It happened last week.
It almost went unheralded without a peep.
It went by and all across much of America, except for Newark, New Jersey, and those outside of Newark who remembered, the 40TH Anniversary of the riots that shook Newark, NJ and set off a bloody summer, occurred.
Newark was neither the first nor the last great urban upheaval of the 1960s. Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood had burned in 1965, West Side in Chicago in 1966, the inner cities of Tampa, and Cincinnati, earlier in 1967. After the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in the spring of 1968, rioting broke out in more than 100 other cities, including Washington and Baltimore. Detroit was the worst, a week-long conflagration so fierce it killed 43 people, injured hundreds and destroyed huge swaths of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Standing alongside 12th Street’s smoldering ruins on the riot’s final day, Detroit’s mayor thought the area looked “like Berlin in 1945.”
In 1967, Newark was undergoing huge economic and social shifts. Factory jobs, which had provided the city’s economic base in the first half of the 20th century, were leaving the city in large numbers, contributing to high rates of poverty and unemployment. According to the Hughes Commission that studied the 1967 uprising, more than a third of black men between ages 16 and 19 were unemployed at the time. The anger and desperation of a community bitterly disappointed by continued police actions of brutality and economic injustice after years of civil rights progress, created a black community reeling with devastation and hopelessness. In addition, as the city’s white population moved to the suburbs or to other states, the black population surged, shifting the city’s racial makeup to one in which blacks were the majority.
Newark’s housing had also declined considerably. The city itself described 40,000 of Newark’s 136,000 housing units as substandard or dilapidated in a 1966 application for federal aid.
At the same time, Newark’s political structure was slow to change. While the white population dropped by almost half between 1950 and 1967 — from 363,000 to about 158,000 — and the population of black Americans tripled — from 70,000 to an estimated 220,000 — the city continued to be run almost exclusively by whites. Whites kept power in their hands, and refused to work for the interests of black citizens. Black representation was almost nonexistent in the government, the police department, and the private sector. Government corruption was also rampant. The city’s government was believed to be closely tied to organized crime, and municipal jobs and contracts were doled out to contractors and construction firms that largely excluded black citizens.
These conditions reached a boiling point on July 12 through July 17, 1967, when a black cab driver’s arrest triggered violent protests and the looting of commercial buildings. To restore order, state police and National Guard troops joined local officers on the streets of Newark, escalating the violence. Media manipulation painted a picture of lawless roving bands of blacks when in reality the initial protests started out peacefully. Newspapers and television reporting of blacks breaking into a Sears store (which sold guns) and supposedly arming themselves, inflamed the rest of the city against black people and gave the police carte blanche to shoot and kill. Rumors of snipers shooting police further fanned the flames of racial unrest (the injured police in fact were shot by their own officers in the ensuing violence). When the violence died down, 26 people had been killed and more than $10 million in property damage incurred. In 1967, racial tensions erupted in violence in 125 American cities. The most destructive of these so-called “riots” took place in Detroit, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey.
Today, Newark is still struggling. The city has grown even more dangerous, rising from the 29th most dangerous U.S. city in 2006 to the 20th this year. The homicide rate is already higher than it was in 2006. Former Mayor Sharpe James, is facing the possibility of a federal probe for corruption. With the poverty level at 25 percent, unemployment at 10 percent, and municipal workers (many of whom are Newark residents) facing massive layoffs to close a $180 million budget gap, Newark, on October 25, 2007, will unveil a $355 million dollar investment touted as reviving the downtown area: a hockey arena.
A hockey arena.
With massive unemployment, health care in crisis, housing still substandard, education still on a de facto level, and Newark decides that building a sports arena is more important and needed instead of working to alleviate the deteriorating conditions of its citizens?
The lives of newark’s citizens are more important than any hockey arena. The neighborhoods are in decay and ruin and the people live lives of fear and terror, on a level no better than a part of Afghanistan, Iraq or Lebanon. The citizens of the poorest neighborhoods lives lives that make walking down the street an act of defying death. The citizens are living in a war zone of substandard education, massive unemployment, economic blight, municipal disregard, and social and residential segregation. Have not the “riots” of 1967 taught Newark anything? Have not the deaths and property loss shown them that not remembering the past causes us to repeat it? Does Newark want to go down the same road of death and bloodshed again? And make no mistake, Newark of today is still a powderkeg that can happen again if people become so apathetic and complacent in their greed to have all for them, and none for their fellow citizens.
But, I have hope for Newark. Because the people who live there, the citizens, have hope for their home. They want change and they continue to work for that change because Newark, NJ is their home.
Newark has an Olmstead-designed park, a world-class arts center, the Newark Museum, a score of exceptional eateries, Rutgers University and fine architecture including the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart and apartment buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe. Newark has the landmarks, the history—but, its people must want to see real changes for all of Newark’s citizens. And the citizens must hold their leaders accountable to implement changes that will be for the better for all citizens of Newark.
Can a Newark happen in other cities across America?
I believe so.
If America continues on her path of hypocrisy and callous disregard for the least of her citizens, she will heap destruction upon herself. To not learn from the past is to be condemned to repeat it.
And the “Bloody Summer” of 1967 is something I would not want to see happen again in America.
But, that choice is up to America.
And all the “Newarks” across America.
A more united America.
Or a more balkanized America, warring and tearing itself to pieces from within.
It’s going to be a long summer.