By Jephtane Sophie Sabin
NJTV News Intern
On the surface, Newark in the 1960s was a bustling city, full of life, seemingly progressing, undeterred by negative forces that would threaten its prosperity. But underneath that surface, Newark was a city full of strife and simmering anger. Residents were plagued by sub par housing, bank redlining, meager educational opportunities, and they described the injustice they felt as coming from institutionalized discrimination and racism from police and lawmakers.
The black community in Newark was struggling. The anger within Newark came to a head in July of 1967. An act of police brutality against a black man sparked resident outrage. The five days of rioting would leave 26 dead, hundreds injured and cause more than $10 million in property damages.
In July 1967, John Smith, a black taxi cab driver, signaled to police cars on the road in order to pass. Instead, he was stopped, arrested and beaten. He was then charged with assaulting the officers. Rumors quickly spread that the white police officers had killed Smith. Residents assembled in front of the police precinct where Smith was being held, and began throwing bricks and rocks. The unrest that began outside the precinct soon spilled onto the city streets and escalated to breaking windows, destroying shops and ultimately beginning the riots.
But Newark was not alone. Other cities, such as Detroit, Buffalo and Cincinnati would experience periods of rioting. President Lyndon B. Johnson formed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to find the root causes behind the rioting that plagued many cities in the United States before and during the Civil Rights Movement. After research was conducted on the 1967 riots, the Commission found many background factors that contributed to the rebellion, including: “Pervasive discrimination and segregation, employment, education, and housing, which have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress.”
A book called, The Newark Teacher Strikes: Hopes on the Line, describes the educational disparities in Newark at the time. It found that in predominantly white schools, the class size was well below the city average. The opposite was true in the city’s predominantly black schools. Class sizes were so overcrowded the schools resorted to double sessions for about 20,000 students in Newark, separating students into two groups who would attend school at different times of the day.
The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders also found that Newark’s dropout rates were estimated to be around 33 percent. Out of 78,000 students in Newark, more than 6,000 were not attending school. Further, it found that blacks in Newark were also subject to bank redlining, discriminatory lending practices which prevented blacks from attaining mortgages on houses.
In the PBS documentary Revolution ‘67, activist Richard Cammerieri detailed the many practices that banks put into play. He described them as “scare tactics” that would contribute to the propagation of discrimination towards blacks. Banks would warn white residents of incoming black residents, persuading them to sell their homes before their house value went down because of the blacks. Whites would then sell their houses at low prices in order to move out quickly, then banks would sell them to the blacks at astoundingly high prices, at the same time refusing to give them loans and insurance. These practices ended with black residents who were living in overpriced, dilapidated and sometimes rodent infested homes.
Newark residents were also met with aggression by the police. In 1966 a local Newark newspaper, Advance, reported on a wide range of incidents. Among them the killing of a 17-year-old black youth, the killing of a black bystander by an off-duty policemen after an exchange of words and two off-duty policeman shooting two blacks in a tavern, also after an exchange of words. There was also eyewitness testimony of a woman who said she saw a policeman beating a black prisoner in the head with a club, despite the prisoner being handcuffed. The witness was later arrested for “interfering” after she attempted to stop the policeman. In the face of horrible tragedies at the hands of the police, Advance reported that black community and activist groups in Newark went so far as to call for the removal of the head police chief of Newark, Dominick Spina.
The community of Newark also called out the mayor, Hugh Addonizio, stating that there had been eight brutality cases in Newark since the mayor took office, and in five of the cases a black or Puerto Rican was killed by a Newark police. According to Advance, for each of these fatalities, black leaders in Newark urged Addonizio to form a civilian review board to listen to complaints and commence investigations, but each time the idea was proposed the Mayor refused.
Another source of conflict between the city and its residents grew out of the city’s plan to build the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry. The original plan for the building displaced an estimated 22,000 residents and called for approximately 150 acres of land in the densely populated black and Hispanic area of the Central Ward of Newark. In response to the community’s backlash against the building proposal, the city of Newark held “blight” hearings that would determine the exact state of the proposed area in the Central Ward. During the hearings, many of Newark’s black residents spoke up about the injustice they felt.
The emotional response of the community was a sign of things to come. Below are statements from some of the residents in attendance.
“We live in the Central Ward. We know what is best for the Central Ward and we know what we want for the Central Ward. And we don’t want a medical school. We don’t want it and we won’t have it. You build it. We’ll burn it down,” said Aubrey Jones.
“I say here that if you don’t give us housing in this City of Newark prior to your Medical College, that your Essex County College, that blood will run down the streets of Newark, your blood and my blood, and I state this,” James Walker said.
“The black people are sick, tired and angry at the old structure that has enslaved and suppressed them for over 300 years. So you think if it happens, you can turn the National Guard on them, on us, but, gentlemen, when revolt comes and bloodshed will accompany a revolt, will it not be justified?” asked Joseph Brown.
The “blight” hearings were one of the last chances that the city of Newark had to hear its community. Unfortunately Newark’s anger, as demonstrated by the statements above, reached the tipping point with the Smith incident. Residents’ outrage boiled over, quickly escalating to violence. This began the five days of rioting that would come to scar the city, leaving visible marks for the next 50 years.