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A Class Act in Walking the Walk of Civil Rights Advocacy. . . Peekskill’s Native Son

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.

Cicero, ‘Pro Plancio,’ 54 B.C.

Roman author, orator, & politician (106 BC - 43 BC)

The famous folk group, The Weavers, sang this song to reflect on a story which occurred in Peekskill, NY on August 27, 1949, which likely laid the path which a Peekskill Native Son followed to his involvement and destiny within the Civil Rights Movement…

Sung to a simple up-tempo folk song beat:

‘Let me tell you the story of a line that was held,

And many men & women whose courage we know well,

As they held the line in Peekskill, on that long September day,

We will hold the line forever…till the people have their way!’

The event the folk song enraptured was based on was a concert featuring the famous black Shakesperean actor, baritone singer, prolific athlete, multi-language speaker celebrity, Paul Robeson, who had given performances before in the area, but now his resume carried the allegiances of potential socialist/communist leanings. And that information fanned the flames of violence that was unleashed by 700 violent protesters who were allowed to unbridle their fists and rock throwing while the ‘police stood by’ and allowed this orgy of physical violence and anti-black… anti-Semitic rhetoric to be perpetuated against the concert attendees. The performers that evening were Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, George Walker, Leonid Hambro, Ray Lev, and Hope Faye.

Although the concert was stopped due to the violence that evening, the uproar from the attack by the general public that abhorred such a public disgrace, the concert was rescheduled to Labor Day, September 4, 1949 with 25,000 strong attending with a mix of ethnicities surrounding the stage to protect the performers.

W. Haywood Burns, was born 6/15/1940 in Peekskill, NY to Junius & Josephine Burns, the eldest of their 3 children, Haywood, Leon, and Nancy. He was 9 years old at the time of the Peekskill riot.

In Mr. Burns book, ‘The Voices of Negro Protest in America,’ historian John Hope Franklin writes in the introduction “that the close of WW2, the amazing defeat of Aryan and other racist doctrines, which led to the collapse of most of the European empires in Asia and Africa, that it also intensified the protests of American blacks against their treatment in America. As Mr. Franklin writes, Mr. Burns reminds us, “the second World War did not begin the protest for blacks, it merely facilitated its transition to a new, more impatient and uncompromising stage.”

For the sake of simplicity, this author will state what Mr. Burns writes in his book’s introduction, “that the classic study ‘An American Dilemma,’ by Gunnar Myrdal, in his chapter on ‘The Negro Protest’ with a prophecy that the years following the Second World War would see increased ferment and protest in the Negro community. Since 1945 this relatively safe prognostication has been more than borne out as increasingly the Negro has demanded what he believes to be his rightful place in American life. However, more significant perhaps than the mere fact of increased protest has been the advent of new forms of protest.”

Note: Wikepedia’s definition…An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern

Democracy is a 1944 study of race relations authored by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal and funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York. The foundation chose Myrdal because it thought that as a non-American, he could offer a more unbiased opinion. 

The situation concluded with two conflicting methodologies to achieve racial acceptance:

1) Rev. Martin Luther King’s non -violent protest adopted by conventional groups such as Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)…NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and numerous other organizations committed to Rev. M.L. King’s vision.

2) The Black Muslims ‘By any means necessary’ approach accepting violence and a younger generation of black and non-black protesters who were not Muslims but who also accepted a more direct action of confrontation such as the Black Panthers, The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)…The Weatherman, etc.

W. Haywood Burns became an American lawyer, professor, civil rights activist, the 2nd dean of the City University of New York Law School, husband, father and legal advisor to many including Rev. Martin Luther King. Mr. Burns, born in Peekskill, at the age of 15 started a successful campaign to integrate the public pools of Depew Park in Peekskill. From Wikipedia, his education was the following:

He graduated from Harvard College and from Yale University Law School in 1966. In between, on a Harvard fellowship studying in Cambridge, England, he conducted research on black Muslims that he turned into a book, The Voices of Negro Protest in America, published in 1963. After law school he worked for Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, clerked for Constance Baker Motley and then became an assistant counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc.[2]

Burns served as general counsel to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and was one of the founders of the National Conference of Black Lawyers.[3] He represented Angela Davis and prisoners after the Attica prison uprising.

After meeting with Nelson Mandela in Harlem, Burns was a legal advisor to the drafting of South Africa’s interim constitution in 1993. He was killed in a car accident in Cape Town, South Africa in April 1996.[4]

Mr. Burns helped found the National Conference of Black Lawyers in 1969 who do the following:

• The National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) is an association of lawyers, scholars, judges, legal workers, law students, and legal activists. 

• We exist for the purpose of enhancing our professional strength and skill for the benefit of the Black community in its struggle for full social, political and economic rights.

• We seek to utilize the vehicles of the law to advance the fight against racism (white supremacy) and the inequities it produces.

• We produce justice.

Mr. Burns became the first director of the NCBL which was basically the legal arm of the black revolution. The NCBL represented a variety of clients from the Black Panthers, the Cornell students who occupied a building on campus and the Vietnam War resisters. He also successfully represented Bernard Shaw, the second Attica Prisoner charged and was part of the legal team that successfully represented Angela Davis in her trial of kidnapping and murder charges in connection with the invasion in 1970 of a San Rafael, California courthouse to free black prisoners.

Additional information on Mr. Burns from the National Lawyer’s Guild states “Burns went on to serve as dean of the Law School at the City University of New York (CUNY) and president of the National Lawyers Guild, 1986-87 and was its first African-American president. He was a Visiting Scholar at Yale Law School and returned to New York to establish a Harlem-based law firm. His talents, passions and zest for life were his signatures. He was tragically killed in an automobile accident while attending the International Association of Democratic Lawyers conference in Cape Town, South Africa in 1996. The National Lawyers Guild subsequently named its fellowship program after him.”

1996 was an unfortunate momentous year for the passing of 3 black ‘heavyweights.’ W. Haywood Burns, Carl Stokes (51st Mayor of Cleveland, OH), and Ron Brown (Cabinet Secretary of Commerce for Bill Clinton in his first term). All 3 had national exposure and played critical roles in the Civil Rights Movement to build a better quality of life for African-Americans.

During the turbulent times of the 1960’s, individuals, especially the younger generation, had to make choices of how they wanted to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. There were numerous organizations practicing and preaching various ideologies. For those who wanted to participate, they had to choose which path to navigate. W. Hayward Burns chose education and to follow the path of Rev. Martin L. King. He embraced education and King’s direction on non-violent protests. The goal, to participate as a respected individual within the fabric of the country and to receive the same rights as every other citizen…no more, but no less.

The famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow said as he addressed the jury at the trial of Communists in Chicago, Illinois, 1920… ” You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free.”

And Franklin D. Roosevelt (32nd US President), in his speech on September 22, 1936, stated “In the truest sense, freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved.”

W. Haywood Burns came from a loving family who provided the moral fiber of his character and encouraged him to pursue his dreams and aspirations. He was raised in a challenging national environment where the American Dream was not bestowed upon every class and caste of people. His ancestors were both slaves and also part of mainstream society which is typical of the cross cultural bonding of different people in the various complexities of the human condition. But W. Hayward Burns, due to the complexion of his skin and the texture of his hair, identified as a black citizen with the hazards of citizenship bestowed upon blacks at that time. But he understood the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution and prepared himself through education to work to instill the promises stated in the bodies of the legal framework of this nation to all individuals, regardless of religion, ethnicity, creed, or national origin.

He saw the barriers of unequal treatment and worked to bring down those artificial impediments so that the thoughts of Clarence Darrow and Franklin D. Roosevelt, which were embraced by Rev. Martin L. King, were to reach all citizens of the country.

Rev. M.L. King and Mahatma Ghandi both learned the philosophy of Civil Disobedience from reading the essay of philosopher Henry David Thoreau who was born over 200 years ago. So, both leaders, through education, crafted their skills into a workable plan to lead a large group of individuals on a freedom march. Each of these leaders had enormous help along their journey and W. Haywood Burns was part of the cog in the MLK wheel rolling toward freedom and justice.

When much of Rev. MLK’s work was done in America, W. Haywood Burns received a call from the Nelson Mandela team to come help build a new country within South Africa. He heeded that call and went to S. Africa to help write a new Constitution which abolished Apartheid and would respect the rights of all South Africans.

The situation in S. Africa is still a work in progress like the continuing issues needing further work here in America. Many in the old guard have passed and there are new people now in charge trying to finish the work of Rev. King, Mr. Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela. This article is not about examining the current status of where we are in terms of reaching Rev. King’s dream, but about recognizing the work and accomplishments of Peekskill’s Native Son, W. Haywood Burns.

And so I end with the initial quote at the beginning of this comments. I acknowledge and thank W. Haywood Burns for the energy and diligence he portrayed in his work to carry-out Rev. Martin L. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ philosophy. I respect the integrity of his character and hope that the current generations of Peekskill’s community who have not heard of him and his work, may do so now. For those who believe his method of approach to the civil rights situation at the time was wrong, so be it. This is a nation where ‘freedom of speech’ is an inherent right and must be respected. But don’t dismiss his chosen direction and the education, work, and commitment to achieve his goals. He offered and brought help to those in need, regardless of circumstances. He taught young students who wanted to become lawyers as well as went into the prisons to bring help to those in need but didn’t have the financial resources to hire the best legal defense. Again, W. Hayward Burns was one of the founders of the organization that was designed to establish the legal organization for the civil rights protest of African-Americans.

Let us once again learn our history about our fellow Americans who contributed greatly to the Civil Rights Movement and…unquestionably…were born and raised in the community of Peekskill, NY. Thank you W. Haywood Burns for your dedication to excellence, your commitment to the cause, and your deeds to make this country live up to its own Constitution and its Bill of Rights. We are indeed, in your gratitude for the noble path that you left.

The author, Glen C. Carrington, was born and raised in Peekskill, NY. He has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Union College, Schenectady and an MBA from the Univ. of Rochester. Mr. Carrington has been living in California since 1981 and is now retired. He’s on several boards in his community, an avid tennis player, golfer, chess player, and has written and self-published 6 detective mystery books which can be found on his website His mother, sister, two nephews and various other relatives still reside in Peekskill and he visits Peekskill at least once a year. He went to Uriah Hill Elementary School, Drum Hill Jr. High, and Peekskill, HS. (Class of 1970).


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