(Image Source: NJ.com)
I heard the story countless times growing up. My grandmother had warned my grandfather they shouldn’t go into Newark that Sunday in July of 1967. Not *that* Sunday. But my Papa, veteran of WWII and the Korean War, was not one to scare easily, and was also equally determined not to miss Sunday services. So off they and their four kids went, ranging in age from 15 to 6. My dad was the 15 year old. He remembered sitting in his ironed suit in the back of the family car, riding in from nearby Linden, where they lived in a neat little pink cape cod, the family’s first house after having moved over from packed apartment buildings in Brooklyn two years prior.
They knew pretty quickly upon entering Newark that things were strange. There was no traffic. Or people walking in the sidewalks. And then Papa made a turn onto Broad Street and my grandmother gasped. She grabbed his arm, and said, “Joseph!”. It was then that they all saw it: a huge rolling tank. It was as if the nightly news footage of the Vietnam War had popped out of their black and white TV and became all too real, all too present. Papa braked and then put the car in reverse, simply saying, “There’ll be no church today.”
The Newark Riots, which occured over five days fifty years ago this month, resulted in far more damage than a few cancelled church services. Twenty-six were killed, over 700 were injured and well over a thousand were arrested. To my parents, who would enroll at Newark’s Essex County College a couple of years later, the Riots were a harbinger of the decades of decay, rot and rising crime that were to come.
Lily Rothman at Time recently revisited the historic event:
In the wake of rioting that had swept the city of Newark, N.J., the magazine devoted its cover story to the question of what had sparked the conflagration and what was to be learned from one of the most violent race riots of the decade.
The proximate cause was relatively easy to explain: A cab driver named John Smith, pictured on the cover, was arrested after a minor traffic incident. As he was brought to the police station, a rumor spread that he had been killed by the police. Neighbors, many of them residents of a nearby housing project, gathered outside the station, hoping to find out more. With no sign of Smith (who was beaten but not in fact killed), eventually the crowd began to throw stones at the station windows. The National Guard was called in and a state of emergency declared. The situation escalated, with looting and violence, and over the course of the following days 26 people were killed.
“The very triviality of the riot’s immediate cause made the Newark outburst particularly terrifying,” TIME attested. “It seemed to say that a dozen or so people could be killed in almost any city, any night, by the purest chance.”
In the very same article, however, the magazine showed that such an idea — that the cause was “trivial” — spoke to a lack of understanding of the situation. Yes, it did seem slightly random that this particular incident with John Smith would have resulted in dozens of deaths. But while it certainly took an element of chance to bring Newark to boil on that day rather than some other, Smith’s arrest, to those watching from within the community, wasn’t a small thing. Instead, it was just one more example of what life was like in a majority-black city with a majority-white police force, facing budget cuts to critical assistance programs and urban-development proposals that would have displaced them from their homes.
As NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins explained, concentrating on quelling unrest wouldn’t prevent future incidents if the problem of injustice was not also addressed. And, real as the progress that had been achieved in the prior decade was, that didn’t mean further progress could wait.
“In his desire for ‘more,’ the Negro has joined the rest of the crowd,” TIME noted. “But in his realization that he has a terribly long way to go before he will have as much as most whites — in jobs, in homes and in schooling he has become social tinder, easily kindled.”
Want to know more about the Newark Riots? Remember the 26 people who died in the riots, here. Walk through the Newark streets of the long hot summer of ’67, here. Or, read the recollections of a White Newark Head Start teacher who was sent home for her safety at the start of the Riots- feeling sadness and fear for her mostly Black class of preschoolers. Also, fifty years later, is Newark better or worse?
A National Guardsman stands atop an armored personnel carrier at a roadblock in Newark, N.J., in front of the St. James A.M.E. Church during the Newark riots on July 16, 1967. John Duricka, AP