Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"The Savage City" by T.J. English

When I was about 11 years old, my family took a trip down South from New York City. We went as far as North Carolina, which is where I live today. At the time, while passing through Lumberton, I had my first upclose look at the last vestiges of the Jim Crow era, which had just come to an end with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964. But that didn't stop the sweet, and pretty, young cashier at the Howard Johnson's from calling the little black kid, who worked there, "nigger." I was so glad to have come from the North, where this type of thing did not occur. Or, at least that's what I thought.

I grew up in New York City, in the borough of Brooklyn, at a time when the whole country was undergoing a radical shift in race relations. The TV was filled with images of police dogs being loosed upon non violent protesters; women and children included. I was proud of the fact that we were so different in our handling of race issues in the North.

Of course, as I got older, I realized that the only difference between the North and the South was the way in which we were racist. In the South, it was overt. In the North, it was covert, and swept under the rug, where no one could see it.

"The Savage City" is a good, hard look at what was under that rug. And it's not a very pretty sight. Institutionalized racism was as rampant in the North as it was in the South. The author, T.J. English, has given us an insightful, and revealing look at the way things were done in New York City during the 1950's through the 1970's. And along the way he provides the historical background necessary to understand both the differences, and the similarities, of both systems.

Using 3 individuals as examples, the author expertly weaves their lives, and their troubles, into a tapestry of officially sanctioned racism, as insipid and evil as that of the South. Beginning with the social history of the great movement of blacks, and Puerto Ricans, to the North, looking for jobs during the Second World War, he traces the seeds of a different kind of racism, one that would eventually boil over in the hot summer months of the mid-sixties, leaving our cities burnt and scarred for decades to come.

The book kicks off with the attempted murder of Martin Luther King in Blumstein's, a Harlem Department store where he had gone to promote his book "Stride Toward Freedom." A black woman plunged a letter opener into his chest, just missing his aorta. She had been stalking him for several years, believing that his work in the Civil Rights Movement was Communist influenced. This incident exposed the divisions between the various African-American factions of the time in regards to the expolsive issue of Civil Rights. Some thought we were moving too fast, while others believed that we were not moving fast enough.

Three individuals are explored in this book. First, and foremost, is the real victim, George Whitmore, Jr., a young black man from Wildwood, New Jersey. He decides to leave the junkyard where he grew up for the opportunities that he believes await him in Brooklyn. His decision will change his life forever when he is falsely accused, and then imprisoned for the notorious "Career Girls" murder in Manhattan, a crime which took place while he was still living in New Jersey! Tried and convicted, he wins an appeal, only to be retried 2 more times for the same crime. Remember, this is happening in New York, not Alabama! He is also charged with 2 other crimes which he did not commit, just to be sure they "get him." Along the way, evidence is lost, destroyed and tampered with, all in the name of convicting Mr. Whitmore rather than admit to a mistake on the part of the police.

The second story here is that of Police Detective Bill Phillips, one of the most notorious of the "crooked" cops who so brazenly extorted, and shook down, everyone in his path. His criminal activities eventually landed him back in uniform, pounding a beat, where his corrupt methods of law and order served as one of the openings for the Knapp Commision hearings in the late 1960's. His story is one of avarice, greed and violence. The racism he adhered to was considered to be just a routine part of his job.

Dhoruba Bin Wahad was a kid from the Bronx, who was serving time for robbery when he became a Muslim. Released in time for the long hot summers of 1967 and 1968, he is trying to turn his life around during the social revolution sweeping the land in the form of Black Power, and the Black Panthers. In short order, the streets of New York would be awash in the blood of slain officers. Some were shot while on patrol, ambushed with phony calls for police, while others were injured in the rioting which scorched whole neighborhoods, leaving the urban landscape forever changed.

This is an unflinching look at the racial disparities, and attitudes, which combined to destroy our cities, and portions of African-American culture during the post-war years in New York. For a kid from Brooklyn, who grew up in the midst of all of this, the book is an eye opener to what was really happening all around me in the city where I grew up.

Well written, historically accurate, and compelling in it's scope, this book proves the old adage, that sometimes "you can't see the forest for the trees."

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