New York's 'Night Of Birmingham Horror' Sparked A Summer Of Riots : Code Switch The shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer in New York City led to six days of rioting in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant — the first in a series of violent protests in 1964.

New York's 'Night Of Birmingham Horror' Sparked A Summer Of Riots

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This summer marks 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was enacted. That happened on July 2, 1964. And two weeks later, a black teenager was killed in New York City by a white officer, sparking six days of rioting. It was the first instance of protest violence in a northern city, related to the civil rights movement. The Harlem riot of 1964 electrified the nation and led to splits within the civil rights leadership. Hansi Lo Wang of NPR's Code Switch Team went to Harlem to hear about the legacy of those events.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: It was called New York's night of Birmingham horror. And it began outside the walls of a Harlem police station, near 124th and Lenox.

CHRISTOPHER HAYES: We go up one block, we'll be where the shots were fired and where the looting began.

WANG: Christopher Hayes teaches history at Rutgers University and has studied the New York City riots in the summer of 1964. On July 16, a white off-duty police officer named Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan shot and killed a 15-year-old African-American student named James Powell. Two days of peaceful protests ensued, but on the third day a crowd surrounded the police precinct and were met with swinging clubs and later gunfire. And Harlem responded.

HAYES: There were people running. You are liable to get knocked down. Things were flying through the air, Molotov cocktails, bricks, pieces of concrete. Anything you could find.

CHARLES TAYLOR: But there were cops all over the street and I remember seeing cops on horseback. We were so scared, because there were like four or five of them coming towards us and people were breaking things and people were screaming and making noise.

WANG: Charles Teller (ph) was 19 at the time and a friend of the teenager who was shot. Other African-Americans residents of Harlem, like John Reddick (ph) say the way Powell died was an eye-opener for Harlem.

JOHN REDDICK: Most of the other times it was in the South, or you would hear about it in the South.

WANG: And he says that how people responded to the killing diverged, particularly between generations. For example, the rioting dismayed Reddick's grandparents.

REDDICK: And I just remember their reaction to it. Oh, how could they act like that. They have to be more like Doctor King. They shouldn't be doing violent things.

INEZ DICKENS: They're mad. They see no way out. They want to make a statement.

WANG: That's New York City council member, Inez Dickens. She was born and raised in Harlem. What started in Harlem quickly spread to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Dickens says you have to understand the intensity of frustration when looking back at this time.

DICKENS: It is an emotionalism that causes you to riot in your own community and not downtown, where economics will really impact upon the decision-making of those in power. But they would probably have shot us.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I call upon all Negro and white citizens of goodwill to continue to struggle unrelentingly but nonviolently against racial and economic oppression that face our country.

WANG: So said Martin Luther King Jr. before heading to New York City at the invitation of then New York City Mayor Robert Wagner. The visit was denounced by some Harlem leaders who said King's nonviolent methods were of little use in the north.

JOSEPH BOSKIN: This was northern racism which was quite different from southern racism in that northern racism was covert.

WANG: Joseph Boskin at Boston University conducted interviews in Harlem after the rioting. He says the unmet expectations of black Americans in the north were starting to push some of them towards more militant routes for change, despite a national narrative of what seemed to be progress in the country's laws. For instance, just two weeks before the rioting the landmark Civil Rights Act was signed into law, something that political leaders like Mayor Wagner would point to.


ROBERT WAGNER: In fact of all of the groups in America, Negroes have the most to gain from law and order. The civil rights bill just passed in Congress and signed by President Johnson is law and order.

WANG: But the impact of the law had yet to be felt. Historian Christopher Hayes says patience for established routes to power was waning.

HAYES: The overwhelming majority of black New Yorkers saw their quality of life decline, whether it's school segregation, housing segregation, unemployment, earnings.

WANG: And faith in the enforcement of local laws was suspect, says historian Michael Flamm of Ohio Wesleyan University.

MICHAEL FLAMM: Part of the problem is that in the north many of the laws were not openly discriminatory. And so it made it harder to seize the moral high ground and argue that nonviolent civil disobedience was justified.

WANG: So, says Billy Mitchell, historian of Harlem's Apollo Theater, growing frustration found an outlet on the streets.

BILLY MITCHELL: You know, it wasn't just people just wilding out, you know, and just going crazy. They understood what they were doing. We had a goal but we went the wrong way in achieving it.

WANG: Looking back Billy Mitchell says he doesn't completely completely condone the violent response but...

MITCHELL: I thank God that it happened. I thank God it was over. I thank God I made it through.

WANG: You thank God that it happened?

MITCHELL: It was necessary. Sometimes you have got to really do something extraordinary or uncommon to get the attention of people.

WANG: And that need to act out spread. Riots went on to occur later that summer in Rochester, New Jersey, Illinois, and Philadelphia. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

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