1964: Civil Unrest

While the fair officially touted peace and global unity, civil unrest and continued Cold War fears cast a dark shadow over American politics. Fair organizers had early secured the support of President John F. Kennedy who became an important and vocal proponent of the fair. Kennedy would not live to see the fair materialize, however, as he was assassinated about six months before the fair opened. After the assassination, Cold War tensions flared and “Peace through Understanding” appeared more elusive than ever. This tension and disunity was only furthered by the growing divide in public opinion on the escalation of the Vietnam War.

The fair also found itself in the middle of the turbulent civil rights movement. As African-Americans fought for equality, violent protests, erupted across the country. African-Americans were still being killed for demanding an end to discrimination and for many protesters, “Peace through Understanding” seemed like wishful thinking at best.

Poster detailing Brooklyn CORE's planned Stall-in. Via corenyc.org

Poster detailing Brooklyn CORE’s planned Stall-in. Via corenyc.org

The fair itself became embroiled in civil rights controversy as activists decried the fair’s discriminatory hiring practices. Staff was overwhelmingly white from administrators through service personnel. Martin Luther King Jr. and a number of New York City activists sought to use the fair’s own publicity to highlight the plight of African-Americans.

At one point, nine activists chained themselves to cranes during construction to demand African-American access to fair jobs. Later the Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality, CORE for short, and Louis E. Lomax, a militant civil rights activist, planned to use Moses’ beloved highways against him.

The group planned to abandon cars on the expressways serving the fair. In doing this, activists could block visitor access to the fair to protest the organization’s discriminatory practices. On opening day, only twelve cars participated, due in large part to new laws with harsh penalties criminalizing the intentional blockage of traffic. In preaching peace through understanding, the fair may have ignored or at least underestimated the nation’s social climate. 

This misreading of the social climate actually extended beyond politics. One major criticism of the fair came in response to the planners continued instance that extensive city planning and slum clearance was the path to a brighter future. By the 1960s, activists like Jane Jacobs were beginning to question the ethics of widespread urban renewal, since in practice it often displaced lower income residents and destroyed communities. In featuring exhibits like “Futurama,” the fair seemed to be unwilling to acknowledge the potential shortcomings of top down urban planning.

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