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Riots erupt in Boston in opposition to the city’s plan to integrate schools by busing, 1976.

Stanleyformanphotos.com Pulitzer Prize 1977 “The Soiling of Old Glory”

The Jim Crow North

You know about the long fight against segregation in the South. But civil rights struggles in the rest of the nation have often been overlooked.

On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students—most of them African American and Puerto Rican—joined together to protest segregation in local education. Staying out of class for the day, they marched in front of their schools shouting “Jim Crow must go,” held signs with slogans such as “Integration Means Better Education,” and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

That demonstration, 56 years ago, turned out to be the largest civil rights protest of the decade. But it didn’t take place in the South, where you might have expected. It happened in New York City, where public education remained heavily segregated 10 years after the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate schools for black children and white children were unconstitutional.

The history of the civil rights movement usually focuses on the South. You know about the sit-ins, boycotts, and marches in places like Greensboro, North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama, that led to the passage of legislation such as the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which outlawed segregation in public spaces. But state-sponsored segregation also existed in the North, and thousands of people joined in civil rights movements outside the South, from New York City to Boston to Detroit.

So why haven’t you heard as much about them?

We often portray racism in the U.S. “as a regional problem, not a national problem,” says Jeanne Theoharis, author of a book on the civil rights movement called A More Beautiful and Terrible History. “The tendency when talking about segregation in the North is to say that it’s more episodic, and more personal, and not state-sponsored—except that we know that’s not the case.”

On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students joined together to protest segregation in local education. Most of them were African American and Puerto Rican. They decided not to go to class that day. Instead, they marched in front of their schools shouting “Jim Crow must go,” held signs with slogans such as “Integration Means Better Education,” and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

It’s been 56 years since that demonstration took place. In the end, it turned out to be the largest civil rights protest of the decade. But it didn’t take place in the South, where you might have expected. It happened in New York City. The city’s public education remained heavily segregated 10 years after the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. In the ruling, the Court declared that separate schools for black children and white children were unconstitutional.

The history of the civil rights movement usually focuses on the South. You know about the sit-ins, boycotts, and marches in places like Greensboro, North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama. Those acts of protest led to the passage of legislation such as the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which outlawed segregation in public spaces. But state-sponsored segregation also existed in the North. Thousands of people joined in civil rights movements outside the South, from New York City to Boston to Detroit.

So why haven’t you heard as much about them?

We often portray racism in the U.S. “as a regional problem, not a national problem,” says Jeanne Theoharis, author of a book on the civil rights movement called A More Beautiful and Terrible History. “The tendency when talking about segregation in the North is to say that it’s more episodic, and more personal, and not state-sponsored—except that we know that’s not the case.”

1619

This article is part of Upfront’s ongoing series about the African American experience, inspired by The New York Times’ 1619 Project.

Library of Congress

A sign in Detroit calling for the continuation of segregated housing, 1942

‘Separate but Equal’

When you think of Jim Crow laws, which segregated blacks and whites beginning in the late 19th century, you probably imagine separate train cars, bathrooms, and water fountains in the South. But Jim Crow cars segregating blacks and whites actually existed much earlier in the North—for instance, along the Eastern Rail Road, which ran from Boston to Salem, Massachusetts, beginning in 1838, more than 20 years before the Civil War (1861-65).

However, it was in the South where Jim Crow laws became deeply rooted in society after Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War. And the notion of “separate but equal” public accommodations for blacks and whites was embedded in the law with the Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (see timeline, below).

Many whites in the South used lynching and other acts of terror to enforce Jim Crow laws. And largely as a result, more than 6 million African Americans fled the South, seeking refuge in the North, Midwest, and West during the Great Migration (1916-70).

Although many black people did find better economic opportunities and a safer environment up North, they also discovered that they hadn’t left racism and segregation behind entirely but instead encountered them in new ways.

A common belief about Northern segregation, and one that many journalists and historians reinforced, is that it wasn’t written into law but was merely de facto (Latin for occurring in practice)—and was the product of individuals’ racism, personal choices about where to live, and financial disparities between whites and blacks.

Jim Crow laws segregated blacks and whites beginning in the late 19th century. When you think of them, you probably imagine separate train cars, bathrooms, and water fountains in the South. But Jim Crow cars segregating blacks and whites actually existed much earlier in the North. For instance, the train cars along the Eastern Rail Road were separated by race. The train traveled from Boston to Salem, Massachusetts. And it began running in 1838, more than 20 years before the Civil War (1861-65).

But it was in the South where Jim Crow laws took root. They became part of the social fabric after Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War. And the notion of “separate but equal” public accommodations for blacks and whites was embedded in the law with the Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Many whites in the South used lynching and other acts of terror to enforce Jim Crow laws. And largely as a result, more than 6 million African Americans fled the South. Those who fled sought refuge in the North, Midwest, and West during the Great Migration (1916-70).

Many black people did find better economic opportunities and a safer environment up North. But they also discovered that they hadn’t left racism and segregation behind entirely. Instead, they encountered them in new ways.

A common belief about Northern segregation is that it wasn’t written into law. People considered it to be merely de facto (Latin for occurring in practice). They thought of it as the product of individuals’ racism, personal choices about where to live, and financial disparities between whites and blacks. And many journalists and historians reinforced this belief.

‘We’ve developed a national myth…of de facto segregation.’

Indeed, racism by individuals did play a role in Northern segregation. Many landowners in cities in the North refused to rent or sell homes to African Americans, restaurants frequently posted “whites only” signs, and many entertainment venues admitted only white audience members—even if they hired black entertainers, like the famed Cotton Club in New York City.

But that’s only part of the story. Federal and local government policies also supported and legalized segregation in the North, says Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

“We’ve developed a national myth,” Rothstein says, “this myth of de facto segregation. We’d rather not deal with it. And so we developed this rationalization to justify our not dealing with it.”

Indeed, racism by individuals did play a role in Northern segregation. Many landowners in cities in the North refused to rent or sell homes to African Americans. Restaurants frequently posted “whites only” signs. And many entertainment venues, like the famed Cotton Club in New York City, admitted only white audience members—even if they hired black entertainers.

But that’s only part of the story. Federal and local government policies also supported and legalized segregation in the North, says Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

“We’ve developed a national myth,” Rothstein says, “this myth of de facto segregation. We’d rather not deal with it. And so we developed this rationalization to justify our not dealing with it.”

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Students march across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest segregation in New York City schools, 1964.

The New Deal

Rothstein points out that in the North, as in other parts of the country, the federal government pursued policies that contributed to the segregation and decay of urban areas.

For example, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, he launched a series of programs called the New Deal to help bring America out of the Great Depression. One New Deal program spurred the creation of the first civilian public housing (today often referred to as housing projects or just “the projects”), which was segregated for whites and blacks. The government frequently demolished integrated neighborhoods in such cities as Cleveland and Boston to create segregated public housing.

Roosevelt also created the Federal Housing Administration (F.H.A.), which subsidized builders that developed many of the suburban neighborhoods that sprouted outside cities nationwide in the mid-20th century. The F.H.A.’s manual stated that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities,” meaning none of the homes in those subdivisions could be sold to African Americans.

One well-known example is Levittown, a suburb near New York City. The F.H.A. helped support the construction of the community in the late 1940s on the condition that no homes be sold to African Americans. Every home also had to have a clause in its deed prohibiting resale to black people.

While white people increasingly moved into suburbs like Levittown, African Americans were forced into urban areas that became overcrowded. Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government had created color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the U.S., with neighborhoods where minorities lived highlighted red. These “redlined” areas were deemed “too risky” for banks to invest in, so they grew more and more run-down.

“The differences between white and black communities increased,” says Rothstein, “as black areas became more and more deteriorated relative to white neighborhoods that were receiving investment.”

Rothstein adds that while segregated neighborhoods might have existed without these government practices, segregation—and economic disparity—became more pronounced in the U.S. because of them.

Rothstein points out that in the North, as in other parts of the country, the federal government pursued policies that contributed to the segregation and decay of urban areas.

For example, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, he launched a series of programs called the New Deal. These programs aimed to help bring America out of the Great Depression. One New Deal program spurred the creation of the first civilian public housing (today often referred to as housing projects or just “the projects”). The housing was segregated for whites and blacks. The government frequently demolished integrated neighborhoods in such cities as Cleveland and Boston to create segregated public housing.

Roosevelt also created the Federal Housing Administration (F.H.A.). The agency subsidized builders that developed many of the suburban neighborhoods that sprouted outside cities nationwide in the mid-20th century. The F.H.A.’s manual stated that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.” That meant that none of the homes in those subdivisions could be sold to African Americans.

One well-known example is Levittown, a suburb near New York City. The F.H.A. helped support the construction of the community in the late 1940s on the condition that no homes be sold to African Americans. Every home also had to have a clause in its deed prohibiting resale to black people.

White people increasingly moved into suburbs like Levittown. At the same time, African Americans were forced into urban areas that became overcrowded. Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government had created color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the U.S. Neighborhoods where minorities lived were highlighted red. These “redlined” areas were deemed “too risky” for banks to invest in, so they grew more and more run-down.

“The differences between white and black communities increased,” says Rothstein, “as black areas became more and more deteriorated relative to white neighborhoods that were receiving investment.”

Rothstein says segregated neighborhoods might have existed without these government practices. But he adds that segregation and economic disparity became more pronounced in the U.S. because of them.

Protests & Riots

This neighborhood segregation in the North contributed to schools being segregated long after the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling. In New York City, as in other places, majority-black schools were overcrowded and underfunded compared with majority-white schools. New York City’s Board of Education claimed that segregation in its schools was de facto, and thus argued that the Court’s ruling in Brown didn’t pertain to them. “We have natural segregation here,” Superintendent William Jansen said after Brown. “It’s accidental.”

Years of protests by black families in New York City culminated in the school boycott of 1964, when 460,000 students and their parents called on the Board of Education to formulate a school desegregation plan. But a month after the boycott, more than 10,000 white New Yorkers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in a counter-protest. And over the next few years, the Board’s plan to integrate schools mostly fell apart.

Movements to desegregate schools in other Northern cities also faced opposition. In 1974, a federal court in Massachusetts ruled that Boston had intentionally segregated its schools. City officials had redrawn school districts to preserve segregated schools and had bused white students to majority-white schools. To remedy this, the Court ordered the city to bus black students to majority-white schools and white students to majority-black schools.

This neighborhood segregation in the North contributed to schools being segregated long after the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling. In New York City, as in other places, majority-black schools were overcrowded and underfunded compared with majority-white schools. New York City’s Board of Education claimed that segregation in its schools was de facto, and thus argued that the Court’s ruling in Brown didn’t pertain to them. “We have natural segregation here,” Superintendent William Jansen said after Brown. “It’s accidental.”

Years of protests by black families in New York City led to the school boycott of 1964. In the demonstration, 460,000 students and their parents called on the Board of Education to create a school desegregation plan. But a month after the boycott, more than 10,000 white New Yorkers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in a counter-protest. And over the next few years, the Board’s plan to integrate schools mostly fell apart.

Movements to desegregate schools in other Northern cities also faced opposition. In 1974, a federal court in Massachusetts ruled that Boston had intentionally segregated its schools. City officials had redrawn school districts to preserve segregated schools and had bused white students to majority-white schools. To counter this, the Court ordered the city to bus black students to majority-white schools and white students to majority-black schools.

Rosa Parks once called Detroit the ‘Northern promised land that wasn’t.’

Violent riots erupted in response. White mobs threw rocks at buses carrying black students, damaging 18 buses and injuring nine children. Thousands of white parents kept their students home rather than send them to integrated schools.

In Boston and New York, many white parents said they supported integration but not busing kids out of neighborhoods. “No one in their right mind is against civil rights, against integration,” Louise Hicks, a leader of the movement against busing in Boston, said. “Only, let it come naturally.”

But many civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, who sparked the famous Montgomery bus boycott, frequently expressed frustration with Northerners who said they supported integration but fought to keep their cities and schools segregated (see “King Goes North,” facing page). In 1957, after moving from Montgomery, Alabama, to Detroit, Michigan, Parks described her new home city as the “Northern promised land that wasn’t.”

Violent riots erupted in response. White mobs threw rocks at buses carrying black students. The attacks damaged 18 buses and injured nine children. Thousands of white parents kept their children home rather than send them to integrated schools.

In Boston and New York, many white parents said they supported integration but not busing kids out of neighborhoods. “No one in their right mind is against civil rights, against integration,” Louise Hicks, a leader of the movement against busing in Boston, said. “Only, let it come naturally.”

But many civil rights leaders frequently expressed frustration with Northerners who said they supported integration but fought to keep their cities and schools segregated (see “King Goes North,” facing page). Among them were Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, who sparked the famous Montgomery bus boycott. In 1957, after moving from Montgomery, Alabama, to Detroit, Michigan, Parks described her new home city as the “Northern promised land that wasn’t.”

A More Complicated History

Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, prohibiting many of the discriminatory practices that segregated neighborhoods. However, the effects of those practices can still be felt today. Eight of the top 10 most segregated U.S. cities are in the North, according to a recent report by professors at Brown University and Florida State University. Black students are most likely to attend intensely segregated schools in New York, California, Maryland, and Illinois, according to a 2019 U.C.L.A. study. 

Today, students are still demanding change. Earlier this school year, hundreds of New York City students protested admissions policies they say have contributed to the city’s segregated schools.

All this may amount to another reason why we don’t often hear about the Northern civil rights movement, says Theoharis: It forces us to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go.

“The way we tend to memorialize the Southern struggle is a sort of struggle and victory narrative,” she says. “To talk about Northern racism and segregation and movements happening all across the country and not just in the deep South is to undercut the way the U.S. wants to think about its race problem.”

Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The law prohibited many of the discriminatory practices that segregated neighborhoods. But the effects of those practices can still be felt today. Eight of the top 10 most segregated U.S. cities are in the North, according to a recent report by professors at Brown University and Florida State University. Black students are most likely to attend intensely segregated schools in New York, California, Maryland, and Illinois, according to a 2019 U.C.L.A. study.

Today, students are still demanding change. Earlier this school year, hundreds of New York City students protested admissions policies they say have contributed to the city’s segregated schools.

All this may amount to another reason why we don’t often hear about the Northern civil rights movement, says Theoharis: It forces us to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go.

“The way we tend to memorialize the Southern struggle is a sort of struggle and victory narrative,” she says. “To talk about Northern racism and segregation and movements happening all across the country and not just in the deep South is to undercut the way the U.S. wants to think about its race problem.”

Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

MLK at a rally in Chicago, 1966

King Goes North

Martin Luther King Jr.’s forgotten fight against Northern segregation

In 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a crowd in New York City. “There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North,” he said, “that firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the deep South.”

It was one of several speeches King gave from New York City to Detroit to Los Angeles, in which he called on Northerners who condemned segregation in the South to also oppose segregation in their own backyards. In 1966, after leading several protests in the South that helped win passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, King launched the Chicago Freedom Movement, his first major campaign in the North, to fight housing and economic inequality. But the movement ran into roadblocks. During a march through an all-white Chicago neighborhood, a riot erupted and King was struck with rocks. Though the campaign helped lead to the federal Fair Housing Act in 1968, Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in America.

“I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South,” King told reporters after the riot. “But I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.”