If there was ever a year in which the moral contradictions of America were on display, that year would be 1964. It was a time of great expectation and a period of tremendous upheaval in our nation. These mixed signals were apparent in a former ash dump in Queens that was transformed into the New York World’s Fair that year; a spectacle that on April 22 the city will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
In a country that was still trying to settle the score over the Civil War, the festive atmosphere on the fairgrounds in the outer borough served to peek into the future while racial discord was still in the side view mirror, closer than it appeared. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a symbol of hope for many African-Americans, was still fresh in the national conscious and the civil rights movement in the south was gaining steam as evidenced by the massive March on Washington held in August 1963 in the nation’s capital. However, while much attention was being paid to Jim Crow in the south, his northern cousin was gaining the attention of a number of Black leaders on the ground in New York City. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gaining credibility as the national spokesperson on civil rights but had not yet turned his attention to America’s cities. The “urban” dilemma in New York City was taken up by Malcolm X, the Brooklyn chapter of CORE and in the halls of Congress by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
The issue in New York City was jobs and the challenges Blacks faced in gaining employment in the public and private sectors. Voting and education equity, paramount issues in southern states, were no less a concern for Black New Yorkers but access to gainful employment underscored the relative disadvantage African-Americans faced in the nation’s largest city. It is why the hopefulness of a World’s Fair with the theme “Peace through Understanding” stood in stark contrast to the day-to-day suppression of Black hope. All the fantastical representations of the future constructed in Flushing Meadows Park could not mask the despair of many Black New Yorkers who simply wanted to put food on the dinner table.
It was the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, CORE, which voiced a radical and resistant challenge to the organizers of the 1964 Fair, including New York City planning Czar Robert Moses. Defying its national office and upsetting other civil rights groups, the Brooklyn CORE chapter set out to use the World’s Fair as a stage to demand a fair share of jobs for Blacks on the construction sites for the fair’s exhibits. The summer before CORE had joined a number of groups protesting the exclusion of Black workers from the site of the new annex to Harlem Hospital. The group was reacting to the dismal participation of Blacks in the construction trades as evidenced by data that the New York State Commission against Discrimination and groups such as the NAACP had revealed. It was a picture of total exclusion. For the period between 1950 and 1960 the Black participation rate in building trades apprenticeship programs in the state rose from 1.5 percent to 2 percent. To bring attention to the issue CORE planned not a sit-in to greet fairgoers but a ‘stall-in’ with motor vehicles to tie up traffic heading to the Queens site. It was a bold move and one that was met with anger by white New Yorkers and fear on the part of Black middle class leaders. Though the tactic failed to achieve its intended effect, bringing the opening day of the World’s Fair to a standstill, the plan’s audacity did highlight economic inequality and set the stage for what was to come – the implosion of America’s cities and the end of patience among a growing segment of Blacks.
The 1964 World’s Fair in retrospect was part of the “big tease” that has challenged African-American belief in the possibility of possibilities. With its futuristic setting, and hopeful message best represented in the Disney Company’s “It’s a small world” mosaic, the fair suggested there was equality within reach. Yet, even the World’s Fair itself represented a reflection of the present, as to my recollection Black patrons though visible were still minimal and virtually absent as fair staff. If Blacks could not secure employment in the now, what hope was there for the future no matter what the corporate exhibitors were trying to suggest was a race-barrier free 21st century? It is this dichotomy that brings the past to the present, as Blacks in the city’s labor market are still outsiders looking in.
In retrospect the World’s Fair did forecast the future. Great advancements would be made since 1964 but the relative position of Blacks to whites would remain constant. For Blacks society would mimic one of the fair exhibits, you would walk into the future and take in the scenery only to come out realizing that the present was a far better representation of what lay ahead. Today as the city continues its metamorphosis Black New Yorkers remain gripped in long-term joblessness, minimally engaged in the construction trades, and spectators in the labor market. The challenge to the future is whether “peace through understanding” will even be entertained by generations of Blacks who have little patience for fantasy.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.