As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Newark Rebellion we take a look back at what led up to the incident that would become a defining moment for the city and what has changed since those hot summer days in July of 1967.
It was a hot and steamy evening on July 12th 1967, when black cab driver John Smith was arrested and beaten by white police officers after a routine traffic stop. Rumors that Smith had died spread throughout the city and residents took to the streets. Newark became the epicenter of black rage. 26 people died, more than 700 injured, and nearly 1,500 arrested.
Late activist, poet, and Newark native Amiri Baraka, said people were worried about education, substandard living conditions, and racial profiling, and were watching the larger civil rights movement unfold.
“And Dr. King was essentially talking about peace and love, and turn the other cheek, and you know Christianity, human brotherhood, we sat and watched him get beat up everyday on television. People spit in your face and spit on you, and then we began to think well why should we put up with that. There’s nothing on the planet that mandates that you have to accept this kind of treatment.”
Long time community activist, the late Bob Curvin, saw the first rocks and Molotov cocktails fly. Curvin says he was not surprised
“We lived in a powder keg, and if it was not John Smith, it would’ve been Harry Jones or Mary Brown, or somebody. Something would’ve happened I believe that would’ve sparked a period of violence in the city.”
Monsignor William Linder was a newly ordained white priest recently assigned to the all black Queen of Angles parish. Lender says the police perpetrated much of the violence.
“I was walking along 17th ave, and they were distributing the shotguns to the police, they had never seen shotguns before. The police didn’t understand the damage one shotgun can do.”
Linder says when the Governor called in the National Guard, things got even worse. Surprising as it sounds today, no charges were ever filed in relation to any of the deaths that occurred during Newark’s summer of 67.
“These kids were using M-1 Rifles, I mean you would never give someone that without a lot of training. People were responsible for that, yet we never held them responsible, we never held them responsible for what we should have.”
After the rebellion residents demanded change. Newark elected its first African American Mayor in 1970 Kenneth Gibson. Gibson says the images of the rebellion still haunt the city to this day.
“Hundreds of image of stores broken into on Springfield Avenue. But the city did not burn, in fact there was no neighborhood in the city of Newark that burned, , but those images created the image for the city of Newark, that continues today.”
The son of the late poet Amiri Baraka is now the leader of the city. Mayor Ras Baraka was sworn into office in 2014, vowing to take the city into the future.
“A mayor that puts his city first. A mayor that never forgets how he got here, yeah we need a Mayor that’s radical.”
But poverty and unemployment rates remain higher than the national average. Last year the police department was put under federal consent decree after the Justice Department found widespread civil rights violation at the hands of the Newark Police.