It wasn't easy to tell the story of the rioting that broke out 50 years ago Wednesday in Newark, N.J., and continued over several chaotic and destructive days during which more than two dozen people were killed.
As the editors' note in the issue of LIFE magazine dedicated to the riots explained, the photographers and reporters who had been sent to cover the news "faced danger and death in the riot-torn city, ducking sniper fire, skirting angry mobs, wondering if the jittery Guardsmen and trigger-happy police might not next open up on them." LIFE devoted particular attention to the sniper fire, which was widely — and as it turns out, erroneously — believed at the time to have been directed toward law enforcement.
Despite the danger and challenges on the ground, LIFE's journalists — among them Frank Dandridge, the photographer behind the images seen in this slideshow — got access to a side of the story that might otherwise have gone unseen, as the editors' note explained:
In the midst of the violence we were able to make contact with one of Newark's Black Nationalist leaders. Our request: to photograph one of the elusive snipers. After much consultation Photographer Frank Dandridge, who is a Negro, was led through the streets to an abandoned tenement, up four flights of stairs and into a front room where he was allowed to take the picture of page 17 [seen in the third slide above].
For all of its emphasis on the role of snipers, the magazine's reporting hinted at what we now know to be true: the fear of organized snipers among the rioters was unfounded. Indeed, the story accompanying Dandridge's images noted that "it was puzzling why so few police and Guardsmen were hit" if such gunmen were really active in the area. And, when Dandridge was taken to a "clandestine meeting" on the "outskirts of the riot zone," the men he met there told him that while they had given up on nonviolence as a concept, they were not in fact shooting at people. Instead, they used the sound of gunfire to influence where the police went during the rioting. "Five or six shots in the air are enough to draw cops thick as fleas on a dog," one told the magazine.
By 1968, those hints in LIFE were confirmed in the official report of the presidential commission appointed to investigate the matter. The policemen and Guardsmen present believed that they were under fire from snipers, the commission found, but after three hours of searching during which "four truckloads of National Guardsmen had arrived and troopers and policemen were again crouched everywhere looking for a sniper" the only actual gunshot came from law enforcement. And, the report continued, the belief that snipers were nearby led the Guardsmen and state troopers to direct "mass fire" at a housing project, killing several bystanders.
The heavy emphasis on sniper fire in LIFE's coverage of the events in Newark may not reflect an accurate retelling of what happened, but the story remains valuable for how it sheds light on the widely circulating misinformation of the time — and Dandridge's photographs remain as stirring as ever.