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2014 Summer Reading

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Summer Reading: New Jersey's Books and Authors -- Inside Newark

Civil Rights leader Robert Curvin traces the tumultuous history of the Brick City since the 1950s.


While we're on summer hiatus, recharging our batteries and coming up with new story ideas, we want to make sure that you have plenty to read. That's why we'll be posting excerpts every day from New Jersey books and authors. We'll be back, rested and ready, after Labor Day. Meanwhile . . .

In Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion and the Search for Transformation, civil rights leader Robert Curvin explores the question of whether the city of Newark is, in fact, on the brink of a long-predicted resurgence. Through historical records and interviews with more than 100 residents and officials, Curvin traces the tumultuous history of the Brick City since the 1950s. The story is a deeply personal one, as demonstrated by the very first passage of the book, which is excerpted below.

On the evening of July 12, 1967, I was in my kitchen with my wife and four-year-old son, Frank. It was about 9:00 p.m., and we were having a cup of tea with our guest, Connie Brown, who had come to Newark to work with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The phone rang. The woman on the line told me with great excitement that a man had been beaten at the Fourth Precinct police station in Newark’s Central Ward and I should get there right away. I left immediately. When I arrived at the precinct about fifteen minutes later, a large crowd had already assembled. I discovered that a black cab driver, who I later learned was a man named John Smith, had been dragged into the precinct by his legs, with his body bouncing along the pavement. Some observers thought he was dead. For everyone on the scene, the anger was intense. One could sense the fury in the air.

The crowd seemed to grow by the second. I decided to go into the police station and learn exactly what had happened. When I went to the desk, an officer told me a man had been arrested, that he was in a cell, and that he could not tell me anything more. Just at that moment, Police Inspector Kenneth Melchior arrived. Melchior, who recognized me from my civil rights activity, spoke to the officer at the desk and then asked that I accompany him to the cell. At the cell, I saw a man in great pain. He complained that he had been beaten. He said that he had bruises on his head and severe pains in his side and stomach. Melchior said that an ambulance was on the way.

Melchior and I then went to the lobby of the precinct, where other community leaders had gathered. The crowd had now swelled to several hundred. The police asked a select group of community leaders, including myself, to tell the crowd to disperse and go home, that the prisoner was on his way to the hospital. That did not seem like a feasible option to the group of about seven people, which included Tim Still, a revered leader of public housing tenants, and Oliver Lofton, the director of the Legal Services Program. I was asked to go out and speak to the crowd. I mounted a car that was parked in front of the building and told the crowd that the prisoner was alive, that this was another example of police mistreatment of a black citizen, but that we should not respond with violence. We could not win or accomplish anything that way. I urged the crowd to organize a peaceful march to City Hall where we would let the mayor and city officials know that we would not accept this kind of treatment anymore.

Suddenly rocks began to fly over my head, aimed at the police. The police retreated into the precinct house, as did I. As the police were donning their riot gear, we pleaded with them to allow us to make another try at calming the crowd and organizing a peaceful demonstration. We went back outside and I mounted the car with a bullhorn provided by the police. Perhaps one-fourth of the crowd responded to my request and began to line up for a march, but before I could dismount the car, a hail of rocks and Molotov cocktails rained through the air, aimed at the police and the building right behind me. The burning gasoline slid down the façade of the building. With nightsticks flailing, the police then charged toward the crowd, and one of the worst riots in American history began. For Newark, perched along the Passaic River and founded in 1666 by Puritans from Connecticut, those five days in July 1967 would deeply change city life and politics.

Newark, with all of its troubles, is a many-sided story, full of good life, bad life, fun times, painful times, opportunity, and many of the remnants and legacies of an old American industrial city as well as the intimations of a postindustrial city. Newark speaks volumes regarding the plight of America’s urban places and the enduring effects of poverty, disadvantage, and race. And I am an elder of the Newark story.

I was born in Newark and spent my childhood in the adjacent town of Belleville, a section populated mainly by Italian immigrants. I had my first formal job as a teenager operating an elevator in Bamberger’s department store and attended college at Rutgers University in Newark. I have lived in Newark since I returned from military service in the 1950s, interrupted only by four years in Princeton attending graduate school. I raised my children in the city and was a leader in the Newark protest movement for racial justice in the 1960s. I was also part of the cadre that worked for Kenneth A. Gibson’s drive to become the first black mayor of Newark. So I am the guy who gets the Newark questions at a party in New York or on a plane ride to Washington. Were you there during the riots? Do you know Cory Booker? Do you think he will be president some day?

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