Reckoning with Great Neck’s Racism

Sophia Liu

“Great Neck will be damned. We will be damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” a short-haired woman declares.  

“When in the future, [when our children ask] what did you do, at least I can say I tried to help—I was not afraid,” another woman asserts. 

Another man comes up to the mic and speaks confidently. “If Great Neck says no, it will be a cowardly gesture of fearful retreat.” 

These Great Neck residents are presenting at a hearing on February 2, 1969. Conflict has cascaded over Great Neck in the prior months after the Board of Education proposed to bus in poor, African American elementary-aged children from Queens for a two-year experimental program that would expand yearly. 

The plan seemed infallible: Great Neck, a predominantly white, Jewish, and affluent community, was given the opportunity to lead the fight for racial desegregation without any tax increase because funding would come from the state. 

Based on its previous involvement in social activism, Great Neck appeared as a perfect place to champion school integration. Robert Kennedy, Whitney Young, and others have all come to Great Neck “for a receptive audience and a helping hand.” When Martin Luther King Jr. visited Great Neck, over 2,000 citizens filled Temple Israel to greet him. King raised 60,000 dollars in one night from 55 Great Neck residents. 

Yet shortly after the plan was publicized, opposition sprouted. A Parent’s Committee formed against busing, placing newspaper advertisements to propagate their opinions. The school budget that year was struck down, likely due to anti-busing sentiment. Board members received threats against their businesses and of physical violence. 

In response, the Board of Education decided to hold a referendum, which meant the decision to move forward with the busing plan was bound to the community’s votes. 

Then, led by Board member Frank Phillips, supporters of the busing plan formed the Committee for Conscience and Reason. The Committee argued that the plan would not only help African American children, but also benefit the education in Great Neck schools through diversity. Taking up similar means, they placed newspaper advertisements with headlines reading “The Whole World Is Watching. Keep Great Neck Great!” dialed residents to ask for their vote, and spread flyers at the railroad station. 

High school students, overwhelmingly in favor of busing, quickly followed. A high school student leading the endeavor explained, “We the students felt that we had to do something. We couldn’t just let this plan be defeated.” Thousands of students signed an advertisement titled “Do Not Make Us Be Ashamed of Growing Up in Great Neck.” Students worked vehemently, traveling from house to house to persuade members of their community to vote yes.

The debate absorbed Great Neck. A rabbi of Temple Beth-El preached, “We cannot save their worlds entirely…but this much we can do. We can bring them in and share ourselves with them and 45 to 60 children will live under a brighter sun because of us. This issue is moral. The opportunity is moral. The verdict must likewise be moral.” 

Another man expressed, “It is every citizen’s job to help the next citizen, but we have lost it because we have become affluent—we worry about our Cadillacs, our homes, our health, our country clubs. It should be our privilege to help these children…[but] I am against the anti-Semitism coming from the Black militant groups.” 

His worry about anti-Semitism, a common argument used against busing, mirrored many others in Great Neck and stemmed from the souring of Black-Jewish relations in the 1960s. The civil rights movement shifted to a focus of separatism due to the belief that African Americans could not achieve true equality unless they led the movement themselves. Some Black activists noted that Jews held a disproportionate number of leadership positions compared to Black Americans, and began to exclude them. In the 1964 Philadelphia race riots, Jewish shop owners accused African Americans of anti-Semitism for targeting their stores and African Americans responded by accusing them of discrimination. Other events such as the Six-Day War in 1967, which spiked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, led Black civil rights activists to identify with Palestinians and turn against Zionism, further spurring Black-Jewish tensions. 

Twelve days before the referendum, the Great Neck School Board held a hearing with residents of Hartford and Boston who experienced similar plans, but the majority of the time was consumed by speeches from around 100 Great Neck residents. Again, contentions about anti-Semitism were brought up but also rebutted against. One man defended, “You can’t take this out on all the Black people of the world anymore than you can take an anti-Semitic remark and say all Jews are like that.” 

Another resident voiced that they “opposed any student of any race and of background from the city” into Great Neck, meaning their decision was not racially motivated. 

One of the few Black speakers urged, “We challenge the white voters to join us in passing this referendum and in giving hope and promise not only to the Black people in Great Neck but also to those around our country.” 

Four days before the referendum vote, Great Neck high schoolers staged a protest. Gradually, more and more people joined them, chanting “Vote Yes” throughout town. 

Finally, at 7 am on February 6, the polls opened for voting and received the largest voter turnout ever of any previous local election. People crowded the lines and anxiously waited on the balcony to hear the results. At 10 pm, the polls closed and the counting began. 

The first machine was deceitfully optimistic—the number of yes votes overwhelmed the no. At the second voting place, Great Neck South High School, the number of no votes almost doubled the yes. Subsequently, at the third voting location, North High School, voting irregularities appeared. Due to the high number of votes, the voting machines could not accurately record the ballots and thus, the election was deemed invalid. The total number that night came out to be 5,797 votes for no, 4,988 votes for yes, and over 3,000 votes unaccounted for. 

As a result, the final verdict came down to where it had originally started—the Board of Education. On February 8, the Board held an open meeting to place their votes. One member addressed that even though he initially supported the plan, the conflict it caused among the Great Neck community was too great for it to move forward. The next member believed that despite the conflict, the plan was “educationally sound” because students and teachers welcomed it. 

After the first four votes, the results were tied 2-2. The deciding vote came down to Al Cianciulli, who affirmed, “In honor of my conscience, I vote yes.” At the sound of those words, the room erupted into uproar and security guards escorted the Board members away. 

But regardless of this victory, Great Neck never bused in a single African American student. Opponents of busing accused the Board of treachery and threatened to never approve of another budget. The next school budget was indeed voted down and two busing opponents won in the school board election, replacing two pro-busing members. 

Al Cianciulli became “a symbol that divided our community in a very bitter way.” He was sent hate mail and petitions which people signed asking him to leave Great Neck. Cianciulli did not run for reelection and remembered this time as “a very bruising experience.” 

The New York City Board of Education eventually withdrew their offer after hearing about the discord, even when Frank Phillips and other supporters tried to convince them to move forward. 

At last, Great Neck’s ordeal with busing came to a close, but racial injustice was far from over. 

Alice Sparberg Alexiou, a teenager living in Great Neck in 1969, writes that thirty years later, she still asks herself, “How did this happen? How did the nay-sayers win?” In her article published in LILITH, Alexiou implies that race was indeed a determining factor.

Alexiou and many Great Neck families hired Black housekeepers, most of whom lived in the city. As amicable Alexiou and her family were with her housekeeper Mattie, she knew that Mattie would never be a “member of the family.” “We were always congratulating ourselves for establishing ‘equality,’” Alexiou writes, “but the women who cooked our meals and cleaned our toilets knew better.” 

The rationales of the past may always be unclear, but when the same uncomfortable discussions about race persist, it proves how stagnant progress has been in the last half-century in addressing our prejudices. In accepting Great Neck’s verdict against school integration in 1969, we must also accept the dire need to reexamine ourselves and resurface cordial conversations about race.