"Outside Agitators": Conspiracy Theory and the Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant Riots of 1964
By Michael W. Flamm
On Tuesday afternoon, July 21, 1964, Lyndon Johnson voiced his private suspicion to J. Edgar Hoover that communists were somehow behind the civil unrest in New York. Now on Wednesday morning the president’s fears seemed confirmed and amplified, even if the conspiracy charge was unfounded. As he ate breakfast in bed he skimmed several newspapers, including the Daily News. The article that immediately captured his attention was ‘‘Blame Hate Groups, Red & White, for Harlem Terror’’ by three reporters. They broke the news that a five-month investigation spearheaded by the FBI and detectives with the Bureau of Special Service (BOSS) unit -— the NYPD’s ‘‘Red Squad’’ —- had uncovered fifty paid operatives and a thousand ‘‘young fanatics dedicated to violence.’’ Their instructions: ‘‘Deploy! Incite!’’ According to an unnamed source the communist conspirators were ‘‘beatniks, crumbums, addicts, and thieves’’ who received payment in cash and narcotics.
The shooting of James Powell, a fifteen-year-old black student, by Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan, a white off-duty officer in civilian clothes, had placed the intelligence unit on full alert. It had ‘‘all of the explosive elements imaginable,’’ recalled Anthony Bouza, then a BOSS lieutenant and later the Minneapolis chief of police. He made Saturday visits to Central Harlem in civilian clothes to listen to various speakers. As a result, he was dismissive of the communist threat in general, but worried in particular about disaffected loners who would go to a meeting, complain that ‘‘this is a lot of bullshit,’’ and then plan violent acts on their own. To keep tabs on dangerous individuals, Bouza used undercover infiltrators who worked in pairs —- though unknown to each other so that he could cross-check their reports —- to befriend and follow the ‘‘hot heads.’’
According to the Daily News, the money trail allegedly led to an unnamed business on West 125th Street, where diplomatic attache´s from African nations visited regularly and professional radicals received pay envelopes weekly. Other circumstantial evidence included the ambiguous involvement of Jesse Gray, the rent-strike activist who had spoken at the Sunday afternoon rally at Mount Morris Presbyterian Church. In testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities ("HUAC") several years earlier, Gray had denied under oath that he was currently a communist, but had repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about prior affiliation and other matters. Also in attendance at the Sunday rally, which had the support of the radical Progressive Labor Party (PLP), were Robert Thompson and William Patterson, both former national committee members of the Communist Party.
The Daily News further claimed that an ‘‘unholy alliance’’ of left-wing agitators and right-wing extremists (backed by wealthy individuals like Texas millionaire H. L. Hunt) were funneling funds to the Black Muslims and Black Nationalists because they supposedly had plenty of weapons and were willing to use them. The conservatives hoped to provoke more violence and enhance Barry Goldwater’s chances for victory in the presidential race. The radicals wanted to discredit the mainstream civil rights organizations and spark a revolution. ‘‘The communists have been concentrating on these hate groups and Black Nationalists not because they believe in their philosophy,’’ said the Reverend Richard A. Hildebrand, president of the New York branch of the NAACP, ‘‘but because they think they are the wildest and most extreme and through them they can promote the most unrest.’’
The existence of a conservative conspiracy behind the riots was never proven, although Johnson remained interested in the possibility as a way of placing blame on Goldwater. In September he again asked Hoover about Hunt. ‘‘No, we’ve never been able to pin anything on him." But he was able to pass on to the president the story of how the wealthy Texan had allegedly made his money: he had operated a gambling den and whorehouse in Arkansas, then used his winnings to buy some land that had oil on it. The tale elicited several chuckles from Johnson.
But the false charge of a communist conspiracy was no laughing matter. It was inflammatory and drew an immediate round of denunciations and denials from black radicals like Thompson and Patterson, who labeled the allegation a ‘‘big lie’’ and affirmed that they condemned ‘‘violence as a means of eliminating ghetto life and its monstrous evils.’’ The PLP, which had split from the Communist Party three years earlier and distributed leaflets at the student protest on Friday morning, said that blaming ‘‘outside agitators’’ was the ‘‘oldest trick in the book’’ and was intended to ‘‘divide the people of Harlem against themselves.’’
Although black liberals saw the communist question as a potential distraction, some were hesitant to dismiss it entirely. James Farmer of CORE stressed that the riot had begun spontaneously, but cautioned that ‘‘since the weekend certain elements have been trying to take control . . . and exploit it.’’ The Reverend Milton Galamison, a key figure in the New York City school boycott, back in January, contended that ‘‘unseen forces’’ had launched a ‘‘whispering campaign’’ intended to stir up trouble in Bed-Stuy. ‘‘All winter we worked with peaceful, orderly demonstrations to try to get wrongs righted,’’ he lamented. ‘‘We were vilified, called extremists and irresponsible.’’ Now, he warned, ‘‘The brick throwers have taken over. Let the city deal with the brick throwers [since] they wouldn’t deal with us.’’
But other black leaders viewed the conspiracy theory as a side issue with little relevance. The riots may have given New York and the freedom movement a ‘‘black eye,’’ but they were ‘‘not organized or financed by any group’’ according to Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, who by Wednesday had returned from his Wyoming vacation. ‘‘Raising the Communist cry won’t solve very much at this time,’’ he added. It would be a ‘‘dangerous mistake to conclude that the rioting was fundamentally the work of professional agitators,’’ affirmed Alexander J. Allen, executive director of the Urban League.
‘‘Privation and despair’’—- not radical extremists —- were the main causes of the civil unrest according to State Senator Constance Baker Motley, who in 1954 had assisted Thurgood Marshall with the Brown case and in 1966 became the first African American woman on the federal bench. Mistrust of the police exacerbated those conditions. ‘‘We never have rioting on Park Avenue between 59th and 96th Streets for the same reason that we do have rioting in Central Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant,’’ she observed.
Outside New York, the debate raged as white conservatives condemned the supposed radical role in hopes of putting more pressure on Johnson and providing more assistance to Goldwater. In Washington, Senator James Eastland of Mississippi charged that in Harlem ‘‘evidence of Communist participation and leadership in civil rights demonstrations is being brought into the open.’’ Columnist David Lawrence, founder of U.S. News & World Report, added that the ‘‘Communist conspiracy’’ was now visible despite the efforts of liberals and leftists to hinder the work of HUAC. But Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell countered that the conservative accusation of radical involvement was ‘‘ridiculous.’’ And from a rally in Jackson, Mississippi, Martin Luther King Jr. was withering in his scorn: ‘‘There are as many Communists in this Freedom Movement as there are Eskimos in Florida."
The allegation of radical infiltration among the rioters nevertheless put the mainstream civil rights groups on the defensive. The executive secretary of the NAACP’s New York branch denied that the communists had any real influence and insisted that his organization had weeded them out. The public relations director of CORE also insisted that his organization -- especially the Brooklyn chapter -- had expelled radical members because they might resort to violence in an effort to become ‘‘heroes’’ of the movement. ‘‘CORE, which was formerly considered too wild and militant, is now being condemned for conservatism and called an ‘Uncle Tom,’ ’’ Marvin Rich told the Daily News reporters. ‘‘And why? Because we don’t believe in killing people. And that’s what they want to do up there -- kill people.’’ The chilling comment may have unsettled Johnson as he read it that morning.
In the White House, Johnson’s first long-distance phone call of the day went to New York. ‘‘Welcome back, my friend,’’ he greeted Mayor Robert Wagner, who after seven hours of needed rest had awakened at 8 a.m. Stressing that he hoped to ease Wagner’s burden as much as possible, the president declared that he wanted to ‘‘cooperate and coordinate’’ with the mayor. Johnson also vowed to ‘‘supplement and complement’’ whatever City Hall had in mind. ‘‘It’s my own belief that some of these right-wingers, whether they’re unmasked or not, are contributing something to this and financing a little of this and trying to start it,’’ he told Wagner anxiously. ‘‘And I anticipate that Harlem’s the first place and California will be the next place and Philadelphia will be the next place, to kind of prove what [Goldwater] said in his acceptance speech, that the cities of this country are going to be in a hell of a shape.’’
Wagner interjected with his sixth ‘‘right’’ of the call as Johnson continued his monologue -- it was almost impossible to interrupt him once he got on a roll. ‘‘I think it’s a good thing to raise a question whether some of this stuff is being fomented and contributed from outside and make the other people stop and think a little bit, particularly Negroes, before they become the tools of some of these right-wing cranks.’’ The situation, the president added, might not become ‘‘as dangerous to us as it might otherwise’’ if the
administration could expose the conservative conspiracy. ‘‘That’s right,’’ replied Wagner again, who finally got a word in edgewise to tell the president that he had taken a ride through Harlem on Tuesday night with Commissioner Murphy and it was relatively calm.
Johnson resumed by urging Wagner to make public any indication of conservative involvement, which was never found. ‘‘The good people of this country don’t want this unrest fomented,’’ he said, and with more evidence provided they might come to see Goldwater’s defense of extremism as ‘‘almost like advocating rioting.’’ The mayor concurred and observed that in Harlem he had seen youth wearing motorcycle helmets and carrying two-way radios (walkie-talkies). ‘‘Somebody must be giving them that equipment,’’ he said. ‘‘I mean, they’re not buying it themselves.’’ The president agreed. ‘‘We have to be very, very cautious about it now,’’ he declared. Pledging that Hoover would stay in close contact with Murphy, he promised Wagner he would support him ‘‘any way we can.’’
Soon after speaking with Wagner, Johnson phoned Hoover. The day before, the FBI director had followed the president’s instructions and spoken with Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was still vacationing in Wyoming. According to Hoover, the governor said he was in close contact with City Hall and could mobilize five thousand State Police and National Guardsmen in less than two hours, but that it was ‘‘the last thing he wants to do.’’
Hoover also said that Rockefeller thought the FBI should investigate both radical and conservative extremists, which the director agreed to do. The governor mentioned that during the California primary in late May he had met some Goldwater supporters who had said ‘‘there were going to be race riots this fall and it was going to be embarrassing.’’ Not in New York, Rockefeller had replied, firmly and confidently. That’s what you think, they had countered, adding that ‘‘they were going to see to it that [the riots] took place.’’
In contrast to his one-sided dialogue with Wagner, Johnson let Hoover take the lead and report on his own conversation with the mayor earlier Wednesday morning. ‘‘I think the Brooklyn situation is more of a looting of stores than a racial problem,’’ commented the FBI director. ‘‘There no doubt is a great deal of Communist influence on the situation in Harlem.’’ In response, the president urged Hoover to get a copy of the article in the Daily News and began to read an excerpt from it.
Hoover then informed Johnson that he had sidestepped a direct request from the Justice Department ‘‘to investigate the police lieutenant who killed the colored boy’’ because he was reluctant to pressure Commissioner Murphy ‘‘by harassing his officers when he is doing everything he can to control them.’’ According to Hoover, the president assigned the highest importance to the Harlem Riot and gave the agency complete authority to track down any and all extremist participation. It was unnecessary. As Johnson spoke, two hundred agents were already in New York conducting interviews, pursuing leads, and exploring every federal angle of the civil unrest, now entering a fifth day.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn on Wednesday morning more than one hundred merchants recited the refrain of woes that their Harlem counterparts had related on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. ‘‘We never had any trouble before,’’ said Bill Kleinberg, proprietor of the Stop-N-Shop grocery on Nostrand Avenue for eighteen years. ‘‘Now -- overnight -- they put me out of business.’’ Next door Newman Epps, a black man who had operated his small dry-cleaning business for twenty years, stared at a smashed plate-glass window that cost $250 to replace (he too had no insurance, which was expensive and hard to get). How, he wondered, would he make good on the more than $1,000 worth of suits, skirts, and shirts stolen from his store? ‘‘I got here in the middle of the looting,’’ Epps recalled quietly as he surveyed the overturned racks and scattered clothes, ‘‘but I couldn’t do anything about it. I had to stand by and watch [the looters] because I was afraid for my life.’’
Hoping to help small business owners was Brooklyn Borough President Abe Stark, who was understandably sympathetic. Before he entered politics, Stark was a tailor who ran a clothing store on Pitkin Avenue. Few knew him until he paid for a promotion in Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers. Located under the scoreboard near right center field, the billboard read ‘‘Hit Sign. Win Suit. Abe Stark. Brooklyn’s Leading Clothier.’’ The sign had made Stark a local legend, and in 1954 he became president of the New York City Council. But in 1961 he was forced to run for borough president, a mostly ceremonial position, which seriously strained his relations with Wagner.
Now Stark saw an opportunity to seize the spotlight while the city waited for the mayor to give his speech and chart a course of action. In the morning, the borough president met with his deputy, various religious
leaders, and Russell N. Service, executive director of the Bedford YMCA, who had hosted the meeting convened by Captain Jenkins on Tuesday. Presumably, Service informed Stark of how little it had accomplished. The borough president then called the mayor and the commissioner, who promised to provide the best police protection possible. Not entirely reassured by either conversation, Stark decided to send telegrams to no fewer than fifty-seven community activists, inviting them to a conference in his office at 4 p.m.
In his opening remarks, Stark told those assembled that he was there to listen. ‘‘The community itself, since it is closest to the situation, may best know what can be done and how to do it,’’ he said. But he was quickly disabused of the notion that Bed-Stuy could handle the unrest, and what followed was a ‘‘heated discussion’’ according to an aide. ‘‘There’s nothing that can stop us,’’ declared the Reverend Walter Offutt of Bethany Baptist Church, speaking from the perspective of the demonstrators. ‘‘If Jesus Christ -- if God Himself came down, He would have to shake us up before we would stop.’’
Arthur Bramwell, the GOP leader of Bed-Stuy, believed that the top priority was the restoration of law and order, even if it meant firing at rioters and looters. Born in Brooklyn in 1918, the son of Jamaican immigrants, he had made campaign speeches for Mayor LaGuardia in 1937 and joined the Republican Party at a time when most African Americans were switching their allegiance to the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Now, more than a quarter century later, he contended that too many ‘‘decent people’’ had to live in fear. ‘‘If it means that some criminals have to be shot and killed, let’s get on with it,’’ said Bramwell, who represented a shrinking though still influential minority within the black community.
Despite the lack of concrete progress, the meeting concluded with an agreement to impose a local moratorium on demonstrations similar to the national moratorium that Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph were attempting to organize. The community activists also decided upon a three-pronged communications strategy designed to reach those on the street in their own language. The first prong was a pamphlet drafted by Brooklyn NAACP vice president George Fleary’s law partners and distributed by the group. Titled ‘‘Cool It Baby,’’ it made an urgent appeal for voter registration after reassuring the demonstrators that their message was delivered.
The second prong consisted of public service announcements promoting peace, which radio stations were encouraged to run. The idea was to have the disc jockeys speak directly in their own words to their youthful listeners. In Harlem, WLIB received special permission from the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast at night after Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton flew to Washington to meet with officials. ‘‘I was angry at prevailing police misconduct and at the mayor who could have changed things but failed to,’’ he recalled. After contemplating his role Sutton decided that ‘‘all I could do was use the radio’’ to end what he saw as a rebellion.
The final prong of the peace front was to deploy a sound truck to cruise the commercial streets of Bed-Stuy starting at 5:30 p.m. Plastered with NAACP voter-registration stickers, it was piloted by Fleary and three other members. For the first few hours, everything went smoothly. But then at dusk the sound truck parked at the corner of Nostrand and Fulton, site of the protests the night before, and several hundred onlookers quickly surrounded it.
At first the mood was positive. ‘‘I don’t want any outside agitators coming in here and destroying this community,’’ said Fleary into the microphone to loud applause. ‘‘The press has exploded this thing out of
proportion. Wallace, Goldwater, every southern figure is happy at what happened last night.’’ The crowd clapped enthusiastically as a man yelled ‘‘Goldwater must go.’’ The NAACP official described Bed-Stuy as a ‘‘community of law’’ and added that no one should ‘‘confuse New York City with Alabama.’’
But then Fleary miscalculated. In the face of repeated questions from another man about police brutality, he opted to confront the issue headon, even though he had intended to avoid it because it was so controversial. ‘‘We should not put the pressure on the cop on the beat,’’ Fleary said. ‘‘He has a wife and a family and has to support them like you and me. We should put the pressure where it belongs—on the police commissioner.’’ The statement was either courageous or foolhardy—as always, it was a matter of perspective.
‘‘Go home,’’ jeered the crowd. ‘‘Go home.’’ But Fleary was not done. ‘‘Mayor Wagner and the city will see that Jimmy Powell and his family get a square deal,’’ he added. Suddenly, some listeners turned on him and began to beat on the roof of the car. Others started to rock it from side to side. Perhaps the hostile reaction was because Fleary had offered an unacceptable defense of a hated symbol—the white policeman. Or perhaps it was because (as he believed) organized agitators had chosen that moment to strike.
Four men abruptly moved from the theater marquee across the street and positioned themselves at the four wheels of the NAACP vehicle. ‘‘These guys were in their upper twenties, early thirties,’’ recalled Fleary. ‘‘They wore green berets and when I saw them coming at me, I knew they weren’t coming for any good purpose. When they started to rock the station wagon, they knew what they were doing. They got the teenagers laughing, and then they started to help these men rock us. Then everything got out of hand.’’
It was no exaggeration.
‘‘Let me finish,’’ pleaded Fleary. ‘‘Please let me finish.’’ It was too late -- he lost control of the microphone. That was the signal for the police -- who until then had watched from a distance -- to intervene. Officers
on both foot and horseback stormed into the crowd and rescued the NAACP officials. But in every direction —- east and west on Fulton, north and south on Nostrand —- clusters of rioters now scattered. And once they had evaded the thin blue line of officers stationed at the corners of the intersection, the sharp sounds of broken glass began to echo again through the darkness. ‘‘It was the same stores as before,’’ recounted Ophelia Bryant of Herkimer Street. ‘‘Those people had put up signs saying the stores were owned by Negroes, but that didn’t seem to make any difference.’’
The police had hoped to make a difference on Wednesday night by changing tactics. Earlier in the day the decision was made to station mounted patrolmen at the four corners of Nostrand and Fulton. The use
of horses, said Deputy Police Commissioner Walter Arm, was intended to ‘‘prevent the possibility of hand-to-hand conflict and to reduce injuries to rioters and police.’’ Because Bed-Stuy had lower buildings and wider streets than Harlem, it seemed like the correct move -- but as a precaution the department placed officers on several of the three- and four-story apartment houses on Fulton. With the high ground occupied and the police horses in plain view, the NYPD believed that it was in a better position to keep the traffic moving and the crowds under control.
To improve communications, the department also established a mobile headquarters on a side street off Nostrand Avenue and across from Girls High, which was no longer in use. And it brought in a fresh commander, Captain Anthony O’Connell, recalled from vacation. After forty-eight hours on duty, Inspector Walter Clerke and his deputy Dominic Hallinan could finally get some rest. The plan seemed sound, but execution and events would dictate otherwise.
At 9 p.m. Wagner settled into his seat at the CBS studio, flanked on his right by Murphy. With a sober demeanor on his tanned but tired face and a stack of paper on the desk in front of him, the mayor looked directly into the camera and began his much-anticipated speech on the unrest. ‘‘I am convinced,’’ he said after reviewing his nighttime tour of the riot zone with the police commissioner, ‘‘that the overwhelming majority of those who live in the Harlem community neither participated in nor appreciated the violence and disorder.’’ As he spoke, the mayor’s words were broadcast live by all four local television stations and six local radio stations. Among them was WINS, the longest-running all-news station in the nation, whose tagline promised listeners, ‘‘You give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world.’’ But this time it was the world according to Wagner in twenty-three minutes.
‘‘The mandate to maintain law and order is absolute, unconditional, and unqualified,’’ the mayor continued in a somber tone. Then he spoke directly to what he believed—or hoped—was the silent majority of Central
Harlem and Bed-Stuy. ‘‘Law and order are the Negroes’ best friend,’’ he asserted. ‘‘Make no mistake about that. The opposite of law and order is mob rule, and that is the way of the Ku Klux Klan and the night riders and the lynch mobs.’’ The subtext was clear -- New York was not Alabama or Mississippi, regardless of what some black leaders like Farmer and Powell contended. Next Wagner spoke to what he viewed as the vocal or violent minority when he warned that ‘‘defiance of or attacks upon the police, whose mission it is to enforce law and order, will not be condoned or tolerated by me at any time.’’
The language was unconditional and uncompromising, reinforced by the mayor’s reaffirmation that he had ‘‘complete confidence’’ in the commissioner seated next to him in the studio. But Wagner also vowed to
address the problems in housing, education, and employment that had served as fuel for the fire. ‘‘We are no richer than our poorest citizen,’’ he said, ‘‘no stronger than the weakest among us.’’ And in the face of reports that the tourist trade had suffered, he maintained that New York was a safe city and appealed to visitors not to cancel their hotel reservations or change their travel plans. Criminals, the mayor wrongly claimed, had not seriously harmed a single tourist in the past three months, not one of the 150,000 Shriners presently in Manhattan or one of the 4.5 million visitors to the World’s Fair in Queens. In fact, reporters soon discovered that on Tuesday night the manager of the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena was mugged in Midtown by a black youth and suffered a fractured pelvis as well as a brain concussion.
As for the ‘‘spark’’ of the crisis, Wagner insisted that while the grand jury investigated the Powell shooting and the City Council contemplated changes to the current review board, it was premature for him to take executive action. Instead, he stressed that ‘‘ultimate authority’’ for the Police Department already rested in civilian hands —- his own. As part of a nine-point program, he pledged that Deputy Mayor Edward Cavanagh would now evaluate every case of police brutality brought before the review board. He would also have the added responsibility of receiving brutality complaints at City Hall and referring them to the Police Department. And Wagner promised —- as Screvane had on Monday —- that his administration would recruit more minority officers, station more black patrolmen in Harlem, and expand outreach efforts to minority communities.
These were, Wagner conceded, only first steps. More were needed and more would come. But he was careful to emphasize that in taking action ‘‘we are not bowing or surrendering to pressure. We will not be browbeaten by prophets of despair or by peddlers of hate, or by those who thrive on continued frustration.’’ At the same time, the mayor counseled against overreaction in the other direction. Not on his watch would New York become a garrison state, with individual liberties sacrificed in the name of law and order, even though in his view they were the foundation of freedom and justice for all.
Like Johnson in the coming years, Wagner charted a compromise course between what radicals and conservatives demanded. Neither appeasing the lawbreakers at any cost nor preserving the peace at any price were politically acceptable options for the moderate mayor. He was also determined not to bring in the National Guard —- an ‘‘absolute last resort’’ and ‘‘the last thing in the world I wanted to do’’ —- because it was not trained to handle the situation, as the results in many other cities would make abundantly
Wagner concluded with a fervent appeal to all citizens to lend a helping hand for the sake of the city. ‘‘The nation and the world have their eyes on New York,’’ he asserted, and it was true. For five days, the international spotlight had shone, unflatteringly, on the financial and media capital of the United States. In Madrid, a headline blared ‘‘Harlem -- U.S.A. Shame.’’ In Lagos, the West African Pilot depicted the unrest as proof of the ‘‘ineffectiveness’’ of the Civil Rights Act. And in Moscow, Izvestia continued to exploit the riot, running a photo of a beaten and battered African American lying in the street with the caption ‘‘Another victim of the bloody persecution of Negroes by the New York police.’’ To the dismay of the White House, the Soviet Union was winning this round of the Cold War propaganda fight.
After the telecast, Wagner held a brief press conference at the Liederkranz Hall on the Upper East Side. In his address, the mayor had mentioned that the FBI director had supplied Murphy with ‘‘certain information which is of the greatest interest and use.’’ Now Wagner insinuated to reporters that communist and conservative extremists might have encouraged or exploited the riots. ‘‘We have some evidence of that,’’ he said, cryptically and cautiously. ‘‘We’ll reveal it at the proper time. At present it’s a matter between Mr. J. Edgar Hoover, the Police Commissioner, and myself.’’ He would say no more and the issue was put aside for the moment.
Of more immediate interest was the mixed reaction among black activists to Wagner’s speech. Perhaps the most positive came, surprisingly, from the Reverend Nelson Dukes, who had led the march on the 28th Precinct in Central Harlem that triggered the explosion on Saturday night. ‘‘I think it was one of the best speeches he ever made,’’ he said in an interview that night. ‘‘It came at a time when it was badly needed.’’ Dukes added that he believed it would do some good. ‘‘I believe all citizens of goodwill will govern themselves accordingly,’’ he predicted.
Few others shared his optimism. Most criticized the mayor’s failure to dismiss Gilligan or implement an independent review board. ‘‘Wagner did not go far enough,’’ said CORE leader Farmer, who expressed disappointment that he had not put ‘‘the prestige of his office’’ behind civilian oversight of the Police Department. ‘‘Something concrete has to be done. We cannot restrain the people of Harlem without something concrete from the Mayor.’’ NAACP leader Hildebrand was equally critical. ‘‘There was nothing
new in Wagner’s statement,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s no longer any need to deny police brutality. It exists just as plain as the news pictures from Harlem. There must be a civilian review board.’’
The executive director of the New York Urban League agreed. The ‘‘racist streak’’ displayed by white officers in recent days, he asserted, demonstrated the necessity of a truly independent review board. More black
officers in minority communities were also essential, even though they too drew the ire of the crowds at times. ‘‘You won’t find Negro patrolmen addressing the residents of Harlem as ‘nigger,’ ’’ Allen argued vehemently, ‘‘and you won’t find Negro patrolmen addressing a Negro woman as ‘black bitch.’ ’’ With emotions running high, the responses were unsurprising -- officials like Allen, Farmer, and Hildebrand, although not elected like the mayor, were also embattled and under pressure from their constituents.
It is doubtful that Wagner’s words could or would have made a real difference on the tense streets of Bed-Stuy on Wednesday night, even if the mayor had promised to fire both Gilligan and Murphy, which he had not and would not. For the third evening in a row, the business district erupted in looting and vandalism. Although the destruction was less widespread than on Tuesday, in part because few stores were left untouched, the anger remained raw and visceral. At an intersection, a group of teens surrounded
a car stopped at the light. Inside were two white journalists who hastily locked the doors and closed the windows. As the red turned green and the vehicle sped away, a black youth delivered a menacing message: ‘‘We’re gonna kill every one of you white bastards.’’
No one, white or black, was killed in Brooklyn or Harlem on Wednesday night. But three more looters in Bed-Stuy were shot when they were cornered by police and, according to Inspector Clerke, ‘‘figured they might as well try and fight their way out.’’ Rufus Weaver was caught in a drycleaning store and critically injured by a bullet in the abdomen when he refused to surrender. Rufus Johnson was wounded in the leg when he ran at officers outside a liquor store. And William Bish was also hit in the leg when he ignored a warning shot and tried to flee from a furniture store. More than ninety windows were smashed and thirty-five people were arrested in the ten-block area surrounding the intersection of Nostrand and Fulton, where police had to fire a dozen shots to disperse an unruly crowd of six hundred. The rioting and looting began less than thirty minutes after Wagner had ended his telecast.
Most of the looters were in their teens and twenties, but some were even younger. Father William Cullen of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, who had attended the meeting organized by Stark, was one of the few
whites walking the streets that night. At one point, he encountered an eleven-year-old black parishioner carrying clothes that he had taken from a store. ‘‘I’m sorry, Father,’’ said the small boy sheepishly, ‘‘but everybody’s doing it.’’ Shaken, Cullen went to find the Reverend Richard Martin, the prominent black minister of St. Philips Church. Together, they broadcast a joint appeal for peace and unity from a phone booth. Whether it made a difference was impossible to tell.
Assemblyman Thomas Jones lived close to the epicenter of the disorder. Although he was under no obligation to venture into the streets, he opted to see what he could do. It was pointless. ‘‘I am not a policeman; there was nothing I could do,’’ he said with a mixture of regret and remorse. ‘‘I saw the wreckage, the undiscriminating attitude of the people. They didn’t discriminate between stores owned by Negroes and white people. The kids who came around here don’t know the places. Some guys were yelling,‘Don’t hit that place,’ but everybody was not made privy to it. Some knew it, but they couldn’t communicate it to everybody.’’ Frustrated, he departed to make his own plea for peace from the studio of a Manhattan radio station.
Between 6 p.m. and midnight the Fire Department reported more than sixty false alarms. The police switchboard was also inundated with bogus calls, either because the perpetrators had already fled when officers arrived or because the callers wanted to distract attention from looters. Police were convinced that it was mostly the latter. Still, officers had no choice but to respond, and at times it almost resulted in tragedy. At Broadway and Fulton, patrol cars arrived simultaneously from several directions only to find
themselves in an ambush as a barrage of glass and rocks rained down on them from nearby roofs and the elevated station. By sheer luck there were no injuries and only a windshield was smashed.
The incident was not isolated -- officers were increasingly the targets of projectiles because after three nights of vandalism most businesses had covered their windows, broken or unbroken, with plywood and taken other measures to protect property. ‘‘I saw [the teenagers] throwing rocks,’’ recounted Jones after his foray into the riot. ‘‘They would come up, look around, see if a cop was nearby, or sometimes just stand across the street and heave, or they would come running along and heave it running. They’d laugh, and then run away. They didn’t even bother to loot. The looters were the moochers and the same elements that operate after floods and catastrophes.’’
After three nights of twelve- to eighteen-hour shifts, the police were exhausted and angered by the unrelenting physical and verbal abuse they had to endure. Fortunately, shortly after midnight rain began to fall and the crowds started to dissipate. By 1 a.m. the littered streets were empty and the mounted officers redeployed to the communications outpost across from Girls High. In the middle of the intersection at Nostrand and Fulton a group of police and reporters gathered. ‘‘Rain, rain, rain, come on and rain,’’ said an officer as a photographer urged him to pose like the patrolman in the classic number in Singing in the Rain, the 1952 musical with Gene Kelly. ‘‘I don’t know why it is,’’ observed another patrolman. ‘‘Some of these people aren’t afraid of horses, of nightsticks, even of guns. A couple of drops of rain and they run.’’
In Central Harlem on Wednesday night it was quiet -- quieter than usual, in fact. No arrests were made and only five windows were broken. Traffic flowed smoothly as the police lifted barricades and unsealed streets. Restaurants and bars were open. The only injury reported was to an officer who stopped his police car to remove trash cans from the intersection of 129th Street and Fifth Avenue and was struck on the hand by a tossed bottle. The only looting reported was at 127th Street and Lenox Avenue, where a grocery store was robbed by a dozen or so people who broke through a plywood barrier.
But a major clash again took place in Lower Manhattan. For the second straight night, roughly one hundred black and white CORE demonstrators picketed in front of Police Headquarters on Centre Street. During the twohour protest, which began around 9 p.m., they demanded an immediate end to police brutality and chanted ‘‘Jim Crow Must Go,’’ ‘‘Freedom Now,’’ and ‘‘Gilligan Must Go.’’ As they marched, around three hundred neighborhood residents, most of them Italians of all ages, including small children, heckled the group. ‘‘Niggers must go,’’ they yelled. ‘‘White trash go home.’’ And they hurled rocks and eggs, cans and bottles at the demonstrators, although a patrolman suffered the sole injury when struck in the eye by broken glass. ‘‘They can’t afford to throw away eggs in Harlem,’’ commented a white protester. ‘‘We’d be a lot safer in Harlem,’’ responded a black volunteer. ‘‘Or anywhere else.’’
An elderly Italian had no objections. ‘‘They come down here and disturb us,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re an outside element. They ought to go home.’’ It was echo of what the crowds in Harlem had chanted at the police on Saturday and Sunday night -- once more the politics of race and place were intertwined. At 11:30 p.m. the demonstrators requested a police escort for the four-block walk to the IRT station at Spring Street. The department complied by forming a blue cordon of fifty officers to protect the picketers as they marched two-by-two to the subway. At every intersection the demonstrators were confronted by more than a hundred Italian teenagers armed with firecrackers, garbage can lids, and beer bottles -- one of which narrowly missed the head of Chief Inspector Lawrence McKearney, who had assumed command of the escort.
At one corner, a teenager defied a black officer’s order to move. ‘‘Hit me, nigger, hit me and you’re dead,’’ he warned. Other patrolmen intervened and the youth suddenly doubled over in pain. ‘‘The nigger cop hit
me,’’ he moaned. ‘‘An Italian cop can hit me, but not a nigger.’’ In all, the short stroll took almost fifteen long minutes and one demonstrator, a young white woman, was injured when hit by glass in the leg. ‘‘This is the
backlash,’’ said Herbert Callender, leader of the Bronx chapter of CORE, who was in charge of the pickets. ‘‘If the people in Harlem behaved like the whites here, there would be a lot more cracked heads.’’53
As the demonstrators rode home on the subway, an unprecedented unity meeting of black activists was ending at the Harlem Labor Center on 125th Street. Chaired by Percy Sutton, it included 150 delegates from the NAACP, Urban League, and CORE as well as the black nationalists and Black Muslims. Wilkins, Hildebrand, Farmer, and Rustin were not present, but their views were represented, and almost everyone else who was someone was there. It was a ‘‘stormy’’ but ‘‘satisfactory meeting of divergent groups not normally together in the past,’’ said Sutton, sounding like Stark earlier in the day in Brooklyn. After three hours of debate and deliberations, those present agreed to send a telegram to Wagner demanding that he fire Murphy and two other top police officials.
The delegates also agreed to send a five-man committee to the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU) meeting on Friday evening at the 125th Street YMCA. The committee included Edward Davis of the African National Movement, James Lawson of the United African Movement, and a third Black Nationalist as well as Benjamin X of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (formed by Malcolm X, who remained in Egypt), and a representative from the Nation of Islam (led by Elijah Muhammad). None of the five had ever formally represented the black community, but it was time according to Sutton. ‘‘They control a lot of people on the streets and we must open channels of communication between them and other groups in Harlem,’’ he said in words similar to what Wagner, Fleary, and others had recently uttered.
But not everyone was prepared to climb aboard the unity committee’s peace train. In the Herald Tribune, Jimmy Breslin was openly contemptuous. ‘‘Forget this Communist drivel,’’ he wrote. ‘‘It is there, but in small
doses. These are kids who can’t spell Russia.’’ But he was equally critical of self-proclaimed leaders such as Lawson, whom he described as a ‘‘buffoon’’ who liked to make death threats in front of television cameras. Lawson was also, Breslin charged, a drinker whose scam was to put out a weekly list of white people whom he claimed were anti-black -- minus those merchants willing to pay to keep their names off the list. And the columnist reminded readers that on Sunday it was ‘‘Porkchop’’ Davis who had urged his black listeners to prepare to die.
Breslin also expressed an opinion and raised a question on the minds of many whites and some blacks. ‘‘These riots by now have nothing to do with civil rights,’’ he wrote. ‘‘They are criminal acts and they are
being committed by criminals, and the most dangerous question of all . . . was how long can the police stand in the streets and have bottles thrown at them from rooftops or iron bars aimed at them from
someplace in a dark street? How long are they going to take it?’’ And how would angry youth in Harlem or Brooklyn react if an officer lost control or made a mistake? Few wanted even to contemplate the
As if in partial response, the police moved to reduce the chance of more deadly violence. Reportedly acting on an anonymous tip to a newspaper, a dozen detectives from the 28th Precinct raided Malcolm X’s
unoccupied office in the Hotel Theresa in the early hours of Thursday morning. What they found was a single, bolt-action Mauser, fully loaded, with over a hundred rounds of ammunition. No laws were violated -- the weapon was properly licensed -- and no conspiracies were uncovered, either radical or conservative. But what the rifle represented was as much of a mystery as who might bring peace to the troubled streets of New York —- and when.
Michael Flamm is a Professor of History at Ohio Wesleyan University. This post is excerpted from his new book, In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime, courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Press.