(A History of) The Harlem chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality

Marshall England (1963-1964)

England, like Gladys Harrington, was employed as a social worker. He worked with youth gangs for the NYC Youth Board. Charles Vaught served as his vice chairman.

A former chairman for the housing committee, England shifted the direction of HC’s approach to dealing with housing issues. Whereas the emphasis previously had been directed towards getting better housing for middle class Blacks in white neighborhoods, urban renewal becomes HC’s new priority. Working along with activists like Jesse Gray, their rent strike campaigns in Harlem placed emphasis on where working class and poor Blacks already lived.

Education became an even bigger issue in 1964 when CORE joined the Citywide Committee for Integrated Schools. A coalition led by Reverend Milton Galamison, a former chairman of Brooklyn NAACP, the demonstrations targeted the de facto segregation of the NYC public school system. As part of a national school protest, their first city wide school boycott in February resulted in a third of NYC’s school children staying home. According to the New York Herald Tribune, it was at the time the largest civil rights demonstration in the history of the country (approximately 450,000 people), larger even then the March on Washington a year earlier (approximately 250,000 people).

Because the NY Board of Education still would not negotiate or give in to their demands, Galamison called for a second boycott. Many of the participating civil rights groups refused to support the protest, including National CORE. Local CORE chapters such as Harlem, Bronx and Brooklyn, however, did support Galamison. The second protest a month later may not have been as successful as the first, but it still resulted in most students staying home from the Harlem schools that were targeted (10).

This tension between national CORE and local chapters like HC could be seen again in the controversy over the World's Fair protests that spring. Brooklyn CORE was suspended by National CORE over their plans for a Stall-In protest. Both Harlem and Bronx CORE supported the Brooklyn chapter and participated in the planning of the demonstration. While the Stall-In ultimately failed primarily due to the weather and lack of particpation, many of those invloved believed they were succcesful in achieiving their goal of getting publicity to raise awraeness around the issue of desgregating the consruction industry in the city.

As the summer approached, CORE called for volunteers to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, SNCC’s effort to increase local Black participation in electoral politics. Attitudes regarding the overall effectiveness of such attempts were changing, though. The resulting violence and deaths surrounding the movement, including the murders of CORE activists Chaney and Schwerner plus Queens College student Andrew Goodman in Mississippi, led many within CORE and other groups to begin questioning the practicality and wisdom of non-violence as a strategy. The same government agencies in charge of preventing the violence and protecting them from harm instead allowed and caused the violence to occur. Certain Harlem CORE members working on the Freedom Project, such as Joe Jackson, have stated they did arm themselves in order to continue working and protect themselves and local residents from the Ku Klux Klan (11). Some CORE activists, while maintaining that they still practiced non-violence as a protest strategy, at the same time believed in self defense.

Back in NYC, this latent violence manifested itself near Harlem CORE’s office, now listed at 307 west 125th street between 8th and 9th avenues. According to the New York Times, the Harlem Riot began at a CORE rally on the night of July 18 (12). Three CORE chapters (Downtown, East River, and South Jamaica CORE) held the rally on the corner of 125th street and 7th avenue protesting the police shooting of an unarmed male Black teenager that occurred two days earlier. What is unclear is what role Harlem CORE played in this rally (if any) and why they were not in control of the gathering. At the end of the rally, many in the crowd marched to the nearby 28th Precinct. As tensions flared, the riots began.

While CORE was not explicitly blamed, it was clearly but subtlety implied in the press, including Time magazine, that CORE was the cause of the Harlem riots. Harlem CORE was singled out in one story of White members being kidnapped as if held against their will at the office by some of HC’s Black members (13). James Farmer, however, told a different story. Black rioters in the streets were calling for Whites in Harlem during the riot to be attacked, including those in the Harlem CORE offices. Farmer and Black HC members stood between the mob and the office entrance in order to sneak White CORE members out of the building's side door and into a cab. The office was turned into a first aid station as HC members, many dressed in orange vests, walked the streets attempting to calm the riots and provide care (14). Ironically, a New York Times survey a week later of Blacks in New York listed CORE as the most effective 'Negro action' group, second only to the NAACP (15). The NAACP was never a direct action group, per se. It was the legislative arm of the movement and worked primarily in the court system. Like the Urban League, it operated in regards to the movement through the institutional avenues of power. That would make CORE, according to the Times survey, the most effective direct action group in NYC during the Harlem riots.

The Harlem riots were significant because they represent the first in a series of urban rebellions that took place throughout the nation's inner cities over the next few years. They were the first of the race riots in the North that characterized the 'long hot summers' of the mid-late 1960's. In New York, riots quickly followed in Bedford-Stuyvesant and then Rochester. As in Harlem, CORE people were noted by the press as being on the scene from the beginning helping but somehow being the reason for the riots.