National civil rights stalwarts have mourned the death of June Shagaloff Alexander, an organizer who began her work with Thurgood Marshall in 1950. Her legacy in Rockland County, where she lived for decades and advocated for children, is also remembered after his death on March 29. in Tel Aviv at age 93.
“His historical and social science research was key in preparing LDF for Brown’s successful arguments against Board of Education in the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Ted Shaw, former LDF director-attorney. . “Wherever she went, she did work that reflected her commitment to social, racial and social justice.”
Shagaloff Alexander worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund throughout the 1950s.
In 1961, Shagaloff Alexander joined the national NAACP as its first director of education. She focused on discriminatory education policy, centering on southern and northern school districts.
Shaw said her job was to travel to Westchester, where she worked with New Rochelle parents, who in 1961 won a lawsuit ending de facto segregation at Lincoln School, which was 94% black.
In the 1970s, she married Michael Alexander and lived for a time in Israel.
Born in Brooklyn, she and her husband moved to Rockland in the early 1980s, living in Bardonia. In 2008, she was inducted into the Rockland County Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
Shaw said Shagaloff Alexander liked Rockland.
Frances Pratt, former president of the Nyack NAACP, said Shagaloff Alexander grappled with those same equity issues when she lived in Rockland County.
When Shagaloff Alexander moved to the county, Pratt, a new NAACP president, was eager to appoint her to head the Nyack branch chair of education.
“She really got the ball rolling,” Pratt said of solving the issues that were holding black kids back from Nyack.
Shagaloff Alexander supported families whose young black boys were often tracked into special education classes and faced school suspensions at a much higher rate than other children.
His organizational skills and work with families were impressive, Pratt said. “She was the best thing since sliced bread!”
Diane Rivera, longtime executive director of the West Street Child Care Learning Centre, met Shagaloff Alexander around 1992. Rivera was a social worker at Head Start in Nyack and Shagaloff Alexander was part of a new project called Caring Homes for Children, which promoted adopting children of color with families of color. The program received funding from the Rockland County Department of Social Services, Rivera said.
In 1997, Rivera took over as head of West Street Child Care Learning Centera Spring Valley-based agency that was struggling. One of Rivera’s first and major decisions was to recruit Shagaloff Alexander to the board.
“June worked with me to build reputation and put programs in place,” Rivera said, drawing on her “expertise and knowledge to advocate for children.”
Rivera said she knew Shagaloff Alexander for a while before connecting her friend to Thurgood Marshall and her key role in organizing access to education for all children.
“She continued her work on a different level in Rockland County,” Rivera said. “His passion was really trying to equalize education for everyone.”
Shagaloff Alexander remained vice chair of the center’s board of directors until she moved to Israel a few years ago to be closer to her son, David Alexander.
Rivera said Shagaloff Alexander still called regularly from Tel Aviv to see how West Street was doing and if there was a way to help. The two spoke to each other just weeks before Shagaloff Alexander died, Rivera said.
Key to the national movement
Shaw said Shagaloff Alexander remains dedicated to the causes she fought for. The two had spoken almost weekly, including during his years in Rockland and then in Israel.
Shagaloff Alexander often worked behind the scenes, but was well known and respected among her peers.
Shaw recalled how in 1952 June Shagaloff was thrown in jail while doing desegregation work in Cairo, Illinois. Thurgood Marshall traveled there to secure his release. Shagaloff Alexander later told Shaw how she could overhear Marshall, a storyteller as sharp as a lawyer, chatting with the white sheriff for a few hours. “Then she heard Marshall say, ‘Are you going to release her? Can I take her?’ The sheriff, quite charmed, let her go.”
Her friendship with writer and activist James Baldwin was deep, Shaw said. Shagaloff Alexander had been entrusted with part of Baldwin’s personal library.
Shagaloff Alexander had accompanied Baldwin and a dozen prominent black leaders to a meeting with then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on May 24, 1963 in New York City to discuss racial tensions in the North.
“Several whites attended the meeting,” The New York Times reported in a May 25, 1963, article. But Shagaloff, described as an “NAACP official on school integration issues,” was the only one named.
The meeting was tense; as Kennedy pushed back, many came out. But historians have credited the encounter with having a profound impact on RFK that led to a turning point in his support for civil rights.
“June touched so many people and did so much work,” Shaw said. “She was an extraordinary woman with a consistent life. She is part of history.”
Pratt agreed. Although, she says, few know about Shagaloff Alexander and his legacy. “She wasn’t exactly light under a bushel,” Pratt said. “She was an unsung heroine.”
Nancy Cutler writes at People & Policy. Click here for his latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland.