Eventually, however, a change took place. In the twentieth century, New York’s white population as a whole moved to the left on civil rights. A major reason for the shift was the great growth of New York City’s Jewish population. In 1850, less than one in twenty-five people in New York City was a Jew. By 1920, more than one in four people in New York City was a Jew. From at least the early 1900s to the present, Jews have tended to have more liberal attitudes toward African Americans than whites in general, and as the Jewish population of New York grew, so did support for civil rights in New York. The history of the NAACP is inseparable both from the history of blacks and from the history of Jews. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated that the Jewish contribution to black civil rights was too massive to be quantified. Another major reason was generational shifts; A New Yorker born in the late 1800s or 1900s tended to have more liberal views about race, compared with the majority of the country, than a New Yorker born in the first half of the 1800s.
Furthermore, as the state of New York’s overall number of residents swelled relative to New England’s, and Massachusetts’s WASP/WASU (White Anglo Saxon Unitarian) demographic shrunk, the Big Apple supplanted the Bay State as the epicenter of white support for civil rights. To be sure, New England continued to be a bastion of white support for civil rights. Massachusetts elected Edward Brooke, the first popularly elected black Senator in history and Deval Patrick, one of only two popularly elected black governors. Many of the whites involved in the formation of the NAACP, such as William Hayes Ward, Moorfield Storey, Albert Pillsbury, and the children of William Lloyd Garrison, were New Englanders. New England politicians like Endicott Peabody, Edmund Muskie, and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., writers like Truman Nelson, Ann Fairbairn, and Robert Lowell, and activists like Mary Parkman Peabody, Tom Houck, Carol Ruth Silver, and Kivie Kaplan played important roles in the fight for civil rights. But as referenced earlier, while Massachusetts had desegregated its public schools long before New York, it was New York that passed the first state law banning racial discrimination in employment. In 1956, when Senator Paul Douglas (D-IL) petitioned to adjourn the Senate and start a new session where a proposed civil rights bill could be discussed, only five Senators voted with him. Two of them came from New York–Democrat Herb Lehman, whose donations had helped keep the NAACP afloat during the Great Depression, and Republican Irving Ives, who had cosponsored the landmark state ban on workplace discrimination in the legislature. One of the main white NAACP lawyers who persuaded the Supreme Court to strike down government-mandated residential segregation, Louis Marshall, was born in New York. The white chair of the NAACP’s board from 1919 to 1932, Mary White Ovington, was born in New York. The first treasurer of the NAACP, John E. Milholland, was a white man born in New York. The white presidents of the NAACP from 1930 to 1965, Joel and Arthur Spingarn, were born in New York. Three of the eight white members of the Journey of Reconciliation, Igal Roodenko, James Peck, and Homer Jack, were born in New York. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest white confidante, Stanley Levison, was born in New York. Jack Greenberg, the man who became the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF)’s only white counselor and became the LDF’s Director-Counsel in 1961, was born in New York. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, the two white volunteers for “Freedom Summer” who were murdered alongside black volunteer James Chaney, were from New York. Both of the men representing New York in the Senate when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, Kenneth Keating and Jacob Javits, were extremely strong civil rights supporters. Each refused to endorse fellow Republican Barry Goldwater for president after he voted against the Civil Rights Act and defeated fellow civil rights stalwart and New York politician, Nelson Rockefeller, for the nomination. In April of 1968, New York City avoided the large-scale riots that swept more than a hundred cities in the aftermath of MLK’s assassination in no small part because Mayor John Lindsay was ultraliberal on African Americans’ rights and appeared in Harlem to speak directly to black residents mere hours after King’s death. A few years later, Lindsay and New York Congressman Ogden Reid switched from Republican to Democrat partly because the GOP had moved to the Right on race, while the Democratic Party had moved to the Left. (Sadly, Lindsay’s liberalism often failed to extend to other historically marginalized ethnic groups. He showed traces of anti-Semitism and eventually advocated reducing immigration.) When the House of Representatives voted to override Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, only 45% of Republican representatives and 0% of Missouri Republican representatives voted in favor of the override, while just under 70% of New York Republican representatives did. New York City’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio, is married to a black woman, has two biracial children, and has shown great interest in combatting racism. Indeed, the city has been ranked one of the best in the nation for interracial couples to live in.
This is not to say that racism against African Americans does not exist in New York. It is, after all, the birthplace of William F. Buckley, Murray Rothbard, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, and Carl Paladino. And it has certainly not been free of hate crimes, such as the brutal murder of Michael Griffith at Howard Beach. Too much patting oneself on the back is dangerous for any society, as it can cause members to be blind to homegrown injustices via a mentality of “it can’t happen here.” Yet there does seem to be a distinct possibility that New York City has made enough progress on race relations as to make large scale race riots unlikely, progress that Ferguson, Missouri has not made. The record of the town of Ferguson and the state of Missouri with regard to African Americans will be assessed in my next blog post.