The Unity that Follows Tragedy Shouldn't Obscure Buffalo's History of RacismRoundup
tags: guns, racism, mass shootings, White Supremacy, Buffalo Massacre
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a contributing writer at The New Yorker. She is a professor of African American studies at Princeton University and the author of several books, including Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, which was a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for history.
Tension choked the air when a ten-foot-tall cross, wrapped in gasoline-soaked rags, burned wildly, as if to set the night on fire. The cross burned in the fall of 1980, on Jefferson Avenue, which runs through several Black neighborhoods that constitute the East Side of Buffalo, New York, and it punctuated a wave of terror in and around the city. A month earlier, on September 22nd, a Black fourteen-year-old boy had been shot in the head three times. Over the next two days, three other Black men were shot and killed. After ballistics testing, the police concluded that all four had been killed by the same weapon. Then, in early October, the bodies of two more Black men were found, beaten and stabbed to death. Both men had had their hearts cut out of their chests.
Several days after that, the cross was lit ablaze. The following day, on October 10th, a nurse walked in on a white man trying to strangle a Black man who was lying prone in a hospital bed. He survived, but the attack left him incapacitated and in need of surgery. In the course of those weeks, six African American males had been viciously murdered. The streak of deaths overlapped with a series of bewildering disappearances of Black children in Atlanta, which came to be known as the Atlanta child murders, heightening the terror.
In Black neighborhoods across Buffalo, rumors swirled that the killings were the work of the Ku Klux Klan. During one of the funerals, the Associated Press reported, two carloads of whites drove by with a “mannequin with grotesque, red painted head wounds,” and threw red paint on the hearse. City officials scoffed at the idea that organized racists were involved in the killings, and a state N.A.A.C.P. official allowed that the attacks may have been committed by a single killer. “However, it is the climate of racism and conservatism in this country that is responsible,” she said. A Black resident named Lattice Alexander told the Times, “Some white people think blacks are getting ahead of them, even though that’s not totally true. With the legal rulings over the last few years and all this unemployment they think they may be losing something because of us.”
After the killings, city officials dealt with rising fear and anger on the East Side of Buffalo. Three years earlier, Arthur O. Eve, a state representative in the New York legislature, had stood on the cusp of being the first Black mayor of Buffalo, after he shockingly beat James Griffin, a former state senator, in the mayoral primary. But Griffin, a high-school dropout based in South Buffalo, a mostly white area, resurfaced in the general election on the Conservative Party line, running on white-grievance politics: he opposed welfare, championed “law and order,” and supported the death penalty. Eve had made a name for himself by heading a solidarity committee that negotiated on behalf of prisoners in Attica state prison in the aftermath of the Attica rebellion. Griffin painted Eve as “soft on crime.” But, in the wake of the killings, Griffin lowered city flags and called for calm. Black youth had been pelting cars driven by whites with rocks. Jesse Jackson came to the city to plead for peace. Griffin, in a public plea, said, “We can’t let mean and vicious crimes like these separate us. . . . Buffalo is the City of Good Neighbors.”
Local leaders have often invoked the city’s invented “good neighbors” moniker to promote an ethos of gritty unity in Buffalo.