The Role of Black Women in the Harlem 9 Protest

The Harlem 9 Protest and the Long, Hot Summer

When a police officer fatally shot 15-year-old James Powell, protests erupted in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Many black residents were frustrated with racial injustice and poverty.

Mae Mallory and other mothers of the Harlem 9 took a bold stand in 1958 by pulling their children out of schools to demand better educational opportunities. Their fight illustrates the central role that Black women played in school desegregation struggles.

What happened?

The rioting in Harlem, along with similar protests throughout the nation and around the world, helped fuel the civil rights movement and contributed to what would become known as the Long, Hot Summer. Yet, at the time, these uprisings received only local and regional attention.

The Negro people were stirred to the very marrow of their bones when Private Bandy stopped a policeman from rough-handling a woman in the Hotel Braddock. This was no accident. It was a demonstration of the most extreme kind. It was a demonstration against the three hundred years of persecution of the Negro people by the deceitful and hypocritical slanderers who call themselves citizens of America.

This video from American Experience: Black History focuses on the fight for school desegregation in Harlem and highlights the prominent role that Black women played in these efforts. The story of the Harlem Nine — nine mothers who kept their children out of school to demand “open choice” schools that were not inferior to nearby white ones — is one such example.

Mae Mallory’s role

Mallory, a mother of two children, became an education reform activist after her kids told her about cramped classrooms, inexperienced teachers and limited resources at their segregated New York City schools. In 1957, she filed the first post-Brown suit against the New York City Board of Education.

The other mothers soon joined her lawsuit and became known as the Harlem 9. They were charged with violating compulsory school attendance laws, but they refused to back down. They leafletted, gathered signatures and hosted protests. Their boycott of schools would set the stage for future desegregation battles in New York and beyond.

As the Harlem 9’s struggle grew, they began to discuss wider questions of Black liberation and national self-determination. Mallory was a friend of Malcolm X and was in the audience at the Audubon Ballroom when he was assassinated in 1965. She also supported Black power politics and was a proponent of Black armed self-defense. She remained an active political activist until her death in 2007. She also worked to help other wrongfully imprisoned Black activists in the United States and Africa.

The riot’s impact

When Blacks rioted, they were expressing their frustration with the racial inequality that permeated every aspect of their lives. This was a city where women like Mallory worked low paid factory jobs or domestic work, their children attended segregated schools that were underfunded, overcrowded and had inexperienced teachers, and Black families lived in deteriorating housing stock.

After 15 year old James Powell was fatally shot by veteran police officer Thomas Gilligan a riot broke out in Harlem. Hundreds of stores were looted and property damage totalled millions of dollars.

The riot showed that Negroes were exasperated to the limit by the persecution and hypocrisy of their lords and masters. It was a demonstration of the great contradictions that characterized American capitalist democracy. The riot was an expression of that great anger that caused the Negro people to refuse to be silent as their leaders prattle on about the need to die for democracy. This was no secret to the leaders of this city and that is why LaGuardia appointed a biracial committee to investigate the riot.

Reactions to the riot

The Harlem race riot of 1964 was one of many such incidents in American cities, the result of frustration over racial discrimination, segregation, and police brutality. It occurred just two weeks after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, and national origin.

Rioters looted stores and vandalized private property, as well as struggled against the police who were sent to bring order to the neighbourhood. In the aftermath, a number of people were killed, and hundreds more were injured.

Despite the ferocity of the rioting, it was not as widespread as some have claimed. Moreover, it was not caused by the “immigration crisis.” In fact, most of those arrested were American citizens. The majority of the rioters were young African-Americans. Rather, it was a demonstration of their anger over the conditions in America’s capitalist democracy. They knew what they were protesting. They resented the constant call to die for democracy and the hypocrisy of the government in Washington that asked them to fight for it while simultaneously committing crimes against them at home.

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