Teaching the Young Lords Party: The Civil Rights Movement in New York City

Tommy Ender, Rhode Island College

     The social studies curriculum positions the Civil Rights Movement as an era when individuals and groups promoted the collective rights of marginalized individuals. Yet, the Civil Rights Movement is often viewed as a Southernbased campaign (Fernandez, 2003). This awareness has been solidified in social studies classrooms with a focus on civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks (Brown Buchanan, 2015). While other individuals such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, civil rights leaders in California, have been included in the study, social studies neglects to mention movements in other geographical settings (Loewen, 2018). New York State and New Jersey social studies curricula maintain this perspective. The limited geographical scope implies that the Civil Rights Movement did not happen in a setting like New York City. The inclusion of the Young Lords Party (YLP) in social studies (SS) curricula expands the view of the Civil Rights Movement.

     The YLP advocated for the civil rights of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos living in New York City and New Jersey. This article provides: 1) a concise overview of the YLP during this time period, 2) explanations on how the New York State (NYS) and New Jersey (NJ) curricula fail to mention local civil rights movements, and 3) support for the inclusion of the YLP. Incorporating the YLP into the NYS and NJ SS curricula will help students learn how one aspect of the Civil Rights Movement occurred in the heart of New York City.

Overview of the Young Lords Party

     The Young Lords Party of New York City officially existed from 1969 to 1972. The YLP leadership consisted of college-educated individuals, such as Juan Gonzalez, Pablo Guzman, Felipe Luciano, Mickey Melendez, Iris Morales, and Denise Oliver. The YLP originally worked as the New York chapter of the Young Lords Organization (YLO). Based in Chicago, the YLO backed civic empowerment and selfdetermination for Puerto Ricans in the United States (Enck-Wanzer, 2010). However, political differences led to their separation. Pablo Guzman (1998) argues that the YLO maintained a street gang mindset, relying on violence as a movement tactic. Mickey Melendez (2003), contends that the YLP maintained a different level of social understanding than the YLO. The YLP cited community dialogue as the driving force in their movement. The YLP, after separating from the YLO, created the Young Lords Party: 13 Point Program and Platform. The declaration called for the “liberation of all third world people,” “equality for women,” “community control,” and “self-determination for all Latinos” (The Young Lords Party & Abramson, 1971, p. 150). The YLP addressed the plight of Puerto Ricans and Latinos in New York City through community-based actions.

     Three major actions reveal the scope of the YLP movement. The Garbage Offensive was the first major act of the YLP. Residents living in El Barrio (At the time of the movement, it was the largest Pureto Rican neighborhood in New York City) complained about the inconsistent garbage pick-up and vermin infestations (Melendez, 2003). After listening to their concerns, the YLP leadership attempted a dialogue with city officials. The city officials, however, refused to change their policy. On August 17, 1969, the YLP lined up hundreds of garbage bags across Third Avenue and burned it for hours (Enck-Wanzer, 2006). While the garbage burned, residents interviewed by local reporters verbally supported the YLP (NegronMuntaner, 2015). The results from the Garbage Offensive led to an agreement with the Mayor’s Office. The sanitation department restarted regular garbage pick-ups in El Barrio (Melendez 2003).

     The YLP also learned that anemia was a chronic health issue affecting residents. The YLP developed the idea of implementing a freebreakfast program for children to combat anemia (Enck-Wanzer, 2010). However, finding a location posed to be a problem. The Young Lords started communications with Reverend Humberto Carranzana, leader of the First Spanish Methodist Church. Reverend Carranza was a Cuban refugee who established the church on the premise of providing community outreach in El Barrio (Enck-Wanzer, 2010). The church, with a renovated basement and meeting rooms, sat unused during the week (Morales, 1996).

     However, Reverend Carranzana routinely refused to open the church up to the YLP during the week. The leadership decided to attend one Sunday service where members of the congregation could offer public testimonials. Reverend Carranzana notified the police upon hearing the plan. Felipe Luciano, during the testimonial portion of the service, asked the congregation for support (Morales, 1996). As Luciano tried to engage in dialogue with the congregation, police attacked YLP members inside the church (Morales, 1998). While members of the YLP were assaulted by police in house of worship and jailed for their actions, the publicity from the action gained new supporters for the YLP. The new-found support encouraged the formal take-over of the same church weeks later.

     The church occupation lasted eleven days. The YLP renamed it the First People’s Church (The Young Lords Party & Abramson, 1971). The YLP used the space to run a free daily breakfast program, clothing drives, a day care center, lead poisoning tests, and other community-based initiatives (De Jesus, 2015). The YLP also engaged with local and national media. The leadership disclaimed any premisconceptions about the movement or the takeover of the church, focusing on city institutions oppressing communities of color (Morales, 1996). By the 12th day, the YLP and the church leadership agreed to end the occupation. The potential for regional influence existed when the YLP expanded into New Jersey in 1970. Internal divisions, however, led to the disintegration of the YLP.  

     A combination of government intrusion and debates on future actions led to the collapse of the YLP. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) had infiltrated the movement. The F.B.I. positioned Latino subversives within the movement as part of its COINTELPRO program (Morales, 1996). The YLP leadership split on expanding the movement outside the NYC area. The dissension centered on the idea of opening YLP branches in Puerto Rico as part of a focus on liberating the island from U.S. control. The decision to expand to Puerto Rico forced Juan Gonzalez, Pablo Guzman, and Denise Oliver to exit the YLP (Guzman, 1998).

     The subsequent focus towards the island and the loss of original leaders fortified the disintegration. One branch closed, and the second branch struggled to maintain a presence within six months of expanding to Puerto Rico (Melendez, 2003). The YLP’s hyper-focus on Puerto Rico caused an erosion of support in New York City (Melendez, 2003). By 1972, the YLP officially changed their name to the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization (EnckWanzer, 2010). While the organization continued to advocate the liberation of Puerto Rico from the United States, the name change signaled the end of the movement.  

The Curricula on the Civil Rights Movement

     Analyses of the NYS SS frameworks and the NJ SS curriculum suggest two interpretations: the absence of civil rights movements happening in New York and New Jersey and minimal representations of Latino civil rights movements.

     The New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Social Studies (2014) advocates the analysis of “the successes and failures of women’s rights organizations, the American Indian Movement, and La Raza in their pursuit of civil rights and equal opportunities” under Standard 6.1 (p. 30-31). This statement suggests that La Raza represented all Latinos in the United States during this time period. According to Mintz and McNeil (2018), La Raza supported voting drives, rights for agricultural workers, and the appropriation of land stolen from Mexican landowners. It also suggests a view of New Jersey Latinos not participating in the Civil Rights Movement. The statement excludes other Latino movements during this time period. A similar view is found in the two New York State social studies curricula.

     The NYS K-8 Social Studies Framework (2016) omits direct references of Latinos in the Civil Rights Movement. For 5th grade, Standard 5.6c, students “examine at least one group of people, such as Native Americans, African Americans, women, or another cultural, ethnic, or racial minority in the Western Hemisphere, who have struggled or are struggling for equality and civil rights or sovereignty” (p. 77). For 8th grade, Standard 8.9b, the curriculum states that “the civil rights movement prompted renewed efforts for equality by women and other groups” (p. 109). The standards imply that Latinos were not part of the movement. The standards do not mandate a specific examination of Latino civil rights movements. The standards lack references to movements taking place in New York State, such as the YLP, during this time. The 9-12 framework is more specific.

     The NYS 9-12 Social Studies Framework (2016) formally references Latino movements. Standard 11.10 encourages the study of “Brown Power (Chicano) movement” who “sought to bring about change in American society through a variety of methods” (p. 43). This curriculum again positions Latino movements as an experience outside New York State. However, the standard provides some flexibility in introducing other Latino civil movements into the curriculum. In a study of New York City high school students engaging with culturally responsive teaching, Epstein, Mayorga, and Nelson (2011) note that the majority of students in humanities classes selected different movements that aligned with their racial/ethnic identities. Students who identified as Latino chose the YLP. The potential exists for thoughtful study of the Young Lords Party in New Jersey and New York in social studies classrooms.

Including the Young Lords Party in the Curriculum

     Including the Young Lords Party in the New Jersey and New York State curricula as part of the learning does the following: 1) positions Latinos as diverse, active participants during the Civil Rights Movement era, 2) redefines the geographic scope of the Civil Rights Movement to include New York and New Jersey, and 3) examines the legacy of a Latino civil rights movement.

Positioning of Latinos as Active and Diverse Participants

     Including the YLP positions Latinos as a diverse group of individuals addressing social problems in the United States following World War II. First, the YLP represented Puerto Ricans and other Latinos who experienced systemic

      First, the YLP represented Puerto Ricans and other Latinos who experienced systemic prejudice. The leadership saw their comunidades (Spanish for communities) suffer under government policies.   They sought to be a collective voice for them, similarly to the Black Panther Party (The Young Lords Party & Abramson, 1971). Second, the YLP worked within urban contexts. The Puerto Rican diaspora, escaping rural poverty in Puerto Rico brought on by U.S. colonialism, resulted in Puerto Ricans moving to cities such as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston (Lee, 2014; Korrol, 2010). Finally, the YLP promoted gender equality. While internal struggles over gender equality are documented (Enck-Wanzer, 2010; Nelson, 2001), the YLP publicly advocated for the rights of women. Palante, the YLP newspaper, included section on women’s rights on every issue (Enck-Wanzer 2010). The YLP also established the Men’s Caucus, a suborganization aimed at eliminating male chauvinism within the movement (The Young Lords Party & Abramson, 1971). Along with expanding the view of Latinos during this time, the YLP also helps redefine the geography of the Civil Rights Movement.

Redefining the Geography of the Civil Rights Movement

     The YLP provides the curricula with local contexts. Standard 6.1 in the New Jersey curriculum states that thinking analytically about the past develops “knowledge and skills” need to “make informed decisions that reflect fundamental rights and core democratic values as productive citizens in local, national, and global communities” (p. 30). Only Strand A (Civics, Government, and Human Rights) positions New Jersey as a local community. The YLP enhances New Jersey as a local setting under Strand D (History, Culture, and Perspectives). The YLP opened branches in Newark and Jersey City in 1970 (The Young Lords Party & Abramson, 1971). In the New York State K-8 social studies curriculum, Standard 8.8b calls on students to “examine migration and immigration trends in New York State and New York City such as the increase in Spanish-speaking…populations and the contributions of these groups” (p. 108). In Standard 8.8a, students need to “examine the effects of suburbanization, including urban decay,…both nationally and with New York State” (p.108). Students studying the history of the YLP learn how the promise of employment and white flight created an environment where Puerto Ricans became the dominant social group living in urban poverty (Berman, 1982). While poverty continues to affect millions of residents in New York and New Jersey, the recent popularity illustrates the need to examine the legacies of the YLP.

Examining the YLP Legacy

     Books, museums, and cultural centers in recent years have illustrated the lasting societal impact of the Young Lords Party. Scholars such as Darrel Enck-Wanzer, Johanna Fernandez, and Yasmin Ramirez have introduced the words and images of the YLP to new generations of students and scholars. Darrel Enck-Wanzer edited The Young Lords: A Reader, a collection of YLP writings on the 40th anniversary of the movement’s founding. Johanna Fernandez is current writing a historical narrative on the YLP. The Bronx Museum of the Arts and El Museo del Barrio coordinated exhibitions on the YLP in 2015, curated by Johanna Fernandez and Yasmin Ramirez (Lo Wang, 2015). The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute and the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center in New York City hosted lectures with former YLP leaders. The public appeal for the YLP extends to members of the YLP leadership.

     Former leadership members transitioned to the public stage in different ways. Juan Gonzalez became an award-winning journalist for the New York Daily News and author, writing Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. Pablo Guzman became an awardwinning television reporter for WCBS-TV in New York City. Iris Morales became an awardwinning author and documentarian, most notably Through the Eyes of Rebel Women, The Young Lords: 1969-1976. Denise Oliver-Velez cofounded WPFW-FM, a radio station serving communities of color in Washington, DC (She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, n.d.). The continued public interest in the YLP translates into learning opportunities for K-12 students studying the Civil Rights Movement.


     The Young Lords Party invokes new views and interpretations of the Civil Rights Movement. The YLP created a civil rights movement based on the experiences of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos. The YLP established urban contexts, such as New York City, as pivotal locations in the overall narrative on the Civil Rights Movement. The continued public involvement of former YLP members and recent historical exhibitions demonstrate a wide appeal for the YLP in contemporary times. Social studies students, especially students of color, would benefit from learning about the Young Lords Party.  


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