically as it relates to NYC next week. There are dozens of famous African Americans who either grew up here, or moved and lived a good part of their lives here.

Have a nice week.