Northern Civil Rights: NYC & Boston

When remembering the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, most look to the South. It was there that Rosa Parks sparked the boycotting movement, that Martin Luther King Jr. preached of equality and peaceful protest, and where Black students birthed the idea of the sit-in. While the South undoubtedly played a large part in this movement, the fight for racial equality was not contained to below the Mason-Dixon line. Theoharis characterizes the erasure of the Northern Civil Rights Movement by writing that, “the country, then and now, fixated on the problem in the South, framing racial injustice as a regional sickness rather than a national malady. Many Northern whites at the time encouraged this focus on the South, preferring to advocate change below the Mason-Dixon Line rather than in their own backyards” (32). The long fight for the desegregation of schools in New York City and Boston demonstrates how racism was and continues to be a problem felt by the entire nation—not just the South.

Despite the triumphant win of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the transition from segregation to desegregation in schools was not easily granted. In New York City, many argued the validity of this court decision because segregation was “de facto” rather than the “de jure” segregation of the South. This meant that segregation was produced through factors other than law. Theoharis explains that the main cause of segregation in schools was found in housing discrimination. Theoharis writes that the HOLC’s racist rating system led to a “government sponsored process of facilitating development and home loans rewarded suburban development and white New Yorkers while trapping Black and Puerto Rican people into certain neighborhoods in the city” (35). Therefore, the schools of these neighborhoods were predominantly attended by racial minority students and because separate is never equal, these schools were poorly funded, poorly maintained, overcrowded, and not held to the same educational standards as white schools.

Boston faced many of the same problems as the New York City school systems, but a large part of the conflict was centered on busing. To stop the advancement of desegregation, many opposers focused on busing that would allow Black students to be transported to a school outside of their neighborhood. Many called it their “taxpayer’s right” to not want to fund this type of busing. In both Boston and NYC, parents and Civil Rights activists fought to expose the reality of racism through boycotts, committees, and legislation. They were met with massive resistance and labeled unamerican for their fight for equality.

Before reading this article, I was pretty much under the impression that Brown v. Board of Education cleared up most problems of segregation in schools. I was aware that the transition was not peaceful, but I was unaware that many school systems blatantly ignored the court decision or worked very hard to discredit its application to their life. I also am not surprised by the existence of racism in the North, but I was quite shocked by the intensity and the language used by the white population. The term “cultural deprivation” is particularly vile to me. It feels Social Darwinism-esque in that it promotes a belief that there is something inherently wrong with racial minorities simply because of their race. The use of terms such as “racially imbalanced” rather than segregation perfectly showcases how anti-desegregationists were doing everything in their power to manipulate the truth to serve their purpose. When remembering the Civil Rights Movement, it is important to combat the erasure of its prominence in the North.

2 thoughts on “Northern Civil Rights: NYC & Boston

  1. No matter the decisions that are made by the Supreme Court of the United States, a group of people will always be defiant to follow the rules. But as you said, the fact that so many schools blatantly ignored the Brown vs Board of Education decision is shocking. Countless schools went against this decision by tricking the system (separating the neighborhoods by sections based on housing mortgages which ended up putting all of the black neighborhoods in the lowest division) the schools were then separated by neighborhood ratings. I have always known that there was racial injustice in the south, there was no way that there wasn’t going to be any, but I never knew the extent of the defiance and desegregation in the North before reading this article.


  2. Hi Abi, I agreed a lot with your reflection, specifically with the “cultural deprivation” term used by Northerns. It feeds into the idea that anything that doesn’t fit into their square it’s bad or wrong. It has this feeling of “there is only one way to be a true American” and it’s a bit odd.


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