A Legacy of Activism and Agitation

This iconic image of activism and advocacy was taken just outside the NAACP’s headquarters on 5th Avenue and 14th Street. The year was 1936, flagimageand it was speaking to the crisis of violence and inequality in America. It is estimated that between 1882 and 1951, 4,700 people were lynched in the United States. An overwhelming majority of those people were black. Flying the flag outside their headquarters, the NAACP was unflinchingly facing this country’s systemic culture of violence toward people of color.  The flag’s presence is so striking for its bold and frank language, and it still reads today as a true act of defiance and bravery. And in fact, the flag did threaten the organization’s existence – it only flew for two years before the owner of 69 5th Avenue, the building that housed NAACP’s headquarters, threatened to evict the organization if they did not remove the flag.

In this photo, the camera looks south down 5th Avenue, placing the flag and its symbolism among the storied streets of Greenwich Village. The headquarters building no longer stands, but much of the rest of the photo’s streetscape is still with us, including those beautiful second and third story bay windows in the immediate foreground, the New School buildings (one with arched windows and the tall, skinny building next to it), the Forbes Building and First Presbyterian Church whose steeple rises in the distance. The flag surely shocked and discomfited many onlookers (which I imagine was the goal), but this type of activism would not have been entirely out of place in the Village.

A recent exhibition on the Village folk scene at the Museum of the City of New York highlighted the activism inherent in the folk culture. Photo courtesy of MCNY.

A recent exhibition on the Village folk scene at the Museum of the City of New York highlighted the activism inherent in the folk culture. Photo courtesy of MCNY.

Since before the turn of the last century, Greenwich Village has attracted radical thinkers and nonconformists of all sorts. I like to think that the very physical aspects of the neighborhood – its non-conformist grid, it’s human-scaled, down-to-earth architecture  – helped engender an early sense of bohemianism and counter-culture. The NAACP established its New York City office in 1910, and by then Greenwich Village was already a mecca for activism and radical thought. Although the Village is often remembered for being the epicenter of the LGBT civil rights movement, the African-American civil rights movement (as well as some examples of what it had to struggle against) had a home here too. Great writers, thinkers and activists of color including Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, Marsha P. Johnson, Silvia Rivera, and James Baldwin were all drawn to the Village. James Baldwin started hanging out in the Village, at the age of 15, just one year after the NAACP was forced to remove the flag above 5th Avenue. Although it no longer flew just north of the neighborhood, that spirit of boldly addressing societal ills was a hallmark of the Village. Baldwin credits his time amidst Village culture with showing him that he, as a black man, could be an artist in America. The emerging folk music scene of the Village was also intimately connected with social justice. Many musicians of the time were writing protest and social justice songs. Famed Village trio Peter, Paul, and Mary even performed at the 1963 March on Washington, and at the Selma-Montgomery March in 1965. The feeling of possibility, creation, and freedom was in the air.

South of the NAACP’s headquarters wasn’t the only site known for social agitation. Just one block east, Union Square was another longstanding symbol of public engagement. During the Civil War, the park became so popular for rallies that it was actually redesigned in the 1870s by famed landscaping duo Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux – they had specific goals to make Union Square optimal for public demonstrations, by widening pathways, removing fences, and creating open and flexible spaces.

A mass meeting of Reds and Socialists in Union Square. c. 1930. George Miller, Jr. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

A mass meeting of Reds and Socialists in Union Square. c. 1930. George Miller, Jr. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The legacy continued, and  in the first decades of the 20th century, Union Square was a hot spot for labor demonstrations. (To read a full account of Union Square’s public protest history, take a look at our blog post from 2014.) Subsequent design changes altered the Square’s demonstration-friendly design, but that hasn’t stopped New Yorkers from organizing there, even as recently as this month. In the wake of several black men’s deaths at the hands of police, New Yorkers and the Black Lives Matter movement took to Union Square to stage a protest and march. Many protestors may not have known how closely they were standing to the NAACP site where similar social activism was thriving almost 100 years ago.

And the legacy of NAACP’s flag still remains, too. The recent prevalence of police violence against black men inspired artist Dread Scott to create an updated flag for today’s political climate, one that even more boldly illustrates the current climate of systemic violence in America. The flag is now part of an exhibition, open through the summer, that explores political engagement in the 2016 election cycle. It’s flying high outside the Jack Shainman gallery’s 20th Street location. It might not threaten the gallery’s lease like the original flag did in 1936, but it’s still a powerful and bold statement that has earned both the artist and the gallery negative attention and even death threats.

Dread Scott, A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday (2015). ©Dread Scott. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and ArtNetNews.

The work of protest and progress remains fraught with tension. But history shows that New York, and downtown especially, will always be a place to strive for change and advancement for all kinds. It’s a legacy GVSHP is proud to preserve, protect, celebrate and commemorate.

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