Winner of the 2012 Dixon Ryan Fox Manuscript Prize given by the New York State Historical Association
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) established a reputation as one of the most important civil rights organizations of the early 1960s. In the wake of the southern student sit-ins, CORE created new chapters all over the country, including one in Brooklyn, New York, which quickly established itself as one of the most audacious and dynamic chapters in the nation.
In Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings, historian Brian Purnell explores the chapter’s numerous direct-action protest campaigns for economic justice and social equality. The group’s tactics evolved from pickets and sit-ins for jobs and housing to more dramatic action, such as dumping trash on the steps of Borough Hall to protest inadequate garbage collection. The Brooklyn chapter’s lengthy record of activism, however, yielded only modest progress. Its members eventually resorted to desperate measures, such as targeting the opening day of the 1964 World’s Fair with a traffic-snarling “stall-in.” After that moment, its interracial, nonviolent phase was effectively over. By 1966, the group was more aligned with the black power movement, and a new Brooklyn CORE emerged.
Drawing from archival sources and interviews with individuals directly involved in the chapter, Purnell explores how people from diverse backgrounds joined together, solved internal problems, and earned one another’s trust before eventually becoming disillusioned and frustrated. Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings adds to our understanding of the broader civil rights movement by examining how it was implemented in an iconic northern city, where interracial activists mounted a heroic struggle against powerful local forms of racism.
“Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings is a major contribution to the field of modern American history and the history of the civil rights movement. Purnell does a wonderful job highlighting the role that the Brooklyn branch of the Congress of Racial Equality played in New York’s civil rights movement, from housing, employment, garbage services, school integration, the construction industry, and the protest at the 1964 World’s Fair.”
—Clarence Taylor, author of Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights and the New York City Teaches Union
“If you are going to read one book of American history this year, read this. Brian Purnell shows us the racial caste system of Jim Crow New York and demonstrates how a movement grew in Brooklyn around jobs, housing, schools and public services at the same time as the much more well-covered Southern civil rights struggle. Based on years of careful research, Purnell demonstrates that New York liberalism wasn’t so very liberal when it came to movements in its own backyard. Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings will fundamentally change how we understand the civil rights movement as born not just in the voting denials, exploitative sharecropping and segregated buses of the South but in the segregated hiring, racial steering and unequal sanitation services of the North.”
–Jeanne Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Park