Newark, N.J., Lives With Aftermath Of Race Riots 50 Years Later

Jul 12, 2017
Originally published on July 12, 2017 4:34 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In July of 1967, the city of Newark, N.J., erupted in race riots that would leave more than 25 people dead. Alexandra Hill of member station WBGO looks back at what became a defining moment for the city.

ALEXANDRA HILL, BYLINE: Fifty years ago today, black cab driver John Smith was arrested and beaten after a routine traffic stop. Rumors that Smith had died spread throughout the city and residents took to the streets.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The worst race riots since those two years ago in the Watts section of Los Angeles rock New Jersey's largest city, Newark, for five consecutive days and nights.

HILL: Newark became the epicenter of black rage. Twenty-six people died, more than 700 were injured and nearly 1,500 arrested.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You see the conditions we're living in? You see these houses here? And the people who own these houses don't live in Newark.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: But do you think it does any good to turn the neighborhood into the way this one looks tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What do you think will happen because of this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The white man's going to listen downtown.

HILL: Late activist, poet and Newark native Amiri Baraka said people were worried about education, substandard living conditions and racial profiling, and were watching the larger civil rights movement unfold.

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AMIRI BARAKA: People spit in your face and spit on you. And then we began to think, well, why should we have to put up with that? There is nothing on the planet that mandates that you have to accept this kind of treatment.

HILL: Longtime community activist Bob Curvin saw the first rocks and Molotov cocktails fly. Curvin says he was not surprised.

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BOB CURVIN: We lived in a powder keg. And if it were not John Smith it would have been, you know, Harry Jones or Mary Brown or somebody. Something would have happened, I believe, that would have sparked a period of violence in the city.

HILL: Monsignor William Lender (ph) was a newly ordained white priest recently assigned to the all-black Queen of Angels parish. Lender says the police perpetrated much of the violence.

WILLIAM LENDER: I was walking along 17th Avenue there and they were distributing the shotguns to the police. They had never seen shotguns before. And the police didn't understand the damage one shotgun can do.

HILL: Lender says when the governor called in the National Guard things got even worse. Surprising as it sounds today, no charges were ever filed in relation to any of the deaths that occurred during Newark's summer of '67.

LENDER: These kids were using M-1 rifles. I mean, you would never give someone that without a lot of training. People were responsible for that. And yet we never held them responsible for that. We never held them responsible for what we should have.

HILL: After the rebellion, residents demanded change. Newark elected its first African-American mayor in 1970, Kenneth Gibson. Gibson says the images of the rebellion still haunt the city to this day.

KENNETH GIBSON: Hundreds of images of stores broken into on Springfield Avenue. But the city did not burn. In fact, there was no neighborhood in the city of Newark that burned. But those images created the image for the city of Newark that continues today.

HILL: The son of late poet Amiri Baraka is now the leader of the city. Mayor Ras Baraka was sworn into office in July of 2014, vowing to take the city into the future.

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RAS BARAKA: A mayor that puts his city first, a man that never forgets how he got here, yeah. We need a mayor that's radical.

HILL: But poverty and unemployment levels are higher than the national average. Late last year, the police department was put under federal consent decree after the Justice Department found widespread civil rights violations at the hands of the Newark police. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Hill in Newark. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.