Student-Powered Exhibit Marks Link between Civil Rights and 1964 World’s Fair

Headshots of Ryan and Luke

Luke Henke and Ryan McDonnell ’21G

September 22, 2021

The qualities of collaboration, dedication, and passion for social justice are among the pillars of an education at St. John’s University.

These values are exemplified by a graduate student and a recent alumnus through their partnership to create an online exhibit detailing a car “stall-in” protest at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, NY, that helped cast a national spotlight on the Civil Rights Movement.

“We want to raise the public’s attention to the greater purpose of the 1964 World’s Fair, which took place in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, as setting the stage for the Civil Rights Movement,” said Ryan McDonnell ’21G, who graduated in August with a Master of Arts degree in Public History and a Master of Science degree in Library and Information Science from St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“This is our job—to help the public understand and connect with history in a more profound way,” said Luke Henke, who is expected to earn the same master’s degrees in December.

“This exhibit seeks to contribute to ongoing efforts to document and interpret the stall-in and the other civil rights protests associated with the World’s Fair,” they state in their online presentation, “Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Stall-in at 1964 New York World’s Fair.”

It continues, “The goal is to initiate dialogue with those who were involved with or observed the civil rights protests at the World’s Fair, and invite them to consider sharing their insights, views, and, as necessary, corrections and revisions.”

Stall-ins were patterned after “sit-ins” that were becoming prevalent as a nonviolent tactic of civil rights activists to disrupt normal life, protest discrimination, and draw attention to the Civil Rights Movement. The stall-ins were essentially sit-ins on wheels. The exhibit provides an online history of the media sensation that the Brooklyn, NY, chapter of CORE sparked with its plans to organize the stall-in. Approximately 2,000 expected participants proposed to slow their vehicles to snarl traffic on five key roads, bridges, and tunnels leading to the site of the fair on opening day, April 22, 1964. This was the same day that then-President Lyndon B. Johnson was scheduled to tour the fair; protest organizers aimed to use the anticipated comprehensive press coverage to underscore how racial discrimination persisted as a common and accepted practice in American life.

However, just prior to opening day, many of those who planned to participate in the stall-in were dissuaded by threats of arrests and having their vehicles seized. As a result, a massive traffic jam never materialized, prompting some to call the stall-in a failure. Others declared the work of the protest organizers a success because publicity surrounding their efforts achieved the desired goal of raising widespread awareness, as well as public discussion, of the Civil Rights Movement and ongoing racial inequities.

While preparing the exhibit, Luke and Ryan supervised undergraduate students as they assisted in research and editing efforts. Working in tandem, Ryan compiled the findings of the undergraduates’ analysis and created the online exhibit with interactive components. Luke constructed, and continues to refine, a user-friendly map that allows website visitors to pinpoint the exact locations of events leading up to and during the stall-in.

The project taught Luke to venture out of his comfort zone. “Don’t cut yourself off from any opportunity,” Luke said. “Your education is ongoing and is not confined to the classroom.”

Under the guidance of Kristin M. Szylvian, Ph.D., Graduate Director, Department of Public History, and Associate Professor, Department of History and Division of Library and Information Science, the pair developed an online format for the exhibit with the goal of reaching a broad swath of the general public.

“You should not rush through any learning experience,” Ryan said. “Never take it for granted because exposure to new ideas can lead you to great discoveries that may help and enlighten many other people.”