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The Fire, Again, This Time

In the third week of June, in the middle of the night, classic white racism struck again, burning a Klan-style cross in front of the house that was pushing the latest Black-liberation movement into their conservative, white-dominated town. No, this wasn’t the attack on Travon Brown’s family last week, in Marion, Virginia. It was 59 years earlier, far from the old Confederacy, when my 8-year-old self was awakened to a neighborhood panic. A fiery cross was burning in front of our friends’ house, no further from my bed than one set of football goalposts from the other. Our dead-end street was an enclave of artists and left-activists, mostly Jewish. Other residents of Rye, New York – then a largely Republican, WASP and Italian-Catholic suburb of New York City – in that McCarthyite era often sneeringly called it Red Hill. My father endured decades of local and federal persecution for his progressive politics, including his public defenses of the Scottsboro Boys, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, before his vindication by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court – and even after, by the “Americanism Commission” of the Westchester County American Legion. In the summer of 1961, our neighbors, the Sterlings, tried to stop local landlords from refusing to rent their properties to Black people. Their son, Peter, was one of the original Freedom Riders who had risked his life that spring campaigning for the basic rights of Black people in the Southern States. Dororthy Sterling had teamed up with a Black woman, Orial Redd, whose family had lived for four generations on the only tiny strip in Rye where Black people were allowed to reside, but wanted a bigger apartment. The 13-year-old in the next house down the hill from the Sterlings, and my oldest brother’s best friend, had the delivery route of the local paper, and alerted Dorothy when someone stopped delivery because they were moving out. Orial would rush over, but the managers of the apartment-complex would tell her there were no vacancies. Dorothy would go, right before or after, and be offered the apartment. Once, she actually signed a lease and then tried to turn the apartment over to Orial, but the manager refused, admitting it was illegal but that the anti-discrimination laws “had no teeth.” Those efforts evidently lit the cross. Although the perpetrators of that piece of racial terroism seemed to be widely known, no one was ever charged. The NY State Supreme Court ruled that the State Commission against Discrimination had no jurisdiction on segregated housing. Although legislation known as the “Redd Bill” forced one of the complexes to accept the Redds a year later, they and their children endured ostracism and harassment in their many years there. Orial’s husband, M. Paul Redd, eventually became (among other important leadership roles, including ownership of the Westchester County Press), the first president of the co-op association of their complex. Meaningful progress? Maybe. But Rye’s Black population is now minuscule. Barack Obama was president of the United States for eight years, and look what happened next. The idea that “the arc of the moral universe…bends toward justice,” made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 and echoed by Obama, was itself an old claim, made by the abolitionist Theodore Parker in 1853. Isn’t it about time, even in the midst of a pandemic, that we curved the flattening of that arc?

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