“That same year, a fourteen-year-old boy named Claude Reese was in the basement of his apartment building, decorating the room for a party with a group of six other teenagers. Suspecting that a burglary was in progress, someone called the police to the scene. A twenty-four-year-old police officer named Frank P. Bosco shot at Reese because he believed the teen was holding a weapon. When Reese‘s body was found, he was holding an eighteen-inch saw with a pistol grip. Bosco was acquitted of the murder.
On Thanksgiving Day 1976, fifteen-year-old Randolph Evans hanging out with friends in the Cypress Hills housing project in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. Responding to a report that there was a man with a gun in the projects, Officer Robert Torsney shot Evans point-blank in the head. According to reports, Torsney did not check on Evans’s condition, and his own partner, Mathew Williams, said that after the shooting, Torsney got in the squad car and calmly replaced the bullet that had been discharged from his gun. When Williams asked Torsney what he had done, he allegedly replied, “I don’t know, Matty. What did I do?” Torsney and he claimed he’d had a psychotic break due to epilepsy, a condition he’d never evidenced before the shooting, and never evidenced again after the shooting. The jury acquitted him by reason of insanity.
In the summer of 1978, thirty-five-year-old businessman Arthur Miller, from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was strangled to death in a struggle with police. Leah was a junior in high school at the time. “By the time Randolph Evans was murdered, “she says, “we were beginning to asked, ‘Okay, really? How many of these are there going to be?’ Evans and Miller became a catalyst for the black community to come together. My father and a group of men in New York City” – Together known as the Big Four – “formed an organization called [the Coalition of] Concerned Leaders and Citizens to Save our Youth. The leaders were my dad, Assemblyman Al Vann from Brooklyn, Sam Pinn of Brooklyn CORE, and Brother Jitu Weusi, whose previous name had been Les Campbell.” The Coalition started boycotts in downtown Brooklyn. “That was my first hands-on, up-close witnessing of activism in motion,” says Leah.
While dozens of people were involved, these four men made for a unique leadership combination. Albert Vann had been born and raised in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He joined the military at the age of eighteen, rising to sergeant in the U.S. Marines. He went on to earn degrees from Toledo University, Yeshiva University, and Long Island University; spent decades as a public school teacher; and founded New York’s African-American teachers’ association. As a community board member, he was instrumental in the founding of Medgar Evers College and Boys and Girls Memorial High School, in Brooklyn. As an assemblyman, he worked diligently for a better representation of community colors in New York City. His work in the area led to the creation of two additional congressional districts, three additional state senatorial districts, and six additional assembly districts in New York State. Al was the original cool: slim, well-dressed whatever the style of the era, and known for wearing a single earring stud. He was a family man, with a beautiful wife, Mildred, and two adoring daughters.
Sam Pinn was also from Bedford Stuyvesant. In 1971 he became the head of the newly formed Brooklyn branch of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. It was a time of great turmoil in New York City, and the New York Times reported that one of the things Pinn and CORE did was to gather witnesses to the increasing number of “line-of-duty” shootings of young black men by white police officers. Pinn told the New York Times in 1971, “We don’t want them coming in here shooting first and asking questions later. This is a tense community and it is always on the verge of exploding.” An aide told the Times reporter that one of the things CORE hoped to do was to “cool the young brothers out so that they don’t give cops an excuse to come in and shoot up a lot of people.” Sam Pinn was sure and steady. He had the look of an established businessman. Always in suits and ties, he gave you the feeling he was going to or coming from a meeting, and that the briefcase he carried contained the secrets to our liberation.
Jitu K. Weusi, born Leslie Campbell, was raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant and was, along with Al Vann, a founding member of the African American Teachers Association. A black nationalist, he founded a cultural organization called The EAST and the Freedom Now School or Uhuru Sasa Shule, the first black independent private school in New York City. EAST Jazz became a prominent venue that featured performances by legends such as Sonny Rollins, Betty Carter, and Pharoah Sanders. Weusi’s leadership in the community had been cemented during the Ocean-Hill – Brownsville struggle for community control of schools. He was quiet, studious. Seven feet tall and always attired in traditional African fabrics, he had an easy smile and laugh, but make no mistake—he was a stone-cold master organizer. All the plans the Big Four came up with he was in charge of executing.
Black leadership has never been a monolith. From the days of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, through the seemingly opposing camps of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, there has always been dissent over strategy, method, governing principles, and endgames. “My father, Vann, Pinn, and Weusi were the most unlikely of compatriots,” Leah says, “but they decided, ‘We can put aside whatever our political differences are and whatever our economic or religious philosophies. We can sit in these rooms every Friday morning and plan around this thing even though we may not agree on who should be mayor and what the governor is doing. Doesn’t matter. This is about a particular issue and how we move our community forward.’
“The four men would meet every Friday morning at our home or at Al Vann’s home …. They would sit for two hours and just plan and organize and think. Each one had a role. Each one had a different community that they touched,” Leah says. “I watched them go from a seedling of an idea to the rollout of this massive protest. You’d show up at these rallies and there’d be ten thousand people. It was an amazing thing that I could see was seeded in my mother’s dining room. It was powerful to watch. That movement, in which we boycotted the downtown stores, happened because of the coalition they were able to build.”
The Big Four decided that if the people could not get justice in the courtroom, then they would agitate for economic justice. On November 7, 1978, Reverend Daughtry led more than a thousand protestors across the bridge from downtown Brooklyn to Wall Street. It was Black Solidarity Day, and the New York Times sent a young reporter named Anna Quindlen to cover the march.
Quindlen reported that “the demonstration was led by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church, who has led several other such marches since a Crown Heights civic leader, Arthur Miller, was killed in a scuffle with police in June… Their presence was as much a sign of a continuing protest against the quality of police protection in their community as against the Koch administration’s policies on minority rights.”
Standing on top of a car on Wall Street near Broadway, Reverend Daughtry told the crowd. “We have not been satisfied that police are going to stop killing our children. We are not satisfied that police are going to stop killing our model citizens like Arthur Miller.”
Reverend Daughtry marched that day with Arthur Miller’s widow, Florence. As Quindlen reported:
“Somebody’s making an awful lot of money from the way we live, and some of those who are making the most money are located where we are going now.” Later he said: “We want to touch all the bases, you understand. We’ll be able to go back in the file and document every step we’ve taken along the way so that when the day of reckoning comes, somebody’s going to say, ‘Did you go?’”
“Yes,” the crowd yelled back.
“Did you meet? Did you see? Did you talk?” he continued, and
“Yes,” the crowd responded to each question.
“We’re tired of talking,” he said.
The policeman who worked the march seemed not to take issue with Daughtry or his followers. Quindlen reported that one officer told her, “We’ve been on duty with them before. They have a point to make and they make it. They don’t cause trouble.”
The Big Four were, however, just getting started. Most of the black residents in Brooklyn shopped at the big downtown department stores: A&S, Mays, Korvettes, and Martin’s. Leah explained that the plan the Big Four set out stated, “If we can’t get the justice from the criminal justice system, then here’s what we want from the merchants. This is where we spend our money. There’s no place else in Brooklyn to shop. Brooklyn people don’t go to other boroughs. If it’s not in Brooklyn, they’re not going to get it.” The Big Four then discussed the ten-point plan they had presented to the city’s merchants. “So we want the merchants to fund the scholarship fund. We want summer jobs for young people. We want a crisis fund for people who are having challenges in their lives. And [the merchants] said no. We’re not funding it. It’s not our problem. It’s not our business. Take your problems elsewhere.”
** In real-time, we see that Business Insider cites Rev. Leah Daughtry as one of the most powerful Democratic women in politics. See link: www.tinyurl.com/wjxc2wa
To be continued…