The History of Anti-racist Protests in Brooklyn, From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter

On July 20, 1964, over 1,000 people flooded the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York, to protest the police killing of James Powell, a Black 15-year-old. The demonstrations, part of an early wave of protests against police brutality in the United States, had originated uptown, in Harlem. But in the Brooklyn neighborhood, home to one of the city’s largest African American and Puerto Rican populations, activists amplified demands for justice, facing brutal police retaliation that left more than 100 injured and one killed.

To honor the long history of Black-led activism in Kings County, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Center for Brooklyn History (CBH) is launching Brooklyn Resists, a new “public history initiative” opening this Saturday, Juneteenth. Mounted in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black individuals who lost their lives to racist violence, the project spans exhibitions and programs curated around the CBH’s archival holdings as well as crowdsourced images.

Demonstrators cheering during the Downstate Medical Center protests in 1963 (photo by Bob Adelman; courtesy Adelman Images, LP)

Led by CBH Director Heather Malin and Assistant Director for Collections and Public Service Natiba Guy-Clement in collaboration with historian Dr. Brian Purnell, Brooklyn Resists will bridge the past and present of anti-racist mobilizations in Brooklyn — from the Civil Rights Era to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The CBH was founded last October when the BPL and the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) merged their collections, creating the world’s largest trove of materials related to Brooklyn history. Among the new collaborative institution’s goals are democratizing access to the archives and diversifying the way the borough’s history is told and represented.

Protesters carrying a “Say their names” banner gather at Grand Army Plaza for a Black Lives Matter demonstration. (photo by Gregg Richards; courtesy the Center for Brooklyn History)

In line with this effort toward a plurality of voices and in partnership with Urban Archive, the Center will launch an open call for images, audio, oral histories, and texts, encouraging Brooklynites from all walks of life to share their own experiences of activism. The CBH will also work with local photographers to document contemporary instances of protest and resistance in Brooklyn. These and other initiatives, says BPL President Linda E. Johnson, will enrich the CBH’s holdings to “reflect the critical narratives that formed the borough as it stands today.”

Other aspects of Brooklyn Resists seek to emphasize and illuminate the center’s substantial historical archives. As part of an interdisciplinary project with Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, creative writing students and professional playwrights will be asked to respond to materials in the collections through written poems or short monologues, to be performed next year.

“From the murder of Arthur Miller in June of 1978 to the murders of Yusuf Hawkins in 1989 and Amadou Diallo in 1999 by New York City police, and the murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice, Brooklyn has a long history of racial protest, most recently with its amplified call for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright,” said Dr. Purnell in a statement. “It is vital that we document, investigate, and reflect on our shared histories.”

Jon Batiste at Barclay’s Center “A revival”, June 2020. (photo by Bob Gore, courtesy the Center for Brooklyn History)Woman being arrested by police officers, 1960s. (photo by Bob Adelman, courtesy Adelman Images, LP)George Floyd Memorial Rally

March 1974 cover of Black News in the Rioghan Kirchner Civil Rights in Brooklyn Collection (courtesy the Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

Brooklyn Resists debuts this Saturday, June 19, with an outdoor exhibition at CBH in Brooklyn Heights (128 Pierrepont St., Brooklyn), featuring historic texts and images that will be projected on the building’s facade. The show is curated by Dr. Purnell and designed by Little Mega, and will be open to the public through September 30, 2021.

Through in-person and virtual talks, the initiative will also address urgent issues that are inextricably tied to calls for racial justice, such as gun violence, domestic abuse, and other scourges heightened by systemic racism. BPL’s 2021 Katowitz Radin Artist-in-Residence, Chloë Bass, will present her multiform installation The Parts at CBH’s Central Library.

Launching on Juneteenth, the Brooklyn Public Library’s newest initiative examines six decades of Black-led activism in the borough.Read MoreNews, archives, Black Lives Matter, Brooklyn, Brooklyn Public Library, New York, protestsHyperallergicRead More

Leave a Reply