This book is about a hero; a hero in the epic tradition and of profound proportions, a hero capable of acting out great tragedies. The name of the hero is Harlem.
There is this very famous piece of real estate in New York City in the Borough of Manhattan that begins at the northern end of Central Park from the East River to the Hudson and stretches northward to the Bronx and Washington Heights. A peculiar aspect of this community is the difficulty one has in precisely defining its boundaries. The more pressure applied from the outside to push the inhabitants into a smaller more crowded area, the more the indomitable people push ever outwards and encroach upon the neighboring communities. The square mileage of Harlem grows by the year the month the day the very hour, as black people fight their way out of the center of the ghetto, eternally extending its boundaries. Harlem gobbles up the surrounding landscape like the sands of the insatiable Sahara.
Harlem Stirs is a book about the long hot summers of the Sixties and the cold white winters of our terrible discontent. It is a story of the people in movement again on various and varied fronts. As this book dramatizes in words and pictures, Jesse Gray and Major Williams mobilized a section of the black disinherited in Harlem in the Great Rent Strike of 1963. The Strike was not an act of spontaneity. Jesse Gray had worked many years organizing the little uninfluential people of Harlem leading them in struggle against the lords of real estate, who have been to Harlemites very elusive targets indeed. Anybody uptown will tell you, the slumlords are a slippery breed. Harlem Stirs is not a story of a people hopelessly lost in a quagmire of despair and helplessness, but these tory of the people fighting back against overwhelming odds, which makes it a very special kind of book. The embattled people at war against the cruelty and hypocrisy and power of government and the press, which is to say, against the entire establishment.
(Excerpts from the prologue, by John O. Killens)
Prologue: John O. Killens
Text: Fred Halstead
Photography: Anthony Aviles, Don Charles