People’s History, Episode 1: “Placement”
From EHRP and Jacobin magazine, People’s History Podcast is a new audio documentary about struggles in the United States. Each six-episode season covers one local story, told from the viewpoint of working-class people.
Our first season, The Point, traces a social history of Boston from the urban rebellions of the 1960s, through busing in the 70s, into the Clinton era. People’s History Podcast was written and created with listening in mind, and so we encourage everyone who is able to listen to the audio — either below or via Jacobin Radio.
Alejandro Ramirez: On the southern coast of Boston, a peninsula known as Columbia Point juts into the bay. It was once the site of a major public housing project of the same name — a home to thousands of people. But today, those housing projects are gone. The Point has been gentrified. And any trace of the former community has been erased.
The change was slow but dramatic. First, a college campus, UMass Boston, arrived in the early 70s. The JFK Library came a few years later. The train station was renamed from “Columbia” to “JFK/UMass.” In the 80s, officials relocated the state archives to the area. Most recently, in 2015, the Point saw the dedication of the new Ed Kennedy Institute for the US Senate.
Barack Obama: Members of the Kennedy family, thank you so much for inviting me to speak today…
Obama spoke at the opening.
Obama: …and pretty much every elected official in Massachusetts. [applause]
For some, the story of Columbia Point is one of successful urban development. Or at least, that’s the official story. A run-down neighborhood being “cleaned up” through new buildings, new people, and new management. Where public housing once stood, there are now luxury apartments.
Qainat Khan: What’s the market rate rent here?
Orlando Perilla: For a two bedroom — that’s what I always give as an example — for a two bedrooms it costs about 2,800 dollars. It has gone up higher than that. I’ve seen that for 3,000, 3,200 dollars.
We’re a small team of reporters looking into the history of The Point. We’ve been interviewing residents and gathering research. And what we’ve learned is that a lot has been hidden in the story of Columbia Point. And a lot has been mistold.
Angie Irving: The people I grew up with, my friends, we were all proud to be of Columbia Point. That’s our education, and Columbia Point gave me that foundation for fighting for what I believe in.
Conor Gillies: Columbia Point was the biggest public housing project in New England. There were acres of 3- and 7-story brick buildings, a grid of over 1,500 apartments. It was home to an international working-class community.
Linda Wade: In the early days, there were many people. From Polish, to Chinese to Hawaiian, to Irish. Native American.
Angie: And Latino and Black and so forth. So it was kind of really some sort of… very dynamic place to be.
It was also a major site of struggle. There were protests, rent strikes, and even armed guards. In many ways, it was a microcosm of a larger story that was happening in cities all over, as tenants fought around issues of housing.
Maud Hurd: I was sure enough in it. And I was right there. If you go to court, I go to court. If you go to jail, I go to jail! I was a good supporter.
Many of the political leaders were black women.
Hurd: It was a lot of single moms raising their children out there, and so it was either they did it or it didn’t get done.
Alejandro: The project stood on the front lines of busing, and bore the brunt of white racism and violent policing during that time.
Stephanie Williams: I know people thats children said that they were being chased going to elementary school, to the Russell school South Boston.
Archive newsreel: They were throwing eggs at the window, trying to hit people.
Williams: But just the horror, like they did this to children. Yeah, it was horrible.
As public housing aged, Columbia Point buildings started to deteriorate. And it was made worse by local mismanagement. Starting in the 60s, the Housing Authority withheld limited resources from Columbia Point. And in the late 60s, the city stopped repairs, and let apartments stay vacant. Eventually, public services at the project were hollowed out, and drugs flowed in. In the early 1980s, housing officials shifted control of the Point to a developer, CMJ, who doubled down on harsh policing tactics, evicted many residents, and demolished the bulk of the project.
Only a few hundred low-income families remained by the time the apartment complex re-opened.
Not only that, Columbia Point’s conversion became the model for a national policy: of neglecting projects and then selling them off to the market for redevelopment. The program was known as HOPE VI. Under that policy, and others like it, a quarter million public housing units were lost, sold off, or otherwise made unstable.
Conor: There are many ways one could tell the history of Columbia Point. There are histories of ideas, or philosophy, or design. There are cultural, or intellectual histories. And we can think of many of the mainstream histories of the United States, where the heroes are presidents, or politicians, or city planners.
Alejandro: We’ve been developing this idea for a radio series, to try and tell history in a different way. In terms of different subjects, like class, gender, race, and war. And also from a different perspective.
Howard Zinn, Radio Free Maine lecture on “The Uses and Abuses of History”: You can’t be neutral on a moving train — that is, the world is already in motion, things are already happening, wars are taking place, people are dying… kids are hungry. In a world like this, to declare your neutrality is not to be neutral it’s to collaborate in whatever is going on right now.
Conor: The historian Howard Zinn grew up in Brooklyn, New York — the son of working-class Jewish immigrants. He became a shipyard worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and in 1943, driven to fight fascism, Zinn became a bombardier. After World War II, he put his medals in an envelope and wrote “Never Again.” Zinn became a staunch anti-war activist and a vocal critic of U.S. imperialism. In the 50s and early 60s, he taught at Spelman College in the South.
Howard Zinn [classroom lecture on race]: There are tremendous interests behind slavery. Those interests were not going to be deflected by petitions or parliamentary maneuvers.
It was not until Black people took to the streets in the 1950s and 1960s. It wasn’t until they sat in, demonstrated, violated the law, defied the government, and ultimately rioted that the laws began to be somewhat enforced.
In 1964, Zinn accepted a position at Boston University. And in 1980, he published his most well-known book, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the Present.
Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting: If you want to read a real history book read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. That book will f***ing knock you on your ass.
Partly thanks to a boost from Hollywood, the book gained some popularity in colleges and high schools.
Sopranos cut: “Like it took guts to murder people and put them in chains?” “He was a victim of his time.” “Who cares! it’s what he did!”
Tony Soprano: “He discovered America is what he did! He was a brave Italian explorer! And in this house, Christopher Columbus is a hero.”
In the book, Zinn argued for a quote “creative telling of history.” A history that sides with the conquered over the conquerors, with slaves over the masters, with workers over the capitalists, and with the dominated over the dominators.
The book followed in a longer tradition of “people’s histories.” A.L. Morton wrote A People’s History of England in 1938. And many others contributed to this field, like Carter Woodson, John Hope Franklin, and W.E.B. Dubois.
This podcast is made in that spirit. A history not told from those on top, or even a “both-sides” “view from nowhere.” But, a history from below. In each season, we’ll apply this method of telling history to different cities and places. And we also want to set these local stories into a larger story inspired by Zinn’s original book.
Alejandro: So, welcome to season one of a people’s history. For this first series, we are going to be telling the story of Columbia Point from the perspective of residents who lived there. From the urban uprisings of the 1960s, busing in the 1970s, to the decline of social movements in the 80s and 90s.
[Theme music: “Bella Ciao” by Marisa Anderson]
Tenant 1: “See what types of resources we have in Columbia Point. None! We have none, and that’s what we’re asking for.”
Tenant 2: “5,000 people. With nothing to take care of them, y’know. Nothing.”
From Jacobin Magazine, this is People’s History.
Tenant 3: People from the inside experienced Love, Tenacity, Willpower.
You’re listening to our first six-episode season, called The Point: Rebellion and Resistance in Boston Public Housing.
Tenant 5: The Point was not valued like it is today, in terms of being a piece of property.
Tenant 6: They’re like we want this property, we want people gone.
Tenant 7: Splitting families, c’mon now! That’s wrong!
Tenant 8: This is real intimidation. This is honest to goodness… this is life or death, here.
Tenant 9: The police invaded Columbia Point, so the men picked up their arms.
I’m Alejandro Ramirez. And joining me this episode is my co-producer, Conor Gillies. This is Episode One: Placement.
Archive interviewer: Now if you were to take me on a tour of Columbia Point at the time you moved in in the 1950s, what would I see?
Archive Sandy Young, former resident: Well you would have seen a very clean project. Let’s say community, because that’s what we called her, we called her our community.
This is Sandy Young, a major community activist at Columbia Point. The recording is from an oral history of Columbia Point made in the 1980s. Here, Sandy recalled the scene back in 1954, when Columbia Point was new, and she had just moved in.
Green grass. Trees. Clean hallways. Sparkling clean windows. Flowers. People took a sense of pride. Even though it was an apartment and even though you didn’t own it, you took a sense of very deep pride: This is where you lived. And we looked out for one another.
Now, even though Columbia Point wasn’t the single family house and the white picket fence, it did have its trees, it did have its flowers, and this lovely apartment.
For Sandy, Columbia Point was a big step up from a cold water flat in a neighborhood called the South End.
All of our utilities were included in our rent and everything, so it was just one rent. But the most exciting part of it was that we had a refrigerator! You know that’s a real joke. And a bathroom. I used to have to fill up a tin tub, you know, in order to bathe the kids. So the bathroom, I mean it was a luxury. You should have seen us fighting the first night to get into the bathtub!
We put together our own baseball teams and things like that as parents. We used to hold picnics out there. In fact, I can remember even teaching my daughter how to swim off the rocks. Or we’d go right over to Carson Beach.
Carson Beach was a public beach, between Columbia Point on one side, and South Boston on the other.
Charlie Titus: I remember walking to Carson Beach and swimming, I remember clamming on Carson Beach without a permit. Taking those clams back home, cleaning em, and boiling them and eating them. I wouldn’t dare do that today but we did all of that back in those days.
Charlie Titus moved into Columbia Point as a child. Along with the Youngs, Charlie’s family was among the first African-American families to move into Columbia Point. Other, older projects in Boston, were segregated. Many were built for whites only.
Charlie: The first piece of organization really was around the little league and that was done by parents. My mother was a big baseball fan, I remember when we were kids she used to take us to Fenway Park.
I had uncles who played in the old negro leagues. So baseball was kind of in the family. The only trophy I ever got or award I ever got was the year I quit, they gave me an award — so that tells you how good or bad I was [laughs]. And actually I went from there to basketball — I guess I was 10 years old when I started playing for the Columbia Point Tigers.
Kevin McCluskey: Basketball I would play 3, 4 hours a day in the summer, different courts to go to hope older guys would let you in the game. And then we had enough guys that you could play a legitimate pickup baseball game, with 9 guys on each side, and go and play baseball all day.
Kevin McCluskey. I lived in Columbia Point from 1954 until 1968 plus.
There would also be dances at the community center on Friday nights, so my brother and I would go to these dances. Great way to learn how to dance, being thrown in the middle of a bunch of brothers and sisters getting down. Proved to be a great advantage later on in life. [laughs] In addition to being a lot of fun.
[music clip: Johnny Hodges, “Rent Party Blues”]
But Columbia Point was built on a peninsula. And being that isolated meant basic amenities were missing. There was no grocery store, no church, and no schools you could easily walk to. There was just one way to get into Columbia Point: Mt. Vernon Street.
Charlie: You know, I remember riding my bike up and down Mount Vernon Street.
Angie: When you go into Columbia Point there’s only one way in, one way out: Mount Vernon.
We heard this a lot over the course of our reporting. “One way in and one way out.”
Vox pop: “The first thing I seen was one way in, one way out.” “You go to Columbia Point and it was just one way in, one way out.” “There was one way in, and only one way out.” “The isolation, out on the peninsula. You’re only one way in and one way out.”
There really was nothing else in walking distance — except an industrial city dump, at the end of the street. This is Angie Irving, another Point resident.
Angie: Straight in, and at the very end of the projects was this big what we called a castle, and it was also a dumping ground. So these big huge dump trucks used to come to our community.
Kevin: You were down in the peninsula, completely separate from a lot of other neighborhoods. It was a neighborhood unto itself. And that’s how we were viewed by the outside world and I think that’s how we saw ourselves as well, you know, we were from the Point.
Pat McCluskey: You wonder how it was planned though. 5,000 people on that part of the land? There’s no grocery store or all that… that’s certainly isolation. You were always going outta there, you weren’t staying in — and you couldn’t stay because they didn’t bring in what you needed.
This is Kevin’s mom, Pat McCluskey. She moved in with her husband and seven kids in the 50s. She says that right from the start, it was a struggle to get the city to do basic upkeep, like repairing appliances or maintaining the grounds.
5,000 people. With nothing to take care of them, you know. Nothing.
Mrs. Young and Mrs. McCluskey founded the Columbia Point Community Development Council, the first tenant association at the project. It was informally known as the “Mothers for Columbia Point.”
At the beginning we were mostly fighting for the general upkeep of the whole area. Because we might have been poor, but we had our pride.
They organized to get basic neighborhood amenities and resources. And the most pressing problem for the tenants? The city dump, next door.
Pat: Across the street from it, I could look out my kitchen window. They’d dump all day and then they’d set fire to it. And you’d just have to grin and bear it.
It was Boston’s main city dump, and it brought thousands of rats. The smoke and smell from burning garbage engulfed the project. When Pat put her clothes out to dry, they’d end up covered in soot.
In the late 1950s, a lot of the garbage sent out to Columbia Point was the result of Boston’s so-called urban renewal policies. The West End was a neighborhood on the far opposite side of the city, to the North. It was the first — and one of the most notorious examples of how Boston neighborhoods were targeted for redevelopment. The main pressure came from city planners and bankers.
Newsreel actuality: Getting needed space in our cities for modern structures is the only way to meet the competitive force of growing suburban strength.
The idea behind urban renewal was to evict residents of entire neighborhoods, demolish the buildings and hand the land over to private developers to rebuild.
Archive newscaster: Now, urban renewal is a city planner’s phrase. Reduced to its simplest terms, it has most often meant knocking down the old, and erecting the modern and imposing, which will attract new businesses, new money and new people…
Today the area is known for luxury apartments and upscale restaurants, clustered around the Massachusetts General Hospital and a stadium where the Bruins and Celtics play. But in the 1950s, bankers called it a slum.
Archive banker: There’s only one way that the West End could have gone: it was down. The people there were getting poorer, the tenements there were falling down, their fire hazard was increasing. There’s only… only one way you can cure a place like West End, and that is to wipe it out, it was a cancer in the long run on the community, this may seem ruthless but this is an aspect of urban renewal.
Leonard Nimoy: From a social aspect, it was a tragedy because a wonderful, tight community was destroyed.
The actor Leonard Nimoy grew up in the West End.
Nimoy: They tore it all down, put up some very expensive high rise buildings in a very desirable area and what people had been paying $30 a month for rent now the rents for 300 or 400 dollars a month — ten times as much as what they had been paying. The theory was that these people would move back in, but they couldn’t afford to, so they all were scattered.
Vrabel: The West Enders put up a fight before they were forced to leave…
Jim Vrabel is a historian of social movements in Boston.
Vrabel: …and luxury high-rise apartment buildings were built in place of the old West End tenements.
Newscast: Even the name has changed. They no longer call it West End. Now it is Charles River Park.
Vrabel: This was going on around the city.
Columbia Point was where the debris from urban renewal ended up. In fact, Pat McCluskey had some Italian neighbors who were displaced from the West End. They were moved miles out onto the Columbia Point peninsula, where they watched trucks carrying the ruins of their old neighborhood to be burned across the street.
Another neighborhood called The South End was next on the urban renewal list, so planners declared the neighborhood blighted. Mel King was away at college when his family sent him a newspaper article about his neighborhood. The article described the area as a slum, a skid row.
Mel King: I read it. I was flabbergasted, because we called it home. It’s one of the richest neighborhoods anywhere on the planet. 35 different racial, ethnic, cultural groups, all backgrounds: we hung together, played together — and so hearing that, couldn’t believe it. I always think about what we call “manifest destiny,” where there are people and institutions who believe that they have the right to the land and to use it for their purposes.
Bulldozers came in and many were forced out. King’s parents were one of the nearly 6,000 families in Boston who were displaced during the 50s.
King: it just all got to be very, very much of a problem and gets your head spinning about the fact they were coming in, tearing down places, pushing people out.
Frustration around Urban Renewal was growing in Boston. And in the late ’50s and early ’60s, tenants across the city began to organize into new unions and groups. Within public housing, Columbia Point mothers demonstrated how residents could come together, demand improvements, and stand up for a new and growing community.
Maud Hurd: My name is Maud Hurd. I was in Columbia Point from 1960 I believe it was until 1976.
Maud Hurd was one of the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who were on the move, escaping the subjugated south. This was a time known as the Second Great Migration.
Moved from Georgia and I lived in Roxbury when I first came to Boston moving from Georgia with my cousin I had a cousin that lived here. And then my husband decided that he wanted, he needed a better a stable place for the kids because they were coming so fast.
Between 1950 and 1960, over 20,000 African-Americans moved to Boston — an increase of over 60 percent. More and more people of color were moving into neighborhoods like Roxbury and Dorchester. Some got into Columbia Point, but many had to go on the waitlist.
So when I was pregnant with my third child, that’s three years of marriage and three children. Jesus! Just thinking about it. But he decided to apply for one of the public housing and Columbia Point was one of the newest ones at that time. And one of the better maintenanced ones.
The Mothers for Columbia Point grew stronger with people like Maud, and their persistent lobbying of city hall.
Maud: I had decided, I’m going to be here — so I might as well try to do whatever I can to make it better for my kids and myself and other family members as well.
Pat: And they must have said to themselves, there’s that troublemaker again.
Conor: You were known as a troublemaker?
Pat: Yeah, because I was on top of everything.
First, the Mothers secured free bus transportation and an elementary school for the Point. Later they got a small market built right across the street. But the years went by, and the garbage dump next door remained open. In the early 60s, as the urban renewal machine grew more powerful, more and more trash was sent out to Columbia Point. Soon, dump trucks were making several trips a day.
Charlie Titus: The dump trucks used to fly up and down Mount Vernon Street. I mean it was like a speedway.
Pat McCluskey: It seemed like it was almost like they were almost having a race. They’d be down the end of Mount Vernon Street and then they’d sort of gun up — all the way.
Charlie: Mount Vernon Street was where the neighborhood store was. The parents were always cautioning us to be careful.
Pat: There wasn’t even traffic lights. And then they put up this chain link fence, thinking they would separate us — what good was that? That would make it worse because a child trying to cross the road would run into this chain link fence. And this was when the west end in Boston was being torn down. You can imagine how much they were burning. Actually when you look back on it there was no need of tearing down the West End… but money talks.
By 1962, Columbia Point’s fight to close the dump still hadn’t ended.
And we went into the statehouse and complained about it, and nothing was done.
Then, one summer’s day, the kids were out, playing and running around the project. One of the things the Mothers group did was co-ordinate field trips, and that day, Pat was taking her boys into town. They had just hopped on the bus and were driving out of the peninsula, when a garbage truck passed by.
And I was looking back like that, and I saw this little girl coming down the street — she wasn’t old enough to be going over to the store, there was only one store. And that’s where you could buy a candy and the kids used to go over there and I said oh please, please, don’t let her cross the street, and she did, and she didn’t make it. And I could see her — I could see the driver come out with his hands up like this, up in the air, because there she was, dead.
Her name was Laura Ann Ewing. One of the African-American kids at Columbia Point. She was 6 years old.
So, when I came home, I organized a group, I said, what are we going to do? Wait until another child is killed?
And so we all got together and we said: “We are going to picket it, we don’t care what they do to us.”
They picketed outside city hall. They carried signs that read, “Close Health Menace.”
You just couldn’t think about it without thinking about her — and how an innocent baby lost her life because of this big money coming from in town. So that’s why we picketed in town. How long were they going to wait there before they did something? You don’t know. But that little girl died. And her mother was in the picket line with us!
The girl’s mother, Ruth, carried a sign that read: “Eight Years of Promises. Now Action. CLOSE THE DUMPS AT COLUMBIA POINT.”
Pat McCluskey: We picketed the state house, we picketed the city hall. We didn’t leave anybody out. And we stayed on that picket line day and night.
Eventually, they started marching on Mount Vernon Street, setting up another picket line. The line acted as a blockade, physically stopping garbage trucks from entering the peninsula.
Charlie Titus: And they were out there serving coffee. They had donuts. But there were no trucks going into that dump.
Kevin McCluskey: And so this was an opportunity to take a stand there and literally draw a line in the road that says: “No, we’re not going to do this. Not going to put up with this.”
Pat: And one of the trucks actually went forward and knocked one of the women over. That’s how bad it was. So that’s when they finally closed it.
It was a pivotal year at Columbia Point. Residents had just secured their first major win, and in doing so, started a kind of movement.
Charlie: It was a movement. And you know the fact that you saw and in this picture I have you see that it was not about color: it was about the safety of the children in the project, it was about the safety of everybody who lived there, the odors from the dump, everything that was being emitted from the place. It just made no sense to have a city dump that close to such a dense housing situation with young kids. So once the dump closed, the street got very quiet.
Across Boston, a new wave of activists were waking up. Mel King, from the South End, calls 1963 the start of the “organizing stage,” in his own history of Boston called Chain of Change. More specifically, this was the period when protest around urban renewal coincided for the first time with a growing movement for black liberation. In 1963 and ’64, Malcolm X visited and spoke in Boston.
Boston radio show interviewer, WBZ: Sir, I would like to know your position on non-violence.
Malcolm X: I am non-violent with people who are non-violent with me. It’s time for 22 million afro americans to do whatever is necessary to defend themselves.
After a white supremacist assassinated Medgar Evars, a longtime activist in the NAACP, Mel King organized a “stopday” — that is, a complete boycott of work by African-Americans in protest of racial discrimination.
[Interstitial music: “Oh Shenandoah” by Paul Robeson]
Conor: In order to understand this moment, in 1963, it’s important to think about how what’s happening in Boston is happening in the context of a rapidly growing and changing Civil Rights movement. As well asa longer fight for black freedom, going back centuries. In the following episodes, we’re going to be returning to a lot of themes that come out of this history. Themes of grass-roots tenant organizing, of militant uprisings, and of revolutionary organizations.
So this is going to be a slight digression, but if we want to understand what happens next at Columbia Point, after 1963, we actually need to go back… to the 1920s.
[Music: “Scottsboro Boys” by Lead Belly]
And, credit where it’s due: A lot of the following information comes from a specific chapter in Howard Zinn’s book called, “Or Does It Explode?”
Lyrics: Go to Alabama and ya better watch out / The landlord’ll get ya, gonna jump and shout / Scottsboro boys, Scottsboro boys. They tell ya what it’s all about / ‘Cause em landlords if they get ya, boy, they gonna hang ya…
During the 1920s, the Communist Party decided to agitate around the problem of race inequality, an issue Democrats and Republicans were ignoring. Leaders of the party, like Hosea Hudson and Angelo Herndon, organized block committees across Georgia and Alabama. Hudson was interviewed by Robin Kelley, a historian who has done extensive research on this time period.
Hosea Hudson: We have to organize them in committees, in community, into blocks where they live. And put everybody to work around a program. This is what we’ve got to tell the people. The people don’t know. Is that right?
Robin D.G. Kelley: Mm. That’s right.
Hudson: You gotta make sense of what I’m saying.
Kelley: Yeah [laughing]
Hudson: This is what the Party got to do. And this is what these unemployed committees got to do.
The committees offered rent relief for poor tenants, and educated people about oppression under capitalism. When a group of African-American teenagers known as the Scottsboro Boys were falsely convicted of rape by an all-white jury, and sentenced to death by the state, it was the Communists who came to their defense and helped get them free.
Lead Belly (speaking): And the Scottsboro boys got out of that hard world. Alabama’s a hard world down there….
In the North, Communists were active tenant organizing in city neighborhoods, like the Bronx and Harlem.
Then during World War II, the militant, anti-racist mood declined somewhat, although there was a series of race riots in 1943, including in Detroit. But then after the war, liberation movements across the world brought the question of self-determination back to the fore.
There were national freedom struggles in India and Vietnam, a socialist revolution in China. In Africa, there were a series of anti-colonial struggles. Mau Mau rebels in Kenya, who fought the British. Arab socialists in Algeria, who fought the French. The Congolese, fighting off Belgians. In Ghana, the Marxist Kwame Nkrumah helped lead the nation to independence.
Kwame Nkrumah: It is my great pleasure to welcome you to Akrah and to this conference of African freedom fighters and supporters of the growing movement for Africa’s liberation and unity. It is good for our cause to rid Africa completely and forever of imperialism and its handmaidens: colonialism and neo-colonialism. [applause]
[Music: E.T. Mensah “Ghana Freedom”: “Ghana, we now have freedom” “Freedom!” “Ghana, land of freedom.” ]
All through this time, the United States was ratcheting up a Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. And while the USA tried to project a shining image of democracy to the rest of the world, black radicals at home pointed to the most flagrant contradiction of that image: the fact of racial oppression.
Robeson, interviewed by Studs Terkel: We are working people, a laboring people, the Negro people. This defines my attitude toward socialism.
The singer Paul Robeson led an early Civil Rights group called the American Crusade Against Lynching.
Robeson: I do not believe that a few people should control the wealth of any land. That it should be a collective ownership in the interest of all.
Under growing pressure, the president desegregated the US Army. And in 1954, with Brown v. Board, the Supreme Court finally struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine it had upheld since the 1890s. Around the world, the message was loud: the US had outlawed segregation.
Ed Murrow, newsreel: The unanimous ruling against racial segregation will have an impact which cannot at this time be calculated.
But in the South, on the ground, change wasn’t happening quickly enough. Rosa Parks, who had organized with the Communists around the Scottsboro case, refused to sit at the back of a segregated bus. And was arrested in 1955.
Rosa Parks: The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed I suppose.
The subsequent bus boycott sparked a whole Southern movement of sit-ins, protests, and mass meetings.
Martin Luther King: We still advocate non violence and passive resistance and still determined to use the weapon of love. We are still insisting emphatically that violence is self-defeating. That he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.
But alongside the Civil Rights movement, whose Christian leaders emphasized non-violence, there was another, more militant stream. Robert Williams, for example. He led an NAACP chapter in North Carolina and became known for a contrary view to Martin Luther King: That black people should defend themselves against violence, with guns if necessary.
Robert Williams: In Monroe, we too believed in nonviolent tactics. We’ve used these tactics. We’ve used all tactics. But we also believe that any struggle for liberation should be a flexible struggle. Where our communities were being invaded by white racists and thugs, we were arming ourselves to defend ourselves.
In one instance, Williams and his group used gunfire to drive the KKK out of town.
Mabel Williams: We will meet their violence with our violence.
Here’s Robert’s partner Mabel Williams, in a documentary by the Freedom Archives.
Williams: We all were members. I was a member of the rifle club. We had several of our ladies became members of the rifle club. And we started training to learn how to handle weapons and how to shoot. All for the protection of our homes and ourselves when the Klan and other rabble rousers decided that they wanted to come in and invade our homes and our neighborhoods. So that’s how the rifle club got started and that’s our self-defense movement got started.
In the early ‘60s, the non-violent movement broke into stride. Tens of thousands of people participated in anti-segregation demonstrations across 1960, ‘61, and ‘62. There were sit-ins in North Carolina, which spread to fifteen cities across five southern states. And then there were the Freedom Rides, during which a young Stokely Carmichael was jailed.
Stokely Carmichael: We had so much to fight. I mean, you fight the whole philosophy of the country. You fight the Horatio Alger–
Studs Terkel: Myth.
Stokely: Lie. Not myth, lie.
Thousands more went to jail for marching and assembling.
Fannie Lou Hamer: Two girls were shot it Ruleville, Mississippi.
In Birmingham, black people went into the streets, facing police clubs, tear gas, dogs, and water hoses.
Hamer: I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave?
In 1963, Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, planned a Mass March on Washington to protest lack of action from the government.
Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream”: We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one; we can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”; we cannot be satisfied as long as the negro in Mississippi cannot vote, and the negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No. No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream!
The “I Have A Dream” speech thrilled a crowd of 200,000. But it lacked the anger that many were feeling at the time. Kennedy praised the event, but Malcolm X, the famous black militant, had a very different view when he spoke in Detroit during that pivotal year, 1963.
Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots”: This is what they did with the March on Washington. They didn’t integrate it; they infiltrated it. They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. They ceased to be angry. They ceased to be hot. They ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all. We had one right here in Detroit, I saw it on television with clowns leading it. White clowns and black clowns.
I know you don’t like what I’m saying but I’m going to tell you anyway. Because I can prove what I’m saying. You think I’m telling you wrong, then you bring me [pounding podium] Martin Luther King, and A. Philip Randolph, and James Farmer and those other three. And see if they’ll deny it over a microphone. No, it was a sellout. It was a takeover.
In the lead-up to the march, the President had persuaded King to tone things down. When John Lewis, a young SNCC leader, tried to introduce a stronger note of outrage at the march, he was censored.
Malcolm: When James Baldwin came in from Paris, they wouldn’t let him talk, ’cause they couldn’t make him go by the script. They wouldn’t let Baldwin get up there, ’cause they know Baldwin’s liable to say anything! They controlled it so tight, they told those negroes what time to hit town. What sign to carry. What song to sing. What speech they could make and what speech they couldn’t make. And told ’em to “get out of town by sundown.”
This was corroborated from the other side. A White House adviser described how in 1963 Kennedy tried to bring African-Americans into the quote “democratic coalition.” But, it did not work. Especially when the underlying conditions of black people were unchanged by civil rights laws.
The new laws were not fundamental changes, so much as cooling mechanisms: attempting to channel anger into the ballot box, petitions, and quiet gatherings. They did nothing, for example, to counter the violence of police and white segregationists. In fact, just eighteen days after the Washington March, a bomb exploded in the basement of a black church in Birmingham. Four girls attending a Sunday school class were killed.
Malcolm: I’m not a Republican, nor a Democrat, nor an American, and I got sense enough to know it. I’m one of the 22 million black victims of the Democrats, one of the 22 million black victims of the Republicans, and one of the 22 million black victims of Americanism. And when I speak, I don’t speak as a Democrat, or a Republican. I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy; all we’ve seen is hypocrisy. [applause]
Malcolm X had partly grown up in Boston, with his half-sister in Roxbury. In 1953, he founded a Muslim temple there. His message was one of self-defense, black nationalism, and revolution.
Malcolm: The Russian Revolution. What was it based on? Land! The Land-less, against the landlord. How did they bring it about? Bloodshed! You can’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve bloodshed! Then you’re afraid to bleed. I said, you’re afraid to bleed. As long as the white man send you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled, he sent you to South Pacific, to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people. But when it comes to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls murdered, you haven’t got no blood.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Malcolm X importantly was trying to blur this distinction between racism in the South and racism in the North, where he famously said that “if you were living south of the Canadian border then you were living in the South.”
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a historian at Princeton.
Taylor: Racism was not just a regional phenomenon. It really was part of the national identity and politics of the United States.
Starting in 1963, African-American groups of all kinds turned towards conditions in Northern cities like Boston. Whether problems of poor, overcrowded housing, the threat of eviction by urban renewal, deteriorating schools, lack of public resources, police brutality, or any combination of the above. Life in the cities — in contrast to rising wealth in white suburbs — spoke to a fundamental conflict in American society.
Taylor: You know, a deep contradiction. Certainly by the middle 1960s, everyone is talking about, politically is talking about, American affluence. That this is really a very rich nation and its riches are displayed in multiple ways. Through homeownership, through the amassing of stuff, of the ability to use credit, to buy trinkets or symbols of middle class status.
And so you have that on the one hand and then on the other hand, black people who are concentrated in ghettos. Clustered together through a series of public policies and practices within the private housing industry — including banks, real estate brokers, building developers — that have literally locked in, hemmed in, African-Americans in such a way that it is impossible to get out.
Black people in the South had begun an uprising. Against what Martin Luther King would later call the “three evils” of racism, poverty, and war. And then, in this moment, in 1963, there’s a turning point. When black people confined in segregated city neighborhoods pushed the movement into a new stage — the stage of revolt.
Alejandro: To come back to Columbia Point, it’s at this moment that things begin to pick up. And much like the fight against the dump, mothers and women of color were at the frontlines.
Maud Hurd: After the dumpster closed, everything seemed– we seemed to getting things together be getting better… They put a health center out there.
This time, they were organizing around Welfare.
Hurd: Yeah, I think it was a moment of awakening. I think people was in the belief that there was nothing they could do about it until left until this and then once the dump was closed then they found out that there was things that they could do. You know, that they could actually do.
That’s next time.
People’s History is produced by Alison Bruzek, Rehanna Fernandes Nuñez, Conor Gillies, Rosie Gillies, Qainat Khan, and me, Alejandro Ramirez. Research help from Patrick King, Caitlin Rose, and Ed Paget. Fact-checking and editing by Laura Foner and Bill Cunningham. Editorial help from Ben Shapiro, Alissa Quart, and David Wallis. Our theme music is by Marisa Anderson, and our score is by Visitor, which is a project of Liz Harris and Ilyas Ahmed.
People’s History Podcast is an independent radio series produced by Jacobin. It is not associated with Howard Zinn’s book or related projects.
Special thanks to the Tamiment library at NYU and their archivist Kelly Haydon, and to the Healey library at UMass, and their librarian Jessica Holden. People’s History is presented by Jacobin magazine with help from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Conor Gillies is an audio producer at Radio Open Source and specializes in cultural documentaries.
Co-published with Jacobin.