Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series by Black authors that focuses on using op-eds and articles written by Jackie Robinson throughout and after his career. The goal of the project is to focus our attention on the words he used and the subjects he addressed with the platform he had, rather than the platitudes to which we’re usually exposed. Each article will be accompanied by a photo by Jalani Morgan.
“I did not agree with the tactics of the group which planned the abortive World’s Fair stall-in. I am in complete sympathy with the drive to gain more jobs, more justice and better education for our children. But I did not and do not now believe that the stall-in plan was either wise or smart.”
Those are the first two sentences of Watch That Police Brutality, a column penned by Jackie Robinson and published in the Chicago Defender May 9, 1964. The title and a few graphs of the column are devoted to examining the actions of police during a protest in New York City two weeks earlier, one that had been the subject of a lot of spilled ink.
However, the column makes no real mention of what this “stall-in plan” was or why Robinson had so roundly dismissed it. This essay will look at the stall-in, Robinson’s criticism, and the impact the protest had.
The column was written about two weeks after the opening of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Held at Flushing Meadows Park in New York City’s Queens borough, organizers had hoped to attract 70 million visitors to the event by the time it closed the following year. Instead, they fell short of that mark — by about 20 million visitors — and the event ended in the red and mired by allegations of financial mismanagement.
Seeing all the money and resources that were being funneled into an international event instead of toward initiatives that could help racialized people in Queens specifically and New York City more broadly, many of whom were living in squalid conditions, unemployed, or attending segregated schools, members of the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, known by the acronym CORE, demanded a meeting between the mayor and civil rights groups ahead of the fair. CORE was founded in 1942 by James Farmer, a Black civil rights activist, to improve race relations and end discriminatory policies through direct-action projects.
A flyer the group created stated that it wanted to see immediate action on four issues: joblessness, slum housing, school desegregation, and the creation of an independent police review board. The demands were written out in a small font at the top of the flyer. The threat of what would happen if the demands weren’t heeded, however, was written in large, bold font, smack in the middle.
The flyer advertised what Brooklyn CORE was calling a stall-in protest. The idea was to create traffic on the parkways, and on the subway lines, that led to Flushing Meadows on the opening day of the fair. The instructions to would-be participants were: “put your car on exhibit any way you see fit. Run out of gas, stop and check your engine, fix your flat tire, [or] slow down and enjoy the scenery.” Oliver Leeds, a member of Brooklyn CORE, told reporters at a press conference: “our objective is to have our own civil rights exhibit at the World’s Fair. We do not see why people should enjoy themselves when Negroes are suffering all over the country.”
Organizers of the fair and New York City officials panicked. Mayor Robert F. Wagner said the protest “holds a gun to the heart of the city.” Terrified at the notion that the city would be brought to a standstill, a law was passed making it illegal to run out of gas on roadways.
But not everyone who hated the idea of the stall-in was a politician or fair organizer. In 2014, the New York Times spoke to Norman and Velma Hill, a married couple who were involved with CORE at the national level in the 1960s. They said they were opposed to the stall-in because that kind of protest “would make it harder for people to get to work, and we were trying to provide for more jobs.” And as Brian Purnell writes in his essay Drive Awhile for Freedom: Brooklyn CORE’s Stall-In and Public Discourses on Protest Violence:
Some of the most vocal critics of the stall-in came from moderate leaders of national civil rights organizations and from politicians, who viewed the stall-in as a threat to the movement. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP dismissed the stall-in and marginalized its organizers as “strictly Brooklynese,” and James Farmer, national director of CORE, suspended the Brooklyn chapter for its plans to go through with the stall-in. In a telegram sent to [Brooklyn CORE chairman] Isaiah Brunson, Farmer stated, “Your chapter and all members thereof are immediately ordered to refrain from making any public statements and any news releases or taking any actions in the name of CORE.” In a newspaper article Farmer commented that the stall-in would “merely create confusion and thus damage the fight for freedom.”
In the end, the stall-in didn’t exactly pan out. The New York Times reported that many people who had pledged to participate said they had been scared away by a court injunction barring the demonstration. Predictions that the protest would cause huge traffic jams dissuaded people from driving—there were reports that traffic on the parkways that were targeted for the protest, Grand Central, Brooklyn-Queens, Belt, Interboro and Van Wyck, was lighter than usual that day. Only a few drivers attempted to stall their cars in protest, and one arrest was made. Some demonstrators slowed down subway service by pulling the emergency cord and were arrested.
However, the event inspired a counter-protest, organized by Farmer, the leader of CORE, that was held at the fairgrounds. They gathered the morning of opening day at the Unisphere, a replica of the Earth made of stainless steel that is still in the park today, and spread out to the different exhibits to picket. Some protesters wound up shouting down President Lyndon B. Johnson while he was making a televised address. In all, about 299 protesters were arrested, according to the New York Times.
It’s unclear whether the incidents of police brutality Robinson wrote about occurred during the stall-in or at the protests that happened on the fairgrounds—police were out in full force that day in anticipation of a large-scale event that never materialized, and much of the coverage of the event doesn’t specify whether the protesters being discussed were aligned with Brooklyn CORE or the national chapter. An article in the New York Daily News mentions protesters’ claims of police brutality but does not mention what they were referring to.
Robinson talks about Arnold S. Goldwag, one of the leaders of Brooklyn CORE who helped plan the protest, in the column. Goldwag was arrested during the protest and sentenced to a year in jail for violating his parole—he had been previously arrested for attending a different civil rights demonstration. Robinson wrote that the sentence was one of the stiffest ever handed out in a civil rights case, and therefore was “a clear indication of the intention of authorities in this city to crack down hard on people who demonstrate for freedom.”
Robinson reportedly referred to the stall-in as irresponsible, but his column echoes the initial demands, made by Brooklyn CORE, that gave rise to the protest. He argues that instead of throwing the book at protesters and trying to intimidate them, those in power should focus their efforts elsewhere:
Why don’t the city authorities get tough with those who practice discrimination? Why doesn’t the Mayor get tough with those recalcitrant forces in the Board of Education – the principals and supervisors who have openly declared war on the legitimate plans of the Board of Education to bring about quality education for minority groups? Why don’t the city fathers get tough with those who practice housing and job bias?
The Hills, the aforementioned couple who were affiliated with national CORE, said they believed the counter-protest was part of a larger movement that woke up America to the issues Black and Puerto Rican people were facing at the time, and served as an example of how to affect change using nonviolent means. However, that protest may not have happened at all without the tactics employed by the people at Brooklyn CORE.
Prominent members of the civil rights establishment frowned upon the methods employed by the group in Brooklyn, and in the end, their protest wasn’t successful in the traditional sense. But as Purnell argues, looking at the stall-in through that lens doesn’t account for an important fact — the protest came about as a result of people’s dissatisfaction with the rate at which change was happening. He goes on to say:
…The idea of a stall-in foreshadowed what would become a radical shift in the nonviolent tactics that activists used in New York City’s Black Freedom movement. Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of gradualist protest techniques to effect meaningful change, CORE stall-in organizers planned to disregard national CORE’s rules for direct action protest. They abandoned the prolonged investigations and negotiations that national CORE believed must precede nonviolent direct action. With the stall-in Brooklyn CORE attempted to circumvent municipal reform mechanisms and effect change on their own terms.
Robinson writes that while he was not in favor of the stall-in, he and the organizers share a common foe: “the enemy, not only of the Negro people but of the cause of freedom, is symbolized in the inaction and vacillating of those who run what is supposed to be the World’s Fair-est city in the nation.”
That inaction is exactly what the Brooklyn CORE protesters were trying to address with the stall-in. And despite the fact that the protest itself did not unfold the way they’d hoped, it still managed to draw attention to issues many, Robinson included, felt were being ignored.
When it came to his thoughts on the stall-in, Robinson’s beliefs aligned with the establishment at the time, who saw it as detrimental to the movement. But what might have happened if he had lived into the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s or even to today? The same basic demands that he mentions in the column —better education for people of color, eradicating housing and job bias —have been made for decades, but problems persist. Of course we’ll never know for sure, but I can’t help but wonder whether Robinson’s opinion would have evolved. Would he feel the same way today about protests that create discomfort, or even conflict, in order to affect change?
Kamila Hinkson is a journalist at CBC Montreal. You can follow her on Twitter @kamilahinkson.
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