Fifty-three years ago, Newark looked like a war zone. And sounded like one, too. New Jersey’s largest city exploded in protest, demanding justice, economic equality, police reforms and accountability — some of the same issues the city is facing today.
But on July 12, 1967, two white police officers arrested cab driver John Smith. Word spread the cops had beaten Smith up. Witnesses saw them take Smith to what was then the 4th precinct on 17th Avenue across the street from Hayes Homes. Protesters demanded answers and said police attacked them. What happened to John Smith pushed the patience of the people to the edge. Four to five days of violence ensued.
Newark burned. Residents took to the streets and took what they could carry.
Sniper fire killed a police officer and a firefighter. Authorities said they were responding to sniper fire when they shot and killed Eloise Spellman in Hayes Homes after she opened her 10th floor window. Spellman was the mother of 11 children. Barbara King, a Newark resident said, “What still hurts me till today, some people I know, good people, lost their mother.”
Eloise Spellman’s name is on the Springfield Avenue 1997 monument to the 26 Newark residents who lost their lives.
“No one went to jail, no one was punished,” said Larry Hamm, chairman of People’s Organization for Progress. Hamm, leading the George Floyd protest marches today, was 13 years old during the rebellion and living in the Central Ward. Today there is only one building left on the old block — a church that used to be a dry cleaner. This typifies Newark’s struggle to attract investment to fully recover.
Hamm says many people saw those days in the 1960s as a time of hope: “It was the era of Black power. In 1966, there were only 400 Black elected officials; today there are 10,000, so in that respect progress has been made, but in other respects people are still poor, still unemployed, we still live in in substandard housing, we still send our kids to substandard schools.”
Fifty-three years later, Newark and many other cities in America still struggle with the same issues that led to uprisings two generations ago.