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  • “A Revolution in Rising Expectations”:School Activism and Interracial Politics on the Lower East Side, 1963–1966
  • Barry Goldberg (bio)

In September 1963, forty-five Puerto Rican parents penned a letter to Irving Rosenblum, the principal of P.S. 140 on the Lower East Side.1 Organized by a new federal antidelinquency agency called Mobilization for Youth (MFY), the parents, who dubbed themselves Mobilization of Mothers (MOM), asked Rosenblum about the school’s homework policies and academic requirements. “We want to know,” MOM wrote, “what we, as parents, can do to help our children stay in school and get a good education.”2 The group also invited Rosenblum to a meeting at P.S. 140 the next month.3 The conference did not go as planned. At the meeting, Rosenblum attributed his students’ academic struggles to language difficulty and “culturally deprived” homes. “Look at how hard it is for me to talk to you,” Rosenblum barked at MOM. “Imagine how difficult it is … for a teacher to handle a class full of children who can’t speak English.”4 After several exchanges, other parents told MOM to “organize” to prevent Rosenblum from “walking all over you.”5 Henry Specht, an MFY staffer in attendance, agreed. At the end of the meeting, Specht accused Rosenblum of alienating P.S. 140 parents [End Page 140] and warned him that MOM would soon “be justified in taking action outside of the school.”6

In recent years, historians have written a number of case studies dissecting race relations in the postwar urban north. These scholars examine how municipal leaders and constituencies implemented and interpreted federal housing, employment, and education initiatives at the local level. In so doing, these authors show that the deterioration of interracial coalitions in northern cities predated a white rejection of racial liberalism in national and presidential politics after 1968. Thomas Sugrue, for example, argues that “urban elected officials and voters played a crucial role in implementing New Deal policies” in postwar Detroit.7 In so doing, he posits, white Detroiters transferred the racial inequities embedded in these policies down to local areas and reshaped “urban geography by class and race.”8 In American Babylon, Robert O. Self similarly argues that “local politics in places like Oakland and the East Bay … became contests over the nature and expression of the American welfare state” after World War II.9 Self’s work shows how these contests fractured along racial lines, leading African Americans and whites to engage in a “struggle over control of urban resources in the late 1950s and 1960s.”10 Wendell Pritchett similarly assesses how Community Action Programs impacted race relations in Brownsville, Brooklyn.11 While Pritchett argues that these initiatives represented the “high point of optimism surrounding the civil rights movement,” he suggests that long-standing national and municipal housing policies made Brownsville a “segregated ghetto” and fostered black-Jewish political conflict.12

Despite this historiographical trend, however, few scholars have examined the intersection between MFY, a significant program funded with federal and city dollars, and Lower East Side politics. Instead, most work on the agency either utilizes a sociological framework to dissect the theoretical underpinnings of social conflict or focuses on national politics and the War on Poverty.13 The lack of attention to the local political context within which MFY operated stems from the fact that few writers have analyzed post-1945 Lower East Side race relations and politics. Instead, most work on New York’s civil rights movement and, in particular black-Jewish relations, centers on the city’s outer boroughs, relegating the Lower East Side to studies of early twentieth-century immigrant life.14 It is true that the Lower East Side’s white ethnic, particularly Jewish, populace had declined significantly by 1945.15 As Jerald Podair contends, it was in Ocean Hill–Brownsville where Jews ultimately embraced the “unambiguous expressions of white identity” and grasped the “benefits … of white privilege” after the neighborhood’s [End Page 141] 1968 teacher strikes.16 After this pivotal moment, Podair argues, Jews rejected calls for community control and aligned themselves with other, more conservative, Catholic voters in local elections. For Podair, this process shifted “the electoral politics of...


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