How a Brooklyn protest brought change to the historically racist construction industry

Apr 25 '19 | By Ray
How a Brooklyn protest brought change to the historically racist construction industry

In 1963, the failure of mainstream civil rights groups to negotiate a workable plan for desegregating the construction industry inspired more militant activists to increase pressure on mayors and union leaders of the building trades unions across the United States.

In New York City, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) led the way, taking the streets in Harlem to demand that the construction industry immediately hire qualified African-American construction workers. In the summer of 1963, 150 demonstrators shut down work at the Harlem Hospital annex. Protesters blocked entrances to the work site and forced police to remove them from the site. Several scuffles broke out, forcing the head contractor to suspend work for the day. The following day more protesters arrived and fears of a riot eventually brought more than 300 police officers to the construction site.

While tensions mounted at the in Harlem, the mayor at the time, Robert F. Wagner attended a conference in Hawaii. In his absence, Paul Screvane, the acting mayor, officially shut down the Harlem Hospital project. Protesters cheered when they heard Screvane’s decision. Screvane suspended work on the hospital until the mayor could confer with labor leaders and investigate the demonstrators’ charges.

As a result, the Harlem Hospital demonstration made fighting against racial discrimination in the building trades the most important civil rights issue in New York City. Other demonstrations sprang up all over the city, and a coalition of activists from different organizations began a round-the-clock sit-in at the mayor’s and governor’s offices. Calling themselves the ‘Joint Committee for Equality’ they demanded that New York elected officials enforce the state’s anti-discrimination laws, especially in the building trades.

In Brooklyn, CORE activists wanted to build on the momentum generated by the Harlem Hospital demonstration. Their target was the Downstate Medical Center construction project slated by the state of New York to upgrade the Kings County Hospital complex with a new 350-bed teaching hospital and renovations to the State University of New York (SUNY) medical school campus housed on the same property. These projects were part of the $353 million earmarked by the state in 1960 to expand the entire SUNY system by 1965. Upgrading the two state medical schools was the main priority of State.

The massive, multi-million dollar, state-funded Downstate Medical Center project seemed to be a win for everyone invested, the SUNY system, Kings County, and the residents who wanted affordable medical school training. But one group that criticized the construction project was unemployed  black construction workers, especially those that lived in the black residential areas of north central Brooklyn, which bordered the area which the Downstate project was located.

Brooklyn CORE activists found that except for a handful of Carpenters’ Assistants, there were few black workers; the workforce for the Downstate project was almost entirely white. Most of the workers came from white areas of Brooklyn and Queens, but some commuted to the Downstate project as far away as Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Yet black construction workers could not attain jobs, although they lived just a quarter-mile from the project.

Four leaders in Brooklyn CORE investigated the construction site, and quickly realized that staging a demonstration at the Downstate project would be difficult. The main work site was a seven-story medical facility embedded in a sprawling complex four city blocks wide and one large city block long. If Brooklyn CORE wanted to stage an effective protest and disrupt construction at the project, they would need hundreds of participants. As a result, its leaders sought support from other local civil rights organizations and black churches.

Knowing that something needed to be done, Brooklyn CORE’s president Oliver Leeds, contacted Warren Bunn, president of the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP, and John Parham, leader of the local Urban League chapter. In early July, the three men went to the Downstate construction site to gather more data. Leeds, Bunn, and Parham then took their complaints to leaders of local construction unions and tried to convince them to recruit more black workers. The union leaders’ responses were not pleasant. “They wouldn’t listen to us,” Leeds recalled. “One of them almost threw us down the stairs.”

The three men went back to the Downstate project and planned their demonstration strategy. They realized a large picket line in front of the main entrance could effectively slow down the work site, and if enough people sat down in front of the entrance, blocking trucks, they could repeat the success of the Harlem protest. But Leeds knew Bunn and Parham could not rally enough members to pull off that type of disruption. Demonstrators would have to maintain the picket line from 7am to 4pm, five days a week. It would take hundreds, if not thousands of people.

To find the people needed to successful picket the Downstate project Oliver Leeds had the foresight to reach out to the black churches in Brooklyn, several of which had over 1,000 members. But getting the ministers to support a Brooklyn CORE project was its own struggle. For the most part, black church leaders in Brooklyn held conservative views about civil disobedience. Most prominent ministers did not want to risk their reputation by being associated with Brooklyn CORE, and its protest, which tended to be confrontational.

Most black ministers in Brooklyn at the time thought of themselves as moderate power brokers, and had met with the mayor and governor on several occasions, and some were appointed to government offices. The ministers had traditionally used their influence over thousands of black voters as leverage with elected officials. They felt they could lose their clout in City Hall and in the Capital, if they participated in anything led by CORE.

But, many factors changed the ministers hearts. According to Clarence Taylor, a historian, the Brooklyn ministers inspired by the example of Martin Luther King, whose leadership in the South motivated clergymen around the country to take direct action and fight for social and political change. Confident they could get thousands of their members to participate in the CORE protest at Downstate, they formed the ‘Ministers’ Committee for Job Opportunities’ and positioned themselves as the de facto leaders of the campaign.

DIRECT ACTION at Downstate!

Impatient and bold, and not wanting to feel controlled by the ministers, Brooklyn CORE members organized and began to picket the Downstate construction site five days before the ministers arrived. On July 10th, at 7am CORE amassed 30 members, along with their children, to block the entrance to the work site, but failed to disrupt the site. This effort resulted in several protesters being arrested when they sat down in front of an on-coming truck.

After getting news of the arrest at the Downstate construction site, the Brooklyn ministers felt that their leadership could control the picket line and keep the protesters from becoming too brash. On July 15th, they effectively took over as leaders of the Downstate campaign. Still the demonstration attracted protesters who were neither interested in following the minister’s directions nor willing to adhere to to the CORE principles of nonviolence. These new protesters, more that Brooklyn CORE and the ministers’ moral authority and political power, proved to be instrumental in shaping the outcome of the campaign.

For the most part, the ministers held rallies in their church halls, raised bail money from members, and inspired congregants with weekly sermons on the righteousness and justness of the Downstate construction site protest.

Still, the Brooklyn CORE members were a significant force at the picket line. Their experience during earlier campaigns made them much more experienced than the ministers in working with the press and devising tactics to disrupt the work site.

The ministers, on the other hand, were overly cautious when it came to disrupting work at the site. Protective of their reputation, they tried to choreograph their every move on the picket line, including the exact day they would get arrested. The ministers planned to make their presence known by giving interviews to reporters, and posing for pictures. They even sought to control the demonstrators’ behaviors, a task that became more difficult as time went on.

Media attention would be essential for the success of the campaign, The CORE leaders and the ministers wanted photographers and television cameras to capture images of demonstrators lying in front of trucks, blocking entrances, singing freedom songs, and being carried away by police officers, to rouse public support for increased employment opportunities for African-American workers on publicly funded construction projects.

A rally held on Sunday, July 21st  1963, in Tompkins Park drew over 6,000 people. Reverend Sandy Ray declared that the Downstate campaign was a part of the national struggle for civil rights and human dignity, “We are here in response to the call of history,” he exclaimed. “There will be no turning back until people in high in places correct the wrongs of the nation.” Reverend Dr. Gardner Taylor shouted, “We’re ready!” he added, “We’re not going another step and America is not going anywhere without us!””Revolution has come to Brooklyn!” he shouted, “Whatever the cost we will set the nation straight!”

The Downstate hospital protest made history for the high number of people arrested for disruptive acts of civil disobedience. On July 22nd over 1,200 people attended the demonstration and over 200 were arrested – 143 were arrested on July 23rd – 84 on July 25th.  This was the largest mass arrest of African-Americans in New York since 500 people were jailed during the Harlem riots of 1943.

Daily news coverage of dramatic, heroic acts of civil disobedience and record numbers of arrest made the atmosphere at Downstate a magnet for activists from all over the city. Malcolm X attended the protest daily, but never participated in the demonstration. Some Brooklyn CORE members approached X and invited him to join the protest, but he declined because CORE's the picket lines were inter-racial. Malcolm X was quoted as saying, "I'd be only to happy to walk with you just as soon as you get them devil off the line." But Malcolm X’s presence helped shape the evolution of Brooklyn CORE and it’s militant nature, and tactics. 

While at the demonstration, Malcolm X caught the eye of a young Sonny Carson, who was drawn to the Downstate protest because of the militancy and dramatic tactics of Brooklyn CORE. A former street hustler and member of a gang called the Bishops, Carson was fresh out of prison when the Downstate protest began. Meeting Malcolm X that day turned him into a political activist. Malcolm X approached him, shook his hand, and, according to Carson, "looked at me and said, you look like you can get something done." That inspired the young man to direct his energies and leadership abilities towards black nationalist politics and militant activism. 

But Brooklyn CORE members’ non-violent tactics, bold spirit, and strong camaraderie, which kept the Downstate protest alive, also appealed to a rowdier elements of the Brooklyn community, and out of work black tradesmen that neither CORE nor the ministers could control.

"We Struggled in Vain"

After just three weeks of protesting, some on the Ministers’ Committee felt they might no longer be able to control people in the crowds, which increasingly became restless with the lack of support from the mayor’s office and the amount of arrest. Many ministers wanted to end the protest because they felt the demonstration was taking up too much of their time and causing them to neglect their churches.

The ministers officially became the leaders of the campaign, when they jumped the gun, and issued the following demand: Governor Rockefeller, Mayor Wagner, and Building Trades Council President Brennan had to make the workforce on all publicly funded construction jobs at least 25% African-American and Latino. Brennan denounced the 25% demand as blackmail; his only concession was to establish a six-man panel to screen job applicants.

The ministers wanted to negotiate while they still had some influence with elected officials. They were looking for a way out of the campaign that allowed them to save face with their political contacts and church members. An opportunity came at the end of July.

During the last few days of July, as the demonstration threatened to fizzle without any gains, some protesters wanted to employ more destructive and violent measures to gain politicians’ and labor leaders’ attention. On July 31st, the picket lines at the Downstate construction site erupted into a near riot. Teenagers from local high schools started a new technique that day. Ten of them locked arms and blocked a truck until police asked them to disperse, which they did. Quickly, after they left, another ten appeared in their place. The crowd of about one-hundred demonstrators spilled into the streets, scuffled with the police, and one protester kick a cop in the groin, sending him to the hospital.

The incident on July 31st was the breaking point for the ministers, and they quickly began to distance themselves from Brooklyn CORE and began to aid the police in cracking down on militant protesters.

On August 6th the ministers’ committee met with Governor Rockefeller and dropped its demand for the quota, and three hours later worked out a compromise that ended the campaign.

In exchange for an immediate end to the demonstration, the governor agreed to appoint a representative to monitor the construction industry and report cases of discrimination to the State Commission on Human Rights. Rockefeller also promised a special investigation into charges of racial discrimination against blacks. Last, a recruitment program would be created to place qualified African-American and Latinos in unions and apprenticeship programs.

Except for the promised recruitment program, nothing new had resulted from the Downstate protest, and subsequent talks. Moreover, there was no guarantee that the Building Trades Council or the union, which retained their power to discriminate without penalty, would support the governor and the ministers’ apprenticeship program.

The ministers’ held a rally that evening and announced their victory. They invited Olive Leeds to speak and publicly endorsed the settlement, which he did. Twenty-five years later, Leeds regretted his decision, calling it “the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life.”

Logistically, Leeds realized that the demonstration was over without the ministers’ political influence and support. “Basically, I felt what the hell, I can’t carry it by myself,” he said. “CORE can’t carry it. The NAACP isn’t anywhere. Urban League’s got no troops and the ministers are pulling out. What’s left? There’s nothing. So I agreed to go along.”

Members of Brooklyn CORE it was still possible to win minimum hiring percentages or at least push for some immediate hires. They accused the ministers of selling out just when tangible signs of victory seemed possible. CORE wanted to the protest to continue. Leeds put the question to a vote, and the decision was unanimous. But, Brooklyn CORE could not generate the necessary numbers after the ministers abandoned the campaign.

In many ways, the Downstate protest might seem like a failure. The promised apprenticeship program failed to produce many jobs. After the settlement, Gilbert Banks, a black labor organizer remembered that the unions and politicians “got a construction team to review 2,000 people who applied for these jobs. There were 600 who could do anything they wanted: electricians, plumbers, carpenters, steamfitters; all that stuff. The deputy mayor got this committee together, and two years later, nobody was hired. So we had struggled in vain.”

Even though Downstate and the other protest that occurred throughout the United States during the summer of 1963 were not immediately successful, they marked an important starting point in what soon became a prolonged, aggressive, militant struggle to win better-paying jobs and opportunities for black tradesmen & women in a historically racist industry.


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