Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story shows that segregation has been as virulent and persistent in the North as in the South and that it too has resulted from deliberate public policies based in deep-rooted racial prejudice. The film uses the bitter struggle over equal housing rights in Yonkers, New York during the1980s to show the "massive resistance" the Civil Rights Movement confronted when it moved north. Brick by Brick is not only a brilliant legal history of one of the most important cases in civil rights law, it narrates through the passionate experiences of Yonkers residents on both sides of the issue.
The film demonstrates how courageous citizens and dedicated lawyers can enforce the constitutional rights of African Americans in the face of dangerous demagogues fomenting racial hatred. Yonkers in the 1980s was typical of most American cities in its pattern of housing segregation. Just across the city line from the Bronx, it had transformed itself from a mill town into a bedroom community. Most neighborhoods were occupied exclusively by middle class whites. Seven thousand poor blacks and Latinos were herded into huge public housing projects contained within a square mile ghetto. One middle class African American area was cut-off from surrounding white neighborhoods by a four foot wide no man's land which all bordered with dead end streets. Real estate agents continued to exacerbate the problem by only showing all-black neighborhoods to potential black clients. Because school and housing segregation are so inextricably linked, the housing struggle in Yonkers began as a struggle for school integration.
Spurred by the local NAACP, the Carter Administration's Justice Department charged the City of Yonkers with a consistent pattern of school and housing segregation for over 40 years. The NAACP's Winston Ross and Keith Herman joined the suit as co-plaintiffs with the help of a crusading NAACP attorney Michael Sussman. The trial began in 1983 with 84 witnesses and 140 depositions, resulting in 1985 in the longest opinion in civil rights history. It held that there was overwhelming evidence that Yonkers was guilty of school and housing segregation and, in a landmark ruling, held the city responsible, a decision with implications nearly as far-reaching as Brown vs. Board of Education.
While the school board adopted a successful desegregation plan based on magnet schools, the City Council defiantly appealed the decision eventually to the Supreme Court, where it was denied a re-hearing. In 1988, when the Council refused to comply, the court found the city in contempt and ordered it to pay fines up to $1,000,000 a day and held the individual council members liable for fines and imprisonment as well. Politicians, who, like Orville Faubus and George Wallace, had built their careers fueling racial hostility, framed the issue as one of "judicial dictatorship" - not racial equity. Stereotyping poor blacks as violent criminals, drug users and welfare mothers, they pledged not to let Yonkers "turn into another Bronx." Inflamed white mobs stormed City Council meetings, threatening black residents and other integration supporters. Eventually, faced with bankruptcy, drastic curtailment of city services and massive lay-offs, the Council caved-in ending many politicians' careers.
After much foot dragging, in 1992 two hundred units of low income townhouses were built in small clusters spread throughout the city; 600 more were built subsequently. Property values did not decline and some former opponents even worked to build cohesive interracial neighborhoods. The former mayor went so far as to apologize to a member of the NAACP for "the monster" he had helped create and pledged to help transcend the racial polarization of the city. Yonkers represents only a small, painfully slow first step. American cities are more segregated today than they were 100 years ago. As NAACP lawyer Sussman says, until we face this fact, racism will remain "the defining American issue."
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