Back in July of 1964, James Powell, a black 15-year-old high school student, left his Soundview Housing Project home in the Bronx headed to school. Armed with an innate energetic spirit (inherited from his Uptown upbringing)—amalgamated with the frustration of stifling poverty—Powell maneuvered through the Rotten Apple en route to Wagner Junior High School on the Upper East Side.
The young Bronx native had no idea that he was about to lose his life.
On a bright and sunny summer morning Powell and his fellow classmates lingered outside Wagner’s campus waiting for the bell to call students to class. It was a regular day. But the day’s bonhomie turned sour when Powell and fellow classmates were sprayed with a water hose by Patrick Lynch, then a 36-year-old superintendent, as he watered plants.
Powell grew angry and threatened Lynch. Gripping a knife, the 122-pound teenager ran toward Lynch screaming: “I’ma cut him, I’ma cut him.”
As these events unfolded off-duty police officer Thomas Gilligan saw what was developing as he came out of a nearby store. Gilligan yelled at Powell telling him to stop. This only provoked Powell. The teenager then turned toward Gilligan and charged at him with the knife. Gillian, at six-feet tall and 200 pounds, aked Powell to drop the knife, to no avail. The off-duty officer pumped two fatal shots into the body of Powell.
These events were followed by three days of rioting in Harlem.
Prof. Michael W. Flamm, Professor of History at Ohio Wesleyan University, in his upcoming book, In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime, describes how Powell’s death shaped the 1964 presidential election as well as the War on Crime and War on Drugs.
We spoke with Prof. Flamm, who provided us with insight on how these unfortunate events shaped the War on Crime as well as the War on Drugs.
VIBE: Can you briefly explain Heat of the Summer?
Prof. Michael Flamm: It’s about the first major riot or rebellion in the 1960s. It erupts in Harlem after the shooting of a black teenager, James Powell, by an off-duty white police officer, Thomas Gilligan. The shooting leads to three nights of protest in Harlem. The protest spread to Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
How did these events shape the 1964 presidential election?
The presidential election of 1964 featured Barry Goldwater, who made the issue of crime in the street and law and order the centerpiece of his campaign. I also describe how the Johnson Administration tries to deal with the emerging issue of urban violence by the politics of War on Poverty, which are the root causes that lead to this unrest in Harlem and Brooklyn.
I didn’t know that rioters were made out to be the bad guys by the media. That was new to me.
Yes, the media as well as conservative politicians made the rioter as the negative consequence of the civil rights movement. ‘If you support civil rights this is what’s going to happen.’ Conservatives, politicians as well as media were quick to point to these events and try to use them to discredit the freedom struggle, which was of course making great progress. The unrest in Harlem comes two weeks after President Johnson’s signing of Civil Rights law of 1964. The night Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican nomination for President of the United States and declared that this country has major problem with crime in the streets and what this country needs is more law and order—sort of what Donald Trump has been saying recently. Two nights later you have what you call the Harlem riots. So, you have all these events happening and conservatives find this very appealing.
Why is the civil rights movement in the North overlooked compared to the civil rights movement in the South?
That’s a great question. And you are right. But there’s a couple of reasons. One: In the North, African Americans often had legal rights even if they couldn’t exercise them. In the North, for example, in theory a black person could go to a restaurant or movie theatre and sit next to a white person. In theory a black person was free to rent an apartment or buy a house in a white neighborhood. But in practice they couldn’t do it. Blacks could go to public schools, and some schools were integrated. So it seemed as if things were better in the North than they actually were. Dr. King, who is the most important figure in the second half of the twentieth century in my opinion, he’s an extremely magnetic and charismatic individual. And when you have a figure such as Dr. King as the head of your struggle, you’re going to get a lot of attention. The Southern freedom struggle was very convenient to focus on. Because it has the great leader, it seemed to be making great progress, and it was very convenient for people outside of the South to focus on the South, and say: “Look, this is a Southern problem, and that’s why the Southern freedom struggle is waging this brave and glorious fight.” However, I must say that there were plenty of African Americans who knew what was going on in the North and were talking about it and fighting against it.
During this era young black activists were emerging and sort of disagreeing with veteran activists. Bayard Rustin experienced backlash in this particular event in Harlem.
The president, Lyndon Johnson, is trying to contain a racial crisis so that he can continue to promote civil rights, and get elected President of the United States in 1964. The other main character, Bayard Rustin, is a black activist trying to restore peace in the streets of New York. He’s also trying to maintain an alliance between black and white people. He’s trying to prevent to the election of Barry Goldwater, who was opposed to the civil rights legislation. Rustin is interesting to me because he pays a terrific price for trying to maintain the unity between black activists and white liberals. Eventually, Rustin is accused of being a sell-out by black radicals, who don’t believe he’s radical enough. Even though Rustin began his career as a communist, but he’s still a communist at this point. To me, he’s a very powerful and compelling figure who is caught up in the events and is trying to remain true to his vision, but pays a really high price for trying to remain to true to his vision.
So how does all of this circle back to the problem that we have today with mass incarceration?
The governor at the time is Nelson Rockefeller. The events in 1964 also influenced Rockefeller’s views toward African Americans and drugs. That’s eventually going to become part of the Attica story, which is now getting attention with the uprising in Attic in 1971. Then, of course, Rockefeller in 1973 would drive into law draconian drug laws and filled up the prisons with nonviolent African American offenders. That’s part of the whole mass incarnation. This all circles back to the theme of the book. If you want to understand the war on drugs, mass incarceration and prison problem we have today, you have to understand what happened during a critical week in July of 1964.
Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime (Politics and Culture in Modern America) is available now on Amazon.com.