NYC’s Civil Rights Heroes

by Alex White, contributor

It’s Black History Month, and here at Thirteen we are celebrating New Yorkers who were heroes during the civil rights movement. Most often, when referring to the civil rights movement, we think of the south and the struggle against Jim Crow laws — but New York was the center of the north’s own struggle for civil rights, with it’s own set of problems and (at the time) the largest population of urban African-Americans in the nation.

Activists in New York called for guarantees for full employment, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and full equality in all aspects of life. Here are five amazing men and women who put aside their own interests in order to bring change to their community.


Jackie Robinson in his Brooklyn Dodgers Uniform.  Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Admin.

Jackie Robinson, wearing his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in 1950.

Brooklyn Dodgers Legend: Jackie Robinson

You can’t talk about the civil rights movement and New York without talking about Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play major league baseball, or any professional sport. His first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers came before the U.S. Army was integrated, before schools were forced to integrate by Brown v. Board of Education, before Rosa Parks and before Martin Luther King, Jr. were leading the movement. He faced discrimination on and off the field, from players and crowds spitting racial epithets to realtors denying his family a right to buy a home in their town. Robinson became a symbol for the black community that it was possible to break through the color barrier and cause change.

After wrapping up his career in baseball, he continued to fight for equal rights in major league baseball and for African-Americans across the nation.

Desegregation Activists: Lee and Grace Lorch

Lee Lorch played a crucial part in calling for the desegregation of Stuyvesant Town, forcing the owner of the development, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, to abandon its whites-only admissions policy. It took almost ten years for this fight to lead to the fair housing movement, eventually culminating in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing. enduring the loss of professorial appointments in New York and across the nation.

Lee’s wife, Grace Lorch, also fought for civil rights. She’s featured in one of the most famous photos of that era, comforting Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine. When her family moved to Little Rock, she asked the school board to allow her daughter to attend the neighborhood school (a black neighborhood), it was denied.

Dorothy Height with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1960.

Dorothy Height with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1960.

African-American Women’s Rights activist: Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height began her journey as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department. In 1957, she became the president of the National Council of Negro Women (a position held until 1997), where she led “Wednesdays in Mississippi.” She brought together black and white women of the North and South to start a dialogue and encourage conversation about not only the rights of African-Americans but the rights of women in America. Although Height was a major player in the civil rights movement, she is often left out of the list of “big six” civil rights leaders — all of whom are men.

Height worked with President Eisenhower to desegregate schools and President Johnson to employ African-American women within the government. She helped organize the march on Washington but was not asked to speak, as that privilege went only to men. Now, Height is credited as the first person to to simultaneously advocate for African Americans’ rights and womens’ rights.

Bayard Rustin, left, at the 1963 march on Washington.

Bayard Rustin, left, at the 1963 march on Washington.

Gay and civil rights leader: Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin is often forgotten from the history books as a civil rights leader. Rustin moved to Harlem in 1936, earning a living as a nightclub singer while becoming more involved in the civil rights movement. He was the chief organizer for the march on Washington, a pacifist and believer of non-violence. He also was openly homosexual, leading to a jail sentence in 1953 for “sex perversion.” Senator Strom Thurmond read the contents of this arrest into the congressional record in order to provoke the march organizers lose their organizers; instead, the leaders backed Rustin.

Post-march, Rustin focused his attention on economic problems of working-class African-Americans, suggesting that the Black community should ally with the labor movements. He organized the New York City School Boycott of 1964, demanding full integration of New York public schools. He sought opportunity to decrease poverty, and despite increased surveillance by the feds, supported LBJ in the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs. By the 1980s, he focused his efforts on gay and economic rights, though he knew it came with a large barrier to entry. “We cannot fight for the rights of gays unless we are ready to fight for a new mood in the United States […] for a radicalization of this society.”

Photos of Jackie Robinson and Dorothy Height courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. Photo of Bayard Rustin courtesy Library of Congress.