Jim Crow Nation

by Kristopher Burrell

An important part of my intellectual growth as an historian of the civil rights movement in New York and of black intellectual thought has come as a result of understanding more concretely that the black freedom struggle in America was (and continues to be) national in scope, and also that the legal, policy, and customary structures that combine to comprise what we call “Jim Crow” were (and are) national, as well. I began to retrain myself in terms of how I thought of the civil rights and Black Power movements as a result of my dissertation research. Much more of my intellectual development has occurred just in the past year, however, as a result of the National Endowment for the Humanities seminar I worked for titled, “Rethinking the Black Freedom Struggle from the Jim Crow North to the Jim Crow West,” in June of 2015. That seminar brought me into contact with scholars from around the country who were doing cutting edge research that inspired me to think even more critically about my own work, as well as the state of current research on the black freedom struggle.

One of the concrete benefits that emerged from the seminar is the initiative of the organizers to put together an edited volume that addresses the main topics and theme of our seminar. I have begun work on a piece tentatively titled, “‘Because it was Important to Try:’ Black Women Activist-Intellectuals and the Struggle for Quality Education in New York City During the 1950s.” I am looking at the intellectual worldview and influences of four women: Ella Baker, Pauli Murray, Constance Baker Motley, and Zora Neale Hurston. I am also studying how their ideological proclivities affected their views on integration, their activities related to achieving educational equality in New York City, and the alliances that they forged during their time working on this issue.

The four women—and there were others that could also have been included—were important activists whose contributions to the civil rights movement are often not studied enough, and whom I also argue should be discussed as intellectuals as well as activists. Ella Baker’s career spanned from the 1930s until her death in the 1980s. At different points in her life she was the national field organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a branch president for the Manhattan NAACP, Executive Secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and an organizer of many grassroots organizations in New York and elsewhere. Pauli Murray was a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. She also became a lawyer, earning degrees at Howard Law School and a master’s in law from Cal-Berkeley during the 1940s. She was a leader in the women’s rights movement during the 1960s and became an Episcopal priest later in life. Murray was also a lesbian and spoke out for LGBT rights. Constance Baker Motley was one of the lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDEF) that successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education case to the Supreme Court, but fewer people know that Motley won 9 out of 10 cases in front of the Supreme Court, and went on to be Manhattan Borough president, a New York State representative, and federal judge during the 1960s. Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most successful novelists and folklorists of the Harlem Renaissance. She also went on to get a doctorate in anthropology during the 1940s from Columbia University, studying under Ruth Alexander and Franz Boas.

In part, I am continuing the effort to make the significant accomplishments of these women more widely known, but I am also looking at their thoughts and actions around a specific issue in a specific place and time period. Some of the questions that have driven my inquiry to this point include, what and who were the formative intellectual influences and experiences for each of these women? How did they develop a theory of activism? And in what ways did their gender impact the ways in which they thought about leadership and movement building?

I certainly have not found the answers to each of these questions in their entirety yet, and there are certainly other questions that will emerge during the course of my studies, but that is exactly what makes historical research and writing so much fun. I am quite honored to have earned support from CUNY to conduct more research on these women and the movement in New York City, all the while working with a Hostos student, introducing him to the methods and craft of historical research and writing. I was recently awarded a Community College Research Grant in Mentored Undergraduate Research for the 2016-2017 academic year. I have also enlisted Mr. Paul Torres, an honors student at the college, to be part of the grant with me. I am excited to work with Paul, help him get grounded in some fundamental readings on the topic, give him an introduction to historical research methods, and work on the craft of professional historical writing. I am also excited to see where this current research leads me in the future.

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