Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn

Brian Purnell

[Cross-posted from New Books in History] Scholars interested in the history of the civil rights movement in the North will definitely be interested in Brian Purnell‘s new book, Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn (University Press of Kentucky, 2014). This case study of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Brooklyn joins one of the fastest-growing areas of research in the field: the roots and experience of the black freedom struggle above the Mason-Dixon. Challenging many of the nation’s persistent beliefs about the geographic timeline and ideological dynamics of that social movement, this literature has broadened our understanding of the past and given us a far more complicated view of the challenges facing grassroots organizations  in the years before, during, and following the “classical period,” stretching from Rosa Parks’s arrest to Martin Luther King’s dream. Purnell looks at one of CORE’s most active, aggressive chapters in the North between 1960 and 1965. An exemplar of social history, the book explores the difficulties facing a small organization trying to upset the racial status quo in a city that prided itself on colorblindness–pioneering much of the legislation adopted by the federal government later–despite the fact that in education, housing, and labor segregation prevailed. Aggravating matters were a number of seismic changes in New York, as elsewhere: the flight of industry and middle class taxpayers to the suburbs and Sunbelt, and the influx of millions of laid-off southern sharecroppers to neighborhoods that, because of “de facto” Jim Crow, became increasingly poor, overcrowded, dilapidated, and ridden with trash, crime, and despair. Purnell gives us the story of a group valiantly attempting to avert and assuage these overwhelming developments. As he notes, their failures speak to the reality many still face today.

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