Fifty Years Ago Today, Rogue Civil Rights Activists Tried to Ruin Robert Moses’ Greatest Triumph

Then, again.
April 22 2014 12:51 PM

“A Gun to the Heart of the City”

Fifty years ago today, rogue civil rights activists tried to shut down the New York World’s Fair.

CORE march at 1964 World's Fair
CORE picketers march in the shadow of the Unisphere at the 1964 World's Fair.

Photo by Bettman/Corbis

Excerpted from Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America by Joseph Tirella, out now from Lyons Press.

The 1964 World’s Fair was expected to enrich New York city and state coffers and would surely be the greatest in history, Robert Moses and his public relations staff repeatedly reminded New Yorkers. Mayor Robert F. Wagner and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller could only hope so; there was a lot riding on the two-year exhibition. Not only would portions of the opening ceremonies be televised, but the White House also informed Moses just a couple of weeks before opening day that President Lyndon Johnson would attend the festivities to deliver the keynote address. New York’s political leadership would be in the spotlight, which could be particularly beneficial to Rockefeller, who hoped to challenge Johnson at the polls in November.

While New York and its leaders prepared for the influx of tourists eager to see the fair’s gleaming Space Age pavilions, life in the ghettos of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant went unchanged: crumbling tenements, violent crime, joblessness, run-down public schools, and police brutality, which often went unpunished and unreported (with the notable exception of the black press). Young activists, many of whom hailed from such neighborhoods, grew more militant as disillusionment set in. “They don’t want us on the streets because the World’s Fair and all their friends are coming!” complained one young Harlemite.

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It was in this atmosphere that the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality planned a grand gesture, one immense act of civil disobedience that would command the attention of not only Mayor Wagner, Gov. Rockefeller, and Moses, but also of the media and all of New York City. If the gesture were grand enough—and yes, theatrical enough—it would grab the attention of the president and Congress, indeed the entire political establishment of the nation, the very people who had so egregiously ignored the demand for racial justice for so long.

Louis E. Lomax had first raised the notion of a World’s Fair stall-in back in July 1963, during a speech at Queens College. He called for 500 drivers to make their way to the fair in their automobiles and, by running out of gas or simply stopping on the way there, create a traffic jam of historical proportions. Moses’ beloved network of newly renovated highways would be used as a roadblock, preventing tens of thousands from attending his fair. Brooklyn CORE now seized on Lomax’s suggestion: The World’s Fair would be its target.

In a joint statement on April 4, the Brooklyn and Bronx chapters of CORE announced their plan to disrupt the opening of the World’s Fair on April 22 unless the city addressed the problems of job discrimination, police brutality, slum housing, and poor schools—immediately. “While millions of dollars are being spent on the World’s Fair, thousands of Black & Puerto Rican people are suffering,” the statement read. 

The backlash began immediately. The first to react was James Farmer, CORE’s national chairman, who called the notion a “harebrained idea.” After a contentious meeting with the Brooklyn activists at his Manhattan apartment that went until 4 in the morning, he suspended the group on April 11, a move that brought indignation from several of CORE’s other New York chapters. While Farmer struggled to gain control of his organization, other national civil rights groups tried to make light of the proposed protests. The NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, who lived in Queens, dismissed the stall-in organizers’ rhetoric as “strictly Brooklynese”—a snobbish comment that only amused the Brooklyn chapter. “Oh, you’re so right, baby!” laughed a Brooklyn activist after hearing Wilkins’ snide remark.

City officials were outraged. Police Commissioner Michael J. Murphy declared that New York’s Finest would “protect the constitutional rights” of anyone “to peacefully assemble and petition,” but he had an obligation to protect “all men to the pursuit of happiness ... the World’s Fair should be a happy occasion in a somewhat far from happy world. No unlawful acts by any groups will be allowed to mar it.” Traffic Commissioner Henry A. Barnes—one of Moses’ favorite punching bags—quickly added a law to the books making it illegal to intentionally run out of gas on a New York City roadway. Although he announced the law days after the Brooklyn group’s announcement, Barnes told reporters with a straight face that the new rule had nothing to do with the stall-in.

The media’s condemnation of the activists was swift. “The projected traffic tie-up can win few converts to the civil rights banner,” complained the New York Post. “It will provide new ammunition from racists—here and in Washington ... it will in short be a form of sound and fury, carrying no clear message to most of the populace.” As Time’s Theodore H. White memorably quipped, the traffic jam would amount to a “grab at the groin of a community of 10 million” New Yorkers.

The threats of a stall-in ruining the World’s Fair filled the liberal political establishment with fear. President Johnson worried any disturbance at the World’s Fair would empower the Senate’s bloc of Dixiecrats, who at that very moment were staging their own stall-in by making sure the civil rights bill didn’t get anywhere. Such extreme measures in the streets of New York, Johnson told reporters, would “do the civil rights cause no good.”

Although Brooklyn CORE’s rhetoric was belligerent and confrontational—radically different than that of mainstream activists—the stall-in would be an act of pure nonviolent civil disobedience. Declaring the protest as something other than that was pure spin. In a plaintive letter to Wilkins, Martin Luther King admitted that he considered the stall-in a “tactical error” but flatly refused to condemn the young activists. “Which is worse, a ‘Stall-In’ at the World’s Fair or a ‘Stall-In’ in the United States Senate?” he pointedly asked. “The former merely ties up the traffic of a single city. But the latter seeks to tie up the traffic of history, and endanger the psychological lives of twenty million people.”

Meanwhile, activists around the city passed out leaflets, many of them handwritten with drawings of the Unisphere, to rally drivers for their cause. The protesters would target five roadways: the Grand Central Parkway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Belt Parkway, the Interboro Parkway, and the Van Wyck Expressway—every one of them built or refurbished by Moses. Privately, Moses used his connections with his friends in the media elite to write editorials coaxing city officials to come down hard on the would-be protesters. Writing his friend Jack Flynn, publisher of the Daily News, he suggested any driver whose car stalled on April 22 should have his license, registration, and liability insurance revoked—permanently.

But ultimately, Moses felt powerless as the threat of the stall-in grew. All along Moses had been preoccupied with the press coverage of the World’s Fair. Now, here was a story that couldn’t be ignored: a traffic jam intended to prevent tens of thousands of fairgoers from reaching their destination. Given the city’s roiling racial turmoil of the past year, it wasn’t hard to imagine that such an undertaking—even if it was a nonviolent act of civil disobedience—could touch off a full-blown race riot.

The rogue CORE members held a press conference at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem—Malcolm X’s de facto office after his split with the Nation of Islam—announcing they had 1,800 drivers pledged to stall on the roadways. In fact, they claimed, they had so many volunteers that they were now planning on having people block various bridges and tunnels around the city with their bodies and stacks of garbage and other debris as well as block subway cars. The whole thing now was beyond their control, they claimed. “It’s not so much that CORE is planning [the stall-in] but that the man in the street is going to do it,” Oliver Leeds, another leader of the Brooklyn chapter, told reporters.

As opening day approached, Mayor Wagner announced that the city wasn’t taking any chances. All roads leading in and out of Queens, he said, would be swarming with 1,100 officers in police cars, accompanied by dozens of tow trucks; three command centers would be set up; and there would be a police presence on every subway. That was on terra firma; from the sky, police helicopters would be hovering, including one that was capable of lifting an automobile into the air. As far as the city was concerned, this was war.

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Mayor Wagner engaged in his own histrionics when, on the eve of opening day, he called the activists’ plans “a gun to the heart of the city.” Later that night the New York Times put together a story about a meeting of stall-in leaders who claimed drivers from Philadelphia and New Jersey were in New York already, prepared to risk their cars. “[The stall-in] is planned to dramatize the Negroes’ dissatisfaction with the pace of civil rights progress,” the Times reported on its front page the next day. “No power on earth can stop it now.”

As millions of New Yorkers awoke on the morning of April 22, 1964—the Opening Day of the World’s Fair—to an unseasonably chilly day and rainy skies, crowds gathered at the fair’s gates, eager to roam the 646 acres of manicured fairgrounds where oblong-, pylon-, and ziggurat-shaped pavilions had been taking shape for more than a year.

But the highways outside the World’s Fair were nearly empty—at least by New York City rush-hour standards. So were the bridges and tunnels. As police stood in the rain wearing yellow slickers or patrolled the roads in black-and-white cruisers, tow trucks roamed nearby and helicopters hovered overhead. In fact, there was nary a traffic problem to be found—only a dozen drivers were arrested when their cars stalled. For all their ballast, the Brooklyn activists couldn’t pull it off. The hundreds of cars promised by fellow activists from outside New York City never arrived. Most were scared off by the court injunction obtained by Queens District Attorney Frank D. O’Connor against Brooklyn CORE for threatening the stall-in; many were afraid that the radical chapter lacked the funds to bail them out if they were arrested.

Brooklyn CORE chairman Isaiah Brunson told reporters that despite the stall-in’s failure, there would be other protests in the future. “We are not stopping here,” he said, “and there will be no peace in New York City until Mayor Wagner meets our demands.” It was bold talk but only talk; within a few days, Brunson, troubled by his inability to stage the stall-in, went into hiding.

At the U.S. Federal Pavilion, President Johnson spoke to a crowd of VIPs including Rockefeller, Wagner, Moses, and former President Harry Truman. Meanwhile, demonstrators, held at bay by a throng of police, shouted “Jim Crow Must Go!” and “Freedom Now!” directly at the president, often drowning out his amplified voice. Three of the college activists sat on the shoulders of their peers and held up signs that were visible not only to Johnson, but for the entire crowd of politicians to see. A World’s Fair Is a Luxury but a Fair World Is a Necessity, read one; See New York’s Worse Fair—Segregated Schools for Negroes, Puerto Ricans and Rats, read another.

For Moses and Wagner, this might have been worse than an actual stall-in. They could do nothing but sit and watch helplessly as scores of college students drowned out Johnson, who was making one of his very first public speeches since an assassin’s bullet had made him the 36th President of the United States. Ignoring the rowdy crowd that was shouting him down as if he were some local City Council speaker as best he could, Johnson laid the groundwork for a vision of what by the following month he would call “the Great Society”: an America in which “no man need be poor” and where “no man is handicapped by the color of his skin or the nature of his belief.” When the college students heard this, they laughed out loud, openly mocking President Johnson for all to see.

The new president, who was congenitally sensitive to public embarrassment, could only mask his outrage. Hailing from humble origins, Johnson desperately wanted to win the White House on his own and emerge from the slain Kennedy’s shadow. He wanted to prove to all the naysayers that he was indeed a liberal New Dealer at heart. He would muster all his Machiavellian strategies to accomplish what Kennedy and every other president had failed at: He would sign the most far-reaching piece of civil rights legislation into law.

Yet, here he was, in working-class Queens, province of labor union workers, immigrants, and blacks—natural Democratic voters—and he was being embarrassed and ridiculed by nearly 200 socially engaged college students, who also should have been his natural constituents. And they were doing it to him at the World’s Fair in front of the national and international press; members of the political elite, and one of his potential Republican rivals for the White House—Nelson Rockefeller.

Attempting to reclaim the moment by addressing the students’ concerns, Johnson told them that American freedom was an act in progress: “We do not try to mask our national problems. We do not try to disguise our imperfections or cover up our failures. No other nation in history has done so much to correct its flaws.” He was met with more contemptuous laughter from the activists.

“I felt sorry for them,” he said the next day after returning to Washington, where the White House press corps questioned him about his teenage torturers. Sounding like the disapproving father of the nation’s wayward youth, Johnson said that their disruption of his speech served “no good purpose ... of promoting the cause they profess to support.” Mayor Wagner apologized publicly, saying that “as the city in which this took place, we must be ashamed.” Only Police Commissioner Murphy seemed to grasp the real significance of the historical event. He noted that the fair’s opening day was “a day in which the President came to the world of fantasy and encountered the world of fact, a day millions will never forget.”

Although Moses had predicted that more than 250,000 attendees would pass through the fair’s 95 turnstiles on opening day, the official tally was only 92,646—and of those, only 63,791 actually paid the $2 price of admission (the others being well-connected and/or VIPs). Never one to admit a mistake, Moses blamed the low turnout on the November-like weather, the weather being one of the few aspects of life in Gotham that even the Master Builder could not influence—not that he didn’t try. Moses would write to local news stations urging them to downplay gloomy weather reports in their nightly broadcasts so that fairgoers wouldn’t be scared off.

The proposed stall-in—even though it hadn’t actually happened—had done its job: Tens of thousands of people had stayed away from the World’s Fair. And the shouting down of an American president in front of political leaders and television camera crews would not have happened had not a small group of militant Brooklyn CORE activists, with nothing more than bravado and homemade flyers, upped the ante. Although their planned stall-in failed, the day was hardly a failure for the group. President Johnson, Moses, Mayor Wagner, and Gov. Rockefeller had all heard their message, even if the Brooklyn activists themselves had not delivered it.

Excerpted from Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America by Joseph Tirella, out now from Lyons Press.

Joseph Tirella is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

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