What happened in the summer of 1963

This was published November 26, 1963 as part of my prize-winning The Negro in Hartford

It was a historical Summer which saw the Negro revolution sweeping America arrive in Hartford—in a mild but nonetheless spectacular form—in a restaurant “kneel-in,” July 12.

The chronology really begins early in Spring, when a handful of young Hartford college and seminary students, mostly whites, moved into a bohemian North End garret to start a pilot tutorial program, develop support for Southern protest movements and dream plans to galvanize the Negro community.

They formed a Hartford chapter of the NSM (Northern Student Movement), and in early June received through Martin Luther King’s organization a $5,000 grant, supplemented by $1,100 from the State Department of Mental Health.

It was enough to support—at bare subsistence—more than two dozen college students who canvassed door-to-door to persuade parents to send their children to be tutored during the Summer.

Within a few weeks, they had more than 300 Negro children attending small personal classes. College students and a few adults commuted from as far away as the Housatonic Valley, 50 miles away, to teach them.

No one really knows how effective the tutorials were. Attendance was spotty. Some tutors had more children they they could handle, others occasionally had no students at all. No system was set up for volunteer tutors to share information with regular teachers.

The most effective classes were probably not book-learning, but those in art and dancing, in which younger children were inspired to some truly creative efforts.

But what was taught was secondary. Most important was the impact on the lives of several hundred Negro youngsters, who could hardly help saying to themselves: “Education must be pretty important—and I must have a chance—if someone is willing to come all that way just to help me.”

But the student movement leaders were not satisfied with inspiring a few hundred children to study harder. They wanted more action on housing and jobs.

Late last Winter, some of them had joined in a program with Hartford CORE, initiated by the national Congress of Racial Equality of threatening boycotts of milk companies unless they hired more Negroes. Two Hartford dairies complied before a boycott was called.

Neither the dairies nor the students realized then that the Negro community wasn’t unified enough. A boycott would have flopped—or at least taken weeks to build up strength—had the dairies called their bluff.

By June, the students had come to realize what their colleagues in the South had long known—that it was martyrdom which was galvanizing Negroes to unity: Non-violent martyrdom, in which people volunteer to suffer insults, spittle, firehoses and jail to stiffen their people’s courage and enthusiasm.

Insults, spittle and firehoses were unlikely in Hartford, but jail was possible. In order not to jeopardize their cash grants, given for education, not direct action, the students formed a new organization, NECAP—the North End Community Action Project.

Their first public action took place at Carville’s Restaurant, on the Hartford-Windsor line. It was probably unnecessary. Carville’s had already quietly agreed with CORE to hire Negros at its lunch counter, and although the first two applicants were turned down, quiet talks could have settled the question.

But that would have made no martyrs. NECAP demanded more “visible jobs” than CORE had, and began picketing at 5 p.m. July 12.

In the four hours before Carvilles met the new demands, 13 young men and women, both white and Negros, had knelt in the doorway of the restaurant to be arrested by Windsor police. Some were immediately freed on bond, but others declined. Even after Carville’s met the demands, some had to be persuaded to accept bond put up on their behalf.

For that matter, some NECAP leaders had to be persuaded the precedent of quick victory outweighed the possible advantages of continued picketing, more arrests, and the “martyrdom” of jail.

In Windsor, Circuit Court the following Monday, the cases were dropped. The police and courts didn’t want to contribute to the “martyrdom” of jail.

Meanwhile, NECAP had a new problem. Going to jail had proven easier than expected. When negotiators went to Terry Square Diner next day to seek more “visible jobs”, they had more than 40 volunteers ready to go to jail. Many were obviously disappointed when demands were met before a picket line could form.

NECAP had known before they started the Carville demonstration exactly how many employes the restaurant had and what demands they could make.

They settled for a promise of six jobs, and again disappointed a growing horde of would-be jailbirds.

Some of the existing civil rights groups already were complaining privately that NECAP was stealing their ideas. In the following week, as NECAP turned publicly to negotiate with a cab company, a bank and an landlord, these complaints grew.

Then NECAP turned on the city. The new city manager had probably welcomed their early efforts as strengthening his own hand. But he could hardly welcome NECAP when they took his own ideas—generously outlined for them by his own department heads in private conferences—and turned them into demands, backed up by pickets at City Hall an a threatened all-night sit-in in the Council chambers.

The City Hall demonstration came exactly 21 days after Carville’s. It produced a violent slit within NECAP—specifically over whether to spend the night, but fundamentally over the hectic pace. Some leaders left in a huff; others went back to rescue the tutorial program from neglect.

The remainder continued direct action programs, but not with the same steam, and without as many Negroes in leadership positions.

It hardly mattered; they had done their job.

For a badly organized, incompetently managed program, NECAP was probably the most exciting, effective thing that ever hit Hartford.

By mid-July, the nascent Urban League, trying to get a job opportunity program off the ground, was frankly saying to employers, “If you don’t let us help you get some Negro employes, you may have to deal with NECAP.”

Dozens of employers not even threatened by NECAP had begun looking for Negroes—partly because their consciences were pricked, partly because they had been awakened to a new urgency for Negro rights.

Every Negro organization in Hartford had come together at the NAACP office to present a united front for the first time—and to explore gingerly whether NECAP, having blasted the door open, might be persuaded to simmer down before the whites got riled up and slammed it again.

The Chamber of Commerce had invited the newly-united Negro leaders to two meetings in their new Constitution Plaza offices (which had no Negro employes at the first meeting, but had a Negro secretary at the second) to explore some vague but promising plans and, implicitly, to see if they could simmer NECAP down before it put Hartford on the national map.

No one really dared tell NECAP to simmer down.

But the new initiatives by the city, the Chamber and private employers had, in effect, taken the heat off.

Many white would like to believe the Negroes of Hartford did not support NECAP.

That would be a dangerous delusion. For although few adults actually participated, NECAP’s early demonstrations won very strong approval. A few demonstrators actually jailed, or a little less progress, could easily have turned Hartford Negroes out in the thousands instead of the hundreds—and still could.

Extensive interviewing of Negroes at the time found very few who opposed NECAP—even among middle-class Negroes with wide contacts in the white community.

A generation of Negroes went away to war in 1941, and came back with a new concept of freedom they have been talking about every since—a concept broadened again by the Supreme Court decision of 1954, Little Rock in 1958 and Birmingham in 1963.

It is their children who are in the streets now—in Hartford as in Birmingham—acting as though they believed what their parents taught them. The parents are not going to deny them. If necessary, they may join them.

This does not mean Hartford is confronted with a unified, militant Negro community even remotely like Birmingham’s. NECAP, at its peak, never got more than 200 to a rally, and half its support came from the white suburbs.

The same interviews which showed such broad support of NECAP also showed many Negroes did not recognize the names of their elected Negro representatives.

In the recent election, a study of district returns shows that even in the predominantly Negro wards, there was no coalition of Negroes to elect their own councilman.

The spirit of the Negro community is developing a new strong will. But the flesh is still weak.

The question now before white Hartford is how to use this weakness: As an opportunity to go slow in integration, or a period of grace in which to force a new sense of interracial cooperation on progress.

What will be crucial will be …

Many Negroes resent being told the situation can’t change overnight. Most, though, recognize the obvious truth. They will be satisfied if Hartford’s intention can be shown as a clear unqualified thrust toward equality.

Once this direction is clear, Negro leaders must face up to some responsibilities they have often evaded.

Unconcern with the slum life of Hartford’s depressed Negroes has not yet ended—as James Hood will testify from his lonely cleanup campaign. Many Negroes have rationalized failure to pitch in by asserting they have no more responsibility than whites.

Once the white community accepts the responsibility, Negroes must share it.

Negros often assume every Negro fired, or not hired, is so treated because of his color. Once employers make an honest effort to let Negroes stand on their merits, Negro leaders much be willing to let incompetent Negroes fall on their own demerits.

Finally, the hostility which characterizes so many Northern Negroes must be melted. Too many white, making an honest effort to overcome long isolation from their Negro peers, have found Negroes distrustful of their sincerity, or unwilling to risk new rebuffs.

Neither attitude will give white leaders in integration efforts the kind of support they need.

Finally, Hartford—and Greater Hartford—must face up to new costs.

Many Negroes need no special services; need only an honest chance to compete equally. But many are far behind, and the special services to help them catch up will cost money—more money than Hartford alone may be able to afford.

Every social scientist is convinced that money spent helping people is useful; productive lives is money well invested. A growing number of private citizens are equally convinced that corrective expenditures are a moral responsibility.

The combination of brains, money, imagination and determination that built Constitution Plaza can build a new place for the Negro in Hartford.


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