The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York’s Bravest
by Ginger Adams Otis
Palgrave Macmillan / St. Martin’s Press
288 pages, Illustrated
Book Review by Kam Williams
“In 1919, when Wesley Williams became a New York City firefighter, he stepped into a world that was 100% white… Nearly a century later… New York had about 300 black firefighters–roughly 3% of its 11,000–in a city with 2,000,000 African-Americans…
Decades earlier… blacks had sued over the fire department’s hiring practices and won. But the FDNY never took permanent steps to eradicate the inequities, which led to a showdown between New York City’s billionaire mayor, Mike Bloomberg, and a determined group of black activist firefighters…
At the center of this book are stories of courage–about firefighters risking their lives in the line of duty but also risking their livelihoods by battling an unjust system…Based on years of on the ground reporting, Firefight is an exciting blend of high-octane firefighting, critical civil rights history and a grassroots struggle for opportunity.”
— Excerpted from the Bookjacket
If you want to get a good sense of why the Black Lives Matter movement has caught fire, you might want to check out Firefight. This inspirational opus by Ginger Adams Otis chronicles the ongoing African-American struggle to join the ranks of New York City’s firefighters a century after it was first integrated.
How ridiculous does it sound that there are only a few hundred black firemen in a city of over 8 million? That shocking statistic calls to mind Ferguson, Missouri where, following the shooting of Michael Brown, it came to light that African-Americans were woefully unrepresented on the police force and on the city council, despite constituting the majority of the registered voters.
Consequently, there’s has been a groundswell of support across the land for greater diversity in inner-city police forces. The hope is that when the cops match the ethnic makeup of the community, there will be fewer cases of officers shooting unarmed citizens.
But why stop with policing? Don’t all civil service jobs matter, especially when young black males have an unemployment rate of about 50%. Just think, how much better off they’d be with equal access to positions not only as cops, but as firemen, bus drivers, train conductors, garbage men and so forth.
As has often been said, freedom ain’t for free, and what makes Firefight a worthwhile read is how, in painstaking detail, it delineates the bitter war waged in New York by the Vulcan Society, the tight-knit fraternity formed by black firemen, to bring more African-Americans into the NYFD. Unfortunately, even after successfully making their discrimination case in court, they found themselves up against a mayor in Michael Bloomberg, who was willing to ignore a federal order to desegregate coming from the Department of Justice.
In that regard, Bloomberg’s response was rather reminiscent of President Andrew Jackson’s to a Supreme Court decision in favor of the Cherokee Nation. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall had concluded that the United States had violated a treaty made with the Cherokee by authorizing their removal from the state of Georgia.
Nevertheless, Jackson opted to ignore the injunction, saying, “Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” The President subsequently proceeded to force the Cherokee and other tribes to relocate west of the Mississippi in what historians now refer to as the Trail of Tears migration.
Thus, the Black Lives Matter movement would do well to learn from the lessons of both the Native Americans and the black NYFD firefighters in formulating a game plan for creating the colorblind utopia it so optimistically envisions.
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