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A Riot Started in Newark 50 Years Ago. It Shouldn’t Have Been a Surprise

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On Wednesday in Newark, N.J., members of the community will gather at a memorial to 26 citizens of that city. Under an inscription — “We will forever remember the names of those whose lives were lost” — it lists the names of those who were killed during a riot that began 50 years ago.

But, as urban riots in recent history have drawn comparisons to those of a half-century ago, it’s clear that, while the names of the fallen are an important piece of history, there’s something else worth remembering, too.

The incident that sparked the Newark riot occurred during the early evening of July 12, 1967, when a black cab driver was beaten and arrested by two white police officers for a minor traffic infraction in Newark’s Central Ward area. As word of the incident spread, a crowd gathered outside police headquarters where the injured driver, who was rumored to be dead, was being held. Despite calls to remain calm, frustrated protesters, fed up with the lack of response to their concerns, began throwing rocks, breaking police station windows. Two days of looting followed — and when the looting stopped, the killing began, as New Jersey Governor Richard J. Hughes called in state troopers and the National Guard to restore order. The violence only escalated, resulting in the loss of life. By the time the fighting ended on July 17th, the level of property damage was massive, and injuries were in the hundreds.

Two weeks after the riot, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Illinois Governor Otto Kerner Jr. to lead a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder to investigate what had happened and why. But the answer to those questions had, in a way, already been given.

In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. aptly predicted just such a riot in a speech titled “The Other America,” which he delivered at Stanford University on April 14, 1967, three months prior to the unrest. “All of our cities are potentially powder kegs,” he said. While King maintained his commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience, he also recognized the psychology of oppression, stating:

But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. . . And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.

As Kevin Mumford writes in his book Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America, the protesters in Newark saw the immediate issue of police brutality within that larger context.

Prior to World War II, the Central Ward, one of five wards that make up the city of Newark, was home to a burgeoning and upwardly mobile European immigrant population. Those residents began moving to more prosperous areas of the city by the 1920s. The opening up of their homes, as they moved, coincided with a major migration north by African Americans from the South. Over the next decade, the black presence in the area dramatically increased; by 1960, 100,000 blacks had migrated to Newark with Central Ward home to 90% of the city’s black population.

Yet life in the North differed little from life in the South. As Mumford writes, “the migration had disappointed many blacks’ expectations not only for a better standard of living, but for freedom from the constraints of segregation.”

Much like the residents of other urban ghettos around the country, the people of the Central Ward faced unemployment, underemployment, poor housing, substandard schools and daily harassment from a local majority-white police force. In addition, blacks, though representing the majority of the population in the area, were essentially shut out of civic politics.

In a 2007 interview with Democracy Now, the poet-activist Amiri Baraka, who faced police harassment and assault before and during the Newark riots, recounted how tension grew between black residents and Newark City officials in the months prior to the riots. According to Baraka, anger flared when the city attempted to displace residents by confiscating 160 acres under the law of public domain, with the intention of building a medical school. Mayor Hugh J. Addonizio, who in 1970 was convicted of extortion, added to the unhappiness when he picked a white man with only a high-school education, rather than a black candidate who had a master’s degree, to serve as the Secretary of the Board of Education; moreover, the police had recently raided a Muslim karate school and assaulted those present during the raid. With the city already on edge, the incident with the cab driver proved to be the tipping point.

MORE: What One Photographer Saw During the Deadly Newark Riots of 1967

In 1968, the presidential Kerner Commission came back with its report.

The group issued a scathing indictment of race relations in the country, concluding that the Newark riot was the result of white racism that had constructed “a white America that was prosperous and a black America that was under privileged.” The report included a list of broad and radical recommendations that the commission believed would close the inequality gap and stabilize urban America once and for all.

Yet famed African American psychologist Kenneth Clark was unimpressed. Clark, who had been one of the first experts to appear before the commission, told them that he had read every report commissioned by the government on urban civil disorder from the Chicago riots of 1919 to the Watts riot of 1965. “[It] is a kind of Alice in Wonderland,” stated Clark, “with the same moving picture shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”

Ras Baraka, the son of Amiri Baraka and the current mayor of Newark, echoed Clark’s sentiments in a recent interview. “We are a long way from 1967,” he said, “but we are even further away from where we need to be to prevent 1967 from happening again.”

Historians explain how the past informs the present

Arica L. Coleman is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia and chair of the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories at the Organization of American Historians.

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