History

‘Most People Didn’t Want a Riot… But They Knew It Was Coming’

Fifty years ago this week, in the summer of 1967, the streets of Newark exploded in violence. Here is a first-hand account of the tragic events that changed the city forever.

‘Most People Didn’t Want a Riot… But It Was Coming’

Black demonstrators face armed federal soldiers in Newark on July 17, 1967 during riots that erupted in the town following a police operation. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

This post first appeared at New Jersey Monthly.

On the evening of July 12, 1967, I was driving a carload of people back from a black power conference in Philadelphia, switching stations, trying to find some good music to keep me awake on the New Jersey Turnpike. A news flash caught my attention, loud and clear:

“There has been a confrontation between police and a large number of people in the city of Newark… Police have declared a curfew… Police are out in force.”

I didn’t need music to keep me focused. We just had to get home.

Fifty years later, I ask myself why I was in such a hurry to get back to Newark. At the time, I was a 22-year-old student at Yale Law School, spending my third summer as a community organizer and law-student advocate in Newark. I was raised in Richmond, Virginia, but Newark felt like my new home. Now my home was about to fulfill a prophecy.

For weeks, black people had been saying the community was ready to explode. I heard it in bars and at neighborhood meetings.

For weeks, black people had been saying the community was ready to explode. I heard it in bars and at neighborhood meetings. I heard it from speakers protesting the two hot issues of the day: Mayor Hugh Addonizio’s plan to build a medical and dental school on 150 acres in the Central Ward that would displace 20,000 mostly black and Puerto Rican residents; and the mayor’s decision to place James Callaghan, a white man with a high school diploma, in the position of board secretary (business administrator) for the Newark public schools, instead of Wilbur Parker, the first black CPA in New Jersey. “Keep this shit up and there’s gonna be a riot in Newark!” was the word on the street. (Applause meter off the charts; everybody agreed.)

Most people didn’t want a riot, and even fewer had a sense of what to do if one broke out. But they knew it was coming. They knew about Birmingham in 1963, Harlem in 1964 and Watts in 1965. They knew about the death and destruction. Many wondered: Was it worth it? Some were too mad to care.

So here I was, driving back into Newark late at night. I had no intention of burning or looting or shooting police — not even the cops whose racism I had seen in action. I was totally committed to nonviolent resistance, by training if not by disposition. But I had to be there to see it unfold — to bear witness. Would I be punished for my curiosity and commitment to my brothers and sisters in Newark? That remained to be seen.

Most accounts of the Newark Rebellion — and I call it a rebellion — say the arrest and beating of John Smith, a black cab driver, triggered the outbreak of violence. Hundreds witnessed Smith being dragged into the 4th Precinct police station in front of the Hayes Homes, a high-rise housing project. Rumors spread that Smith had been killed while in custody. Local civil rights leaders tried to form a march downtown in protest. But as the crowd grew in front of the Hayes Homes, someone lit a bottle filled with gasoline and threw it at the police station. Cops poured out of the station in riot gear to drive off the protesters. As the crowd dispersed, looting broke out on nearby streets. The rebellion was on.

Why do I call the events of July 12 to 17 a rebellion rather than a riot? Riots are mindless, aimless, spontaneous outbursts triggered by some immediate event. But rebellions, like those waged by Thomas Jefferson and Nat Turner, are the result of long-simmering hurts with no other ways to redress grievances. Looking at the evidence, this was a rebellion.

Why do I call the events of July 12 to 17 a rebellion rather than a riot? Riots are mindless, aimless, spontaneous outbursts triggered by some immediate event. But rebellions, like those waged by Thomas Jefferson and Nat Turner, are the result of long-simmering hurts with no other ways to redress grievances. Looking at the evidence, this was a rebellion.

The situation in Newark at the time can be explained in two words: racial polarization. Whites held a virtual monopoly on power in Newark, despite token representation of blacks — what are sometimes called “house Negroes” — on the city and county levels. Racial polarization was entrenched. This in a city that, at the time, was 52 percent black and 10 percent Spanish speaking.

The increasingly angry black community raised a growing chorus of demands for better opportunities. Repressive measures by the police force (which was 90 percent white) and government agencies like the Board of Education and the Welfare Department increased the hunger for self-determination in the black community. Blacks were the victims of unscrupulous landlords and crooked retailers, and of misguided development programs that turned into land grabs, destroying communities in the name of urban renewal.

The white population had been flowing steadily out of Newark since the 1950s. Jobs were leaving, too. During the 1960s, 1,300 manufacturers left the city. Almost all the breweries shut down. Westinghouse and General Electric departed. The opportunities that had drawn blacks to Newark and other Northern cities from the South after World War II were shrinking. The best jobs that remained in Newark were reserved for whites. Conflicts arose in the streets over these precious job opportunities in the business community and at city agencies.

CORE official Robert Curvin uses a bullhorn to ask the crowd to calm down as they gather in front of the 4th Precinct police station during the Newark Riots of 1967. The Newark Riots were a major civil disturbance that lasted from July 12 to July 17, 1967, and at least were partially caused by the beating and arrest of a African-American taxi driver. (Getty Images)

Channeling black anger were groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Newark Community Union Project (NCUP), a local organization formed with the help of white activists, including Tom Hayden, a founder of the prominent national protest group Students for a Democratic Society. CORE led the fight for jobs and against police brutality. NCUP attracted local black activists, organizing rent strikes against unscrupulous landlords and joining with CORE to fight police transgressions. When I came to Newark in 1965 to join NCUP, I stepped off the bus right into a joint CORE/NCUP demonstration over the death of Lester Long, a 22-year-old black man who was killed by police after a routine traffic stop.

On the second night of the rebellion, I was driving around with three guys in my car. It was past the 10 p.m. curfew, but we needed to see what was going on in the streets. (I recounted this episode in my 2014 memoir, Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power.)

I was climbing up the hill on Court Street, heading west toward the Scudder Homes, when I heard the siren. It was a hot night; the windows of my white Ford Fairlane 500 were down. We neared the corner of High Street — now Martin Luther King Boulevard —
when I picked up the whirling lights of a Newark police car in my rearview mirror. The siren was getting closer. They were coming for us.

I pulled over to the grassy divider in the middle of Court Street. The squad car sped forward, angling in front of me, presumably to prevent our escape. Four cops jumped out, guns drawn, and ordered us out of the car with our hands up. One of them had a shotgun.

We stepped from the car as directed. One of the cops yelled, “Up against the car, motherf******.” The street was deserted. We knew we were in big trouble.

I had never before looked down the wrong end of a shotgun. It seemed like it was looking back at me. I turned and assumed the position, hands on the roof of my car, legs spread wide.

I had never before looked down the wrong end of a shotgun. It seemed like it was looking back at me. I turned and assumed the position, hands on the roof of my car, legs spread wide.

The pat-down produced no weapons. Still, these guys were scary. One cop ordered me to open my trunk, which I did without hesitation. I thought about my Virginia plates. It was popularly held in government and law-enforcement circles that, when unrest came to Newark, it would be fueled by “outside agitators,” who would supply guns and ammunition.

There were no guns or contraband in my trunk — but there was anger in these cops. And there were no witnesses. It didn’t look good for life ever after. I felt the cops were waiting for any sudden move. One was nervously jabbing his gun at us with vicious stabs, barking orders. Maybe he had used these moves before, hoping the urban deer would make a break so he could shoot them down.

We stayed cool. No outbursts, no eye contact with the hunter. Fortunately, one of the cops — a sergeant who seemed older and wiser — noticed the box of law books in my trunk.

“He’s got law books in the back,” the sergeant told the others. “Let ’em go.” He repeated it several times. Was he really in charge? We stayed put until the nervous one holstered his weapon. Shotgun man lowered his weapon, too. Just as quickly as they descended on us, they were gone, turning right on High Street, lights whirling into the night.

I probably owe my life to that sergeant, and I am thankful for his intervention, whatever his motives. Was he concerned about our safety — or afraid it would be hard to explain the killing of law students? I’ll never know.

It is hard to explain to anyone who was not there the climate of resistance in the streets during the 1960s. People organized to withhold rent from landlords who overcharged for slum properties; they demonstrated against welfare bureaucrats who punished their clients for violating the “man in the house” rule, which said families could not get public assistance if there was an able-bodied man in the household. People boycotted retail merchants who sold bad meat and schools that failed to properly educate children. People demonstrated against poorly managed, overcrowded public housing, and against rampant urban renewal that gobbled up residential neighborhoods without providing adequate replacement housing. And of course, they spoke out against police brutality.

The ordinary democratic processes didn’t work for black people. All that was left was the politics of confrontation. Up to 1967, those confrontations had been nonviolent.

The ordinary democratic processes didn’t work for black people. All that was left was the politics of confrontation. Up to 1967, those confrontations had been nonviolent.

As for Mayor Addonizio, he seemed to be blind to the depth of anger in the streets. “We were riding high,” Paul Reilly, Addonizio’s deputy mayor, told me in a recent interview. “We got along fine with black people. There were blacks working in City Hall.”

Was the mayor aware that police brutality was a huge concern in the black community?

“If it was, I didn’t know,” Reilly said, “and I don’t think the mayor knew, either. If there was police brutality, it was kept quiet within the police precincts…. It never was brought to our attention.”

That’s hard to believe. Addonizio certainly knew about the killing of Lester Long. He apparently wanted to remove Hank Martinez, the officer who did the shooting. But, according to Reilly, under pressure from the police rank and file and the PBA, the administration minimized the punishment. Published reports said Martinez received a five-day suspension.

Although Addonizio did have blacks in his administration and had forged alliances with black preachers, it was clear to most black people that he didn’t care about their concerns. Addonizio didn’t plan to run for a third term in 1970. He had bigger things in mind. “He wanted to be the first Italian governor of the state,” Reilly said.

Within 48 hours of the start of the rebellion, Gov. Richard Hughes — responding to a plea for help from Addonizio — called in the National Guard. The state police had already been mobilized. Violence and looting had escalated.

I was somewhere in the Central Ward when I noticed an older woman walking back from a day of fishing in Weequahic Park. She watched as a young boy ran down the street, clutching groceries in his arms. A loaf of bread dropped to the ground. I thought the woman would scold him.

Instead, she called out, “Hurry up son. Get all you can get.” She was having her moment, living through him. Frontier justice.

On another corner, across from the Morton Street School, Central Ward Democratic leader Eulis “Honey” Ward and I watched as local residents ran into the furniture stores on Springfield Avenue. Out they came with sofas, chairs, lamps — whatever they could carry. They hauled their goods up flights of stairs and came back down with worn-out, dilapidated furniture, leaving it on the sidewalks for the trash collector. What Ward and I couldn’t see was the deliberate removal of credit records from the filing cabinets in these stores. Without these records, the merchants wouldn’t be able to find people who had bought on credit.

Not all white merchants were targeted. Those with a reputation for fairness were spared — although this message was not always easy to communicate to passing looters. The few black merchants wrote “soul brother” on their windows or doors to avoid the riotous invasion or the torch. On South Orange Avenue, neighbors wrote those words outside a shop owned by a Chinese merchant they wanted to protect from looters. But they couldn’t protect him from the police. The next morning, the merchant discovered bullet holes in his shop. Law-enforcement officers were singling out stores that appeared to be black owned for their own brand of retaliation and lawlessness.

I became more than an observer. As stories of police-inflicted injuries and property damage began to flood in through the grapevine, I marshaled my eight Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) law students, who had previously been focused on the medical school land acquisition, as well as a team of regular VISTA volunteers, to interview victims and witnesses. We prepared affidavits and submitted them to the Essex-Newark Legal Services Project for possible legal action against the police.

Fifty years later, I still have some of the documents. Recently, I collaborated on a project called “The North: Civil Rights and Beyond in Urban America,” which produced riseupnorth.com — a digital source of information about the Newark Rebellion. It includes stories about all 22 people killed by law-enforcement officers — mostly state police or National Guardsmen — as they unleashed their fury. (One victim was a white fireman shot accidentally by the police.) Four other deaths — including a heart attack and a drug overdose — were attributed to the riots. In addition, more than 1,000 people were injured and close to 1,500 arrested.

Tedock Bell, 28, was shot in front of a looted tavern with nothing in his hands. His crime: He ran from the police.

Tedock Bell was typical of the victims. Bell, 28, was shot in front of a looted tavern with nothing in his hands. His crime: He ran from the police. A witness, Arthur Howard, visiting from Georgia, picked Bell up from the street, put him in his car and drove him to the hospital. In his eyewitness account, Howard said police shot Bell and left him to die. “Damn,” said the Georgia man, “they ain’t no different up here than they are down home.”

Another victim, 24-year-old Billy Furr, was killed for stealing beer. “Billy Furr was dead after having been, in a matter of seconds, accused, convicted and sentenced to death by Newark Police officers for the crime of stealing beer,” said a news reporter. Added a witness: “I had never seen a man shot down like a dog or rabbit like that when he did not even attempt to fight back or defend himself.”

Eloise Spellman, the mother of 11 children, was one of three women killed within minutes of each other in their Hayes Homes apartments after law enforcement responded to reports of sniper fire at the high-rise public housing project. Spellman was closing her window when she was killed. The Essex County Grand Jury later concluded: “Although ‘sniper fire’ was widely reported by police and National Guardsmen, very little evidence was found to support the 258 reports of ‘sniper incidents’ claimed by city and state police. Furthermore, reporting ‘sniper fire’ was used as a justification for the indiscriminate shooting of innocent civilians, as in the cases of Eloise Spellman, Rebecca Brown and Hattie Gainer.”

On Day 4 of the rebellion, state police surprised 19-year-old James Rutledge in a vandalized liquor store. Cornered, Rutledge stood up to surrender. Police shot him 39 times, including in the top of his head as he lay on the floor. The poet Amiri Baraka (still known at the time as LeRoi Jones) had pictures taken of the mutilated body at the funeral home and distributed a flier to document the brutal crime.

Later, I was called before a grand jury and asked whether I thought it was inflammatory to pass out the fliers. I told the prosecutor I didn’t pass out the fliers, but then asked him, “Don’t you think it was inflammatory that Rutledge was shot 39 times?” Point, counterpoint.

The affidavits of witnesses to police violence documented a pattern of death and destruction on the part of the police that far surpassed the damage to property and theft done by those in rebellion. This was an uprising conducted by people who didn’t understand the price they would pay. The city was a battlefield; the front line was everywhere. Anyone black was fair game. Newark at the end of six days was whipped, whether you were in the streets or cowering in your house.

Meanwhile, at City Hall, Addonizio saw his dream coming to an end. “Hughie was frantic,” recalled Reilly. “He said, ‘I’m going to lose my city…. Our goose is cooked.’”

The Governor’s Select Commission on Civil Disorder eventually issued a scathing condemnation of police violence, but in the end, no police officers or members of the National Guard were prosecuted.

As the smoke from a thousand fires cleared, the black residents of Newark discovered a new reality: White folks in power were afraid of us.

As the smoke from a thousand fires cleared, the black residents of Newark discovered a new reality: White folks in power were afraid of us. Louise Epperson, the homeowner who first organized people to oppose the proposed medical school, put it best: “Before the riot, I couldn’t get anybody to talk to me. But after the riot,” she said with a sly smile, “everybody wanted to talk!”

With the help of Phil Hutchings of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — a national group formed in North Carolina in 1960 to give voice to young blacks — I put together a new neighborhood organization, the Newark Area Planning Association (NAPA). I called my friend Pat Goeters, professor at the Yale School of Architecture and Planning, and asked that his students design an alternate plan for the medical school. Our plan took up only 17 acres, using American Medical School Association standards, building up, not out.

The new plan became a rallying cry for the community. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed an administrative complaint against the federal government to halt the land acquisition for failure to provide adequate relocation housing.

I became cochairman of the nine-person community negotiating team. We worked out a compromise with state and local officials that reduced the medical school footprint to 60 acres. In addition, 60 acres of vacant urban-renewal land were earmarked for low-income housing. Community developers built more than 900 residences, including heavily subsidized four- and five-bedroom low-rise apartments. Hundreds of black and Puerto Rican workers were trained and placed on the job. Many were admitted into the various construction unions.

None of this would have been possible without that invisible, nameless brother with the brick standing with us at the negotiating table.

Similarly, in the early months of 1968, I assembled a busload of about 40 Black Panthers, white ministers and NAPA members to visit the director of the Department of Transportation in Trenton as part of our protest against Route 75, a planned highway across Newark intended to connect routes 280 and 78. The project would have forced the removal of several thousand more black and brown residents. We closed and locked the conference room door, and the Panthers and the NAPAs walked around the conference table, warning of another riot. Two weeks later, I got a call from officials saying they really didn’t need that highway after all.

American poet and playwright LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) (1934—2014) (with beard) in a police station, bloodied and in chains after being arrested during a riot in Newark, New Jersey, July 14, 1967. (Photo by Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)

Amiri Baraka was badly beaten by the police during the rebellion. Taking advantage of his celebrity, he called together some of the leaders of black Newark to form the United Brothers in 1968. The organization morphed into the Committee for a Unified Newark (CFUN) and became the primary vehicle for the election in 1970 of Ken Gibson as the first black mayor of Newark.

It’s possible Gibson could have been elected mayor without the rebellion. But the momentum that sparked a 73 percent turnout at the polls in 1970 began with the events of July 1967, followed by the medical school compromise and the work of the United Brothers/CFUN. Additionally, because they picked the wrong horse in the race, many of Addonizio’s black supporters were finished in Newark politics after the rebellion.

As for Addonizio, a federal grand jury indicted the mayor and nine other members of his administration in December 1969 for taking kickbacks from city contractors. The following year, he and others were convicted on 64 counts. Addonizio was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison and fined $25,000.

Despite facing federal charges, Addonizio — abandoning his dream of becoming governor — ran for re-election in 1970 against Gibson on a promise to “heal and rebuild the city,” said Reilly. He ran a racist, vicious campaign, aiming most of his barbs at Baraka, Gibson’s most controversial supporter. Addonizio made it to a run-off with Gibson. He lost — and went to jail.

In the wake of the rebellion, the white minority continued to exit Newark. In the 1950s, easy mortgage money and improved highways made the suburbs ever more attractive. By the mid-1960s, the construction of routes 78 and 280 had destroyed the Jewish and Italian neighborhoods of Newark. That drove more whites to the suburbs and down the Shore. The 1967 Rebellion was just the final gust that carried still more whites out of Newark, taking their businesses and tax revenues with them.

Once installed as mayor, Gibson began to change the complexion and culture of the police department. He hired blacks and Latinos, men and women. He assured the remaining white business owners and residents that he had no intention of furthering the racial polarization that had infected the city under Addonizio. Residents of Newark continued to vote for leaders who offered some redress of grievances. The people no longer felt they must resort to violent upheaval for change.

It has taken decades, but the people of Newark and their leaders have gradually changed the way the city is perceived. Businesses are investing here. NJPAC and the Prudential Center have become keystones of the new Newark entertainment and sports scenes. New downtown hotels, office buildings and residences are going up.

Newark’s population is still exceedingly low income. Crime, gang warfare, drugs, joblessness and failing schools are still facts of life in some Newark neighborhoods. But the cultures of many ethnic groups continue to lift the spirit of its many peoples. Increasingly, Newark is a good place to call home.

The 1967 Newark Rebellion changed power relations in Newark forever. It ushered in a new era when race is not the only basis upon which to base one’s political choices. The next challenge for the current mayor, Ras Baraka, who began his tenure in 2014, is to make it possible for Newarkers of all income levels, races and nationalities to enjoy the benefits of America’s third oldest city.

Baraka — the son of Amiri Baraka — is very much aware of his heritage and the challenge before him. This challenge requires all of us to put the rebellion in the past where it belongs, but to learn from its lessons to carry us forward.

 
This article was reprinted with the permission of New Jersey Monthly. Please visit njmonthly.com for complete access to current and archive articles. To subscribe to the print or digital edition, go here: https://njmonthly.com/digital

Junius Williams

Junius Williams is an attorney, educator, musician and community advocate. He is the director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers-Newark; author of Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power; and producer of the digital archive "The North: Civil Rights and Beyond in Urban America" (riseupnorth.com). In 2016, he served as chairman of Newark Celebration350. He is pictured at New Hope Village, a Newark housing development on land originally acquired for a medical school complex.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE