New York City is famously known as the “Melting Pot” due to the diversity among the residents that call it home. As a lifelong New Yorker, I can attest that the city attracts people from every part of the world. However, what is often neglected is that diversity and assimilation are two very different concepts. That is not to say that the entire city is divided. In fact, my neighbors hail from places both domestic and abroad. My father has told me stories of his childhood in Brooklyn and his neighbors who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. He has fond memories of the Italian woman who cooked breakfast for him and my uncles and the Jewish neighbor who made fresh breads and other dishes they loved. But that all changed when my grandmother moved the family to a different part of Brooklyn and the Government began to de-segregate public schools. The pushback from the middle class was swift and in May 1968, tensions came to a head at P.S. 271 in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, when teachers engaged in the first of several strikes that changed New York. This is the story of those strikes and the people whose actions changed New York City politics.
Readers should be aware that any pre-conceived notions about New York City being a liberal mecca will be challenged by this book. 1968 has long passed and may seem like ancient history to the youth of today but older readers will recall the turbulent atmosphere of the 1960s. Social unrest, war, revolution and assassinations marked the decade as one of the deadliest in history. New York City’s public school system had long attracted Jewish professionals and college graduates from white middle class backgrounds. In Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the local community had come to see this as an issue and on May 9, 1968, Community Board administrator Rhody McCoy (1923-2020) sent a letter to 19 white teachers informing them that they would no longer be allowed to teach at the school and would be reassigned. The impact was enormous and the fallout is on full display at Podair takes us through the events.
The response by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) was predictable and swift. Union President Albert Shanker (1928-1997) saw the move by McCoy as nothing short of absurd and before long, the UFT and the local community became locked in stand-off that showed the dark side of New York City and questioned the meaning of liberalism. It is hard to put into words the scale of the tragedies contained within the book. The strikes are only one aspect of the story. Other regrettable components are the changed in racial dynamics, political affiliation and the ultimate failures by those who believed in their cause. Sure, there are winners and losers in story but the price paid by the local community was higher than anticipated. Podair simplifies the events even further by stating:
“The Ocean Hill–Brownsville school controversy, which began in earnest with Rhody McCoy’s letter to Fred Nauman on May 9, 1968, was at its core the story of black and white New Yorkers who spoke different languages to each other, like strangers. “
The question that readers will ask is how did New York City reach that point? The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act had both been signed into law but the reality is that the problems of Black Americans were far from gone. Economic and social advancement remained out of reach for millions of blacks. And an ugly truth is that Congress cannot legislate acceptance. Consider this fact by the author that sheds light on what black students faced in the 1960s:
“Residential segregation led in turn to educational segregation. By 1964, the average black student in New York attended a school that was over 90 percent nonwhite. While the central Board of Education did not shortchange black-majority schools in terms of funding, spending as much on them as on white schools, two crucial characteristics distinguished the two: the number of experienced teachers and class size.”
It should be pointed out that there were teachers who did want to make a difference. Fred Nauman, one of the central figures in the story believed in the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) and found McCoy’s actions unbelievable. The sentiment was shared by others. But what they didn’t expect was the reaction from the local community which wanted their children to be taught by teachers who come from the same places that they do. And this idea serves as the issue that stoke the fires raging in the book. As the tensions mounted, sharp divisions began emerge and the racial incidents in the book are disheartening. As I read I could feel the charged atmosphere and see the long-term effects of what was being said and done. Readers should know that the story gets ugly at times with no punches being pulled. The rise of anti-Semitism made me cringe and I am sure you will have the same response. On the teacher’s side, we also see ugly displays of racism from teachers thought to be “liberal”. Quite frankly, the strike revealed more than meets the eye. Podair is even more direct:
“The third Ocean Hill–Brownsville strike was the most bitter of all. It drew in the rest of the city. The strike divided the city in two important respects. First, by pulling blacks and Jews apart, and bringing Jews and white Catholics together, it reconfigured New York’s social landscape in sharp, defining shades of black and white. Second, it brought long-simmering class resentments to the surface, arraying poor blacks and corporate, government, media, and intellectual elites against the teachers and their allies in the city’s white middle-class population.”
City Hall was not oblivious to the matter and several mayors had to confront the strike issue, social unrest and financial peril to varying degrees of success. Former Mayor Robert F. Wagner (1910-1991) found himself directly in the line of fire personally attempting to diffuse the situation. His actions and role are discussed thoroughly as are the roles of mayors Abraham Beame (1906-2001) and Edward Koch (1924-2013). I took note of the sub-story of New York City’s near bankruptcy and its relevance to the UFT and issues plaguing the city. Childhood memories of graffiti-riddled trains, vacant lots and burned out cars came flooding back to me as I read through the account of how close the city came to disaster.
By the time I finished the book, I could not help to feel that those who lost the most were the students. Shanker and the UFT survived the strike but also paid a price. A short term success was achieved in exchange for unintended long-term results. As for the local community in Brownsville, it found itself politically isolated, devoid of teachers and necessary social programs. Further, the relationship between the Jewish and Black communities deteriorated and those tensions later culminated in the Crown Heights Riots after Galvin Cato and his cousin Angela Cato were struck on the sidewalk by a car being driven by Yosef Lifsh on August 19, 1991. The next morning, Yankel Rosenbaum, a University of Melbourne Student conducting research for his doctorate was attacked and later died of his injuries. For several days after the accident, rioting occurred in what would become one of New York City’s darkest periods.
Throughout the story, I found that I could related to the local community and their goals but questioned whether the end justified the means. In what could be described as political suicide, the strike helped formerly distant groups solidify political unity leaving black communities isolated. And not even the most liberal of mayors could rectify that. I also thought of the teachers I had as a child, all of whom I remember fondly. And most importantly, I thought of the late Sister Margaret “Peggie” Merritt (1937-2016) who served as the principal of St. John Neumann Roman Catholic School in one of New York City’s worst neighborhoods. I cannot recall the number of times she walked my brother and I home when it was late. Her actions and those of other teachers showed the devotion they had to the young kids growing up in a warzone plagued by crime, drugs and poverty. When they left at night, they drove home to their neighborhoods far removed from East New York but I have no doubt that they took with them the realization that the streets outside the school were waiting to devour those who fall victim to their seduction. If they were biased, they sure picked an interesting place to use it.
New York City has come a long way since 1968 but still has some distance to travel. This story can serve as an example of the divisions that can be found in cities across America even today. And if we are to prevent or rectify what is wrong, the first step is learning from mistakes of the past. If you have an interest in New York City politics and its history, this is must-read. Highly recommended.