What I Remember about Living Through the 1967 Newark Riots

by Jule Spohn


The city of Newark, like other cities in America in the 1960's, went through a, hopefully, once in a lifetime, violent, historic change. After the Second World War when the GI's came home they had the GI Bill which gave them benefits that were unheard of before - benefits in education and in obtaining a government backed home mortgage, etc. At this same time you had the Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike, and new "suburban communities" being built. A lot of industry was moving to the suburbs and the workers were following them and moving out of the city for a better life in suburbia. At this same time - in the 50's - you had a great influx of poor, uneducated, unskilled, Negro's coming North to take advantage of the greater job opportunities and the higher welfare benefits here. Bergen Street was literally and figuratively the dividing line between the races. The majority of Negroes lived below Bergen Street in the Central Ward in basically sub-standard housing much of which was owned by absentee landlords, went to substandard schools, had high unemployment rates in their community, and many of the stores in their areas charged outrageous prices. There was corruption and other problems going on in City Hall with the appointment of a White member of the Board Of Education and the Negro's felt that they had a better, more qualified applicant. At the same time you had the discussions under way to tear down a large part of the Central Ward to make room to build the new New Jersey College Of Medicine And Dentistry which would displace a large number of Negro's. Also you had the destruction of the First Ward in the mid 1950's - the old Italian Section of Newark - where thousands of Italian families had lived since the late 1800's/early 1900's. These were some of the things that were going on that basically laid the foundation for the riots of 1967.

I was born and raised in Newark beginning back in 1941. I still live in Newark. My family has been in Newark since the early 1850's - over a century and a half. My Great-Grandfather - Owen Carlin - was one of the "first six" policemen here in Newark when they first began an "official" police Department back in the 1850's and was the leading Democrat in the old 10th Ward. My Grandfather - John T. Tighe - was a policeman here in Newark from 1880 to 1910, and my Uncle - John C. Tighe - was a Fireman and a Policeman here in Newark from 1922 to 1945. I know, and love, this city like the back of my hand. When I speak about the riots and the history of Newark I speak from a first hand account of it, not like some of the people who have written about the Newark riots, many of whom were not even living in this city at that time. Many of these people can quote dates, facts, and figures, but have no idea of what it was like to have lived here during that time.

On July 12, 1967, a Newark cab driver named John Smith drove past a parked Newark Police car in a "reckless" manner. He was already on a driving "revoked" list. The police chased and arrested him. Rumor spread through the Negro community that the cops had killed him. An unruly, ugly, angry mob surrounded the Fourth Precinct where he was being held and began pelting the building with bricks and stones and other things and the riots began. The riot went on for five days and five nights. In the end 26 people were killed, thousands of homes, apartments, and stores, where destroyed, and the final dollar cost of the insurrection was up in the millions.

The Mayor and the Police Department had warnings of the possibility of riot conditions at least a year before they happened and did very little about it. The Mayor rejected warnings he had received from some of the young Black militants about what was about to happen and instead listened to the "white-washed" stories of the Black clergymen. After the riots in other cities the Newark Police Dept. had been briefed about the possibility of riots here and the Newark Police Department had basically felt that they could keep the Black community in its place. The police were unprepared for the violence, which eventually did take place.

Even Martin Luther King was aware of what was about to happen here in Newark. A year or so before the riots he told and audience that there were about ten Northern cities - including Newark - that were to feel the "wrath of violence."

According to Russell Sackett, a reporter with LIFE magazine, reporters had a clandestine meeting with members of the sniper organizations near the outskirts of the riot zone. The Newark snipers belonged to a group of young civil rights workers that was formed in Mississippi back in 1965. All decided to give up non-violence - "That's just not where it's at right now" - said one of the members. The group had fraternal contact with other Black extremist organizations such as RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement), US (the Swahili-speaking group in Los Angeles), and the Deacons for Defense and Justice. He was told that there were more than 50 members of this group who were active in and around Newark.

Members of the Black Nationalist, Black Muslim's, Black Panther's, and other insurrectionist groups were already in this city stirring up trouble. Many of these insurrectionist's came from California, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and other states. They were well armed with rifles, M1's, shotguns, small arms, knives, and Molotov cocktails. The Black community knew well in advance that these armed agitators were in the city and did nothing to stop them and actually aided and abetted them. Of the 1381 Negro's arrested 662 had "criminal" records. Not only did poor Blacks take part in the looting but also so did middle class Blacks.

Statements from the Black community such as "You ain't seen nothing yet" and "Burn, Baby, Burn" were fairly common in those days and set the tone for what was about to come.

In 1940 Newark had a population of about 430,000 which was mostly White. A little more than ten percent of the population was Black (45,000). The White groups consisted mainly of German's, Irish, Italians, Polish, and Jews. There were very few Hispanics in Newark at that time. By 1967 the population of Newark was about 400,000 and was just about evenly split 50/50 between Blacks and Whites. Newark had the largest percentage of Blacks of any city in the North.

Many of the large national Black groups had been planning for years on how to effect changes in certain cities. The Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) had a three-point - short term, intermediate term, and long term - plan in place on how to make the changes they wanted. These national Black groups were all working behind the scenes to bring about the collapse of certain cities that they wanted to gain control of - Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark, etc. They wanted complete control of the Police, Fire, and other government agencies in any community where the Blacks were in the majority. Their's was a well-planned and well carried out act of aggression against White America. They knew very well what they wanted and the term "at any price" was well used and applied. The White people did not know what had hit them. Never in the history of this country had the average White person seen violence on such as large a scale as this - directed against them and their community. When the riots were over the Whites fled the cities in droves. They were being beaten up and robbed while waiting for a bus downtown after work to take them home. Their children were being beaten up in schools by Black children. Their homes were being broken into, their cars were being stolen and destroyed, and their neighborhoods and lives were being turned upside down. In the end they had had enough and moved out of the city in search of safer places to live and raise their families.

Before the riots, going all the way back into the 1940's and 1950's traveling up along South Orange Ave and/or Springfield Ave from the Court House to around Bergen Street was always a hassle. Down around Howard, Prince, Broome, Jones, Norfolk, Camden Streets etc., the streets were all littered with garbage and broken beer and wine bottles. You had to constantly be on the lookout for drunks walking and running in front of your car. This area had many bars and liquor stores. These drunks would be fighting in the middle of the street and you had to wait to get around them sometimes. At some point in the mid 50's my father was in his truck coming home and there were some of these drunks fighting in the middle of the street. He had to stop and when he blew his horn for them to get out of the street they turned on him and before he knew it they opened the door to his truck and began beating him in the truck. He was a big man and couldn't get out of the truck fast enough and was basically trapped there. When he got home his face and eyes were bloodied and swollen. It is the only time in my life I saw my father cry - on my mother's chest.

Ridding the buses in the early 60's and thereafter was always a hassle and eventually became dangerous for a White person. I had friends who were held up at knife point downtown while waiting for the bus. As women and men were entering the bus they had their purses and wallets stolen. Once you got on the bus kids would put their foot into the aisle and try to trip you. After awhile the White passengers would try to sit near the front of the bus because it became too dangerous for them to sit near the rear of the bus.

Down on South Orange Avenue around Camden Street the old Congress movie theater had been turned into Muslim Temple #25. It was felt in the White community that some of the troublemakers belonged to that Temple. The police raided it and found guns, records, and books, from which they gained a lot of information about potential, and actual, trouble makers. It was raided after Newark Police Sergeant Bill Mavers was shot in the back during a bank robbery. He is crippled for life.

I remember when the city first began hiring Black Policemen in the mid 50's. These Black officers were much harder on the Blacks than were the White Officers. Perhaps they were just trying to show how tough they could be because they were new on the force.

In the mid 50's as the Blacks gradually began moving Westward above Bergen Street and up around 10th, 11th, 12th, Streets etc. the real-estate brokers were fanning fear by telling the home owners: "Listen, you better sell your house now - there's a Black family living down the block now." The very first Black family that moved into our neighborhood back in the mid-40's was Lottie and Roosevelt and their children Mary, Geneva, Junior, and GooGoo. I can still remember the first day they moved in. All the kids on the blocked played in the back yard of our apartment building. While they were moving in all of the White kids stood on the little dirt mound watching them, and their children stood by their apt watching us. It was sort of a shock for us at first but we all became playmates and Lottie looked after us all. If we did something wrong, Lottie was BIG woman, and she would put us across her knee and WHOOP OUR BEHINDS. If we went home and told our parents what she did, out parents would whoop us again. The second Black family that I knew moved in next door to us when I was living on 12th Street in the mid 50's. That was Sarah and Eddie and their children. While I came back from overseas in the mid-60's and I made some type of racial comment about them to my father, my father jumped all over me and said: "Don't you ever say anything like that again. When your mother was sick Sarah and Eddie were the only ones in the neighborhood to come and visit her. When our television was broken Eddie gave me one of his." I learned my lesson then. My insensitive comment was one of the very few times my father really jumped all over me in my lifetime.

"THE WHOLE TOWN IS GONE" was the comment by Mayor Addonizio on the morning after the second night riots. What started as a simple arrest of a Black cab driver turned into the worst nightmare in this city's history. The riots went on for five days and nights and State Police and National Guards troops had to be called in to put an end to the rebellion. In the end twenty six people were dead - including one Police Officer and one Fire Department Captain. The entire Central Ward was ravaged and the riots and looting spread to other parts of the city. It was the beginning of the end for the city.

All of the White owned stores along South Orange Avenue and Springfield Avenue were looted while at the same time almost all of the Black owned stores were untouched. The rioters knew exactly which stores to hit. Taking the bus down South Orange Ave on the way to work when the businesses were first allowed to open after the riots reminded me of burned out Berlin after the bombing. Almost all of the storefront gates were ripped off and lying on the sidewalks. There were ruined cars lining the streets. Broken glass and debris were everywhere. It was unbelievable. Everything was looted - food stores, pawn shops, liquor stores, clothing stores, appliance stores, etc. Almost nothing remained untouched. Within days this type of violence spread from the Central Ward to other neighborhoods of Newark.

A friend of mine relayed the following story: "As a native Newarker myself, and one who had friends, a former schoolmate, and acquaintances in business during the riots, and my own mother still living there, I had to watch from afar, living 800 feet over the Newark line in Hillside. But I knew what was going on and sat on my front porch listening to the gunshots just over the city line...of trying to look in on my elderly mother and being turned back by Guardsmen at the City line. I was a member of the Health Club at the Chancellor Ave 'Y' before and after the riots and spoke with members - businessmen - whose businesses were looted and destroyed - men who feared going back to see what was left after the looting and burning stopped. I recall chatting with a butcher who locked himself in his darkened freezer and recognized his Black customers looting his store. He never went back, he later told me, not even to reclaim his butcher knives for a shop he opened elsewhere.

Before the riots the firemen rode in uncovered trucks. During the riots and afterwards people in the riot area were throwing bricks, garbage cans, and whatever, on the heads of the men who where coming into those neighborhoods to help save their homes etc. They didn't care. The firemen had to make makeshift plywood tops for the trucks in order to protect themselves from these people. Even the people who were trying to deliver food and water to those living in those neighborhoods were shot at by the snipers. The hospital where the Negro's wee being treated - Martland Medical Center - came under repeated weapons fire. One doctor described his nights there as "worse than my war service."

One of the rioters made the comment about all of the looting: "Who cares, Our people are getting what they want" - TV's, refrigerators, washing machines, clothes, etc.

Dale Wittner, the writer of the article on the riots which appeared in LIFE magazine on July 28, 1967, quotes one of the rioters, a Black Muslim who called himself Haking X., as saying that the riots would go on "until every white man's building in Newark is burned."

My father could not come home the night of the riots. The streets in our neighborhood were all blocked off and he had to go to one of his brother's houses for the night. Other friends of mine had to do the same thing. The cops had Springfield Avenue blocked off near the Parkway so that no one could come downtown from that point. It didn't make any difference at that point because most the weapons the rioters had were already in the city.

After the riots Newark was a changed city. There was mutual distrust on both sides - Black and White. I worked for National Newark and Essex Bank at 744 Broad Street from 1967 to 1970 and continued to live in the Ivy Hill Apt's until 1974. At that time most of Newark was still pretty much OK but was beginning to go downhill. Week after week you could see the neighborhoods changing as more and more burned out buildings (homes and stores) and vacant lots began appearing.

A year or so after the riots my 70 year old Aunt Anna who had been living on William Street between High Street and Springfield Avenue was mugged by two Black guys. When she didn't hand over her pocketbook fast enough they grabbed it from her and threw her on the ground causing her to fracture her hip. I could have gotten her into one of the new Senior Citizens Apartment Houses that were just being built but she didn't want to leave the home she had been in for the past thirty or forty years even though it was no longer safe for a White person be be living in that neighborhood any longer.

Businesses in the downtown area were finding it harder and harder to get people to come to work downtown for fear (real fear) of being mugged and held up on the way to or coming from work. Market Street from Broad Street all the way down to Penn Station was a real danger zone for working class people. At a certain point in time the police set up a police cordon along Raymond Blvd in the evenings and people were told to walk along that street on their way to Penn Station. Once they built the new Gateway Complex you noticed that there were covered walkways over the streets connecting the buildings to Penn Station. Those were not built to protect people from inclement weather - they were built to protect their workers on their way to and from Penn station and these passageways could pretty well be patrolled by their own security people.

The Colonnade Apt's were beautiful and well maintained when they were first built in the early 60's. I had many friends who lived there. By the time of the 70's as the area began changing my friends were being held-up in the parking lots and hallways of those buildings upon returning home. They eventually moved out of that neighborhood as it went downhill fast.

Bamberger's eventually became Macy's. It and the other stores downtown could hardly keep up with all of the stealing that was going on in them - both from so-called customers as well as their own staff. Most of the old-time employees had left and they were stuck hiring a different class of people to work there. A friend of mine who worked for Hanover Shoes told me that many times some of the Black guys would come into the store and say: "What size pants or shirts do you want." Seems that they had an "in" at Bam's and could get them anything they wanted in "Twenty minutes, tops." He says that his manager really believed that the police were on to these scams and would crack down at any moment - but that moment never came. For himself, he said "I had my doubts about how motivated the cops were in those days."

My friend made to following comment about the bus ride home from downtown at night: "The real shame was when the stores closed. I would take the bus back to the Hall (Seton Hall) at Orbach's. The female workers were all waiting to board the bus and young men would press against them and try to lift their purses. The surprising thing was - everyone seemed to know what was going on yet, no one protested it. It was as if every woman was on her own to fend for herself."

The two main areas of Newark that have survived pretty much in tact are the Down Neck and the North Newark areas. Why is that? It is because both of these areas were mostly Italian areas in the 50's and 60's. After the riots when Blacks came into these areas looking for trouble the Italian men came out in force and chased them out of the areas. The Italians were the only group who stood up for and protected their neighborhoods. All the rest of the groups - Irish, Polish, Germans's, Jews - fled the city without putting up much of a fight. The old saying holds true - "if you can't fight for what you have, then you don't deserve to have it." It's a shame that the White people "surrendered" this city to the Black's as easily as they did. However, I understand why they did it.

These are my personal recollections of the events before, during, and after the riots. I am speaking as a White man. I'm sure that many other have their own personal stories of this time period. And I'm sure that if you were Black you would see things differently than I do. That's OK. We all have our own stories.

There were terrible conditions for the Blacks before the riots. However I feel that none of that should have accounted for the violence and death that occurred during the riots. But there was, and still is, a larger picture going on in this country dealing with racial issues. What continues to bother me is when I read accounts of the riots written by so-called "experts" - Historians, and Professors at Rutgers and elsewhere - who continue to put the blame on the Police and National Guard for what happened, instead of putting the blame right where it belongs - ON THE BLACK COMMUNITY - here in Newark who supported and allowed the insurrectionists to get away with what they did. The Police have the mandate to protect the people in their cities and towns. They are not there to pander to those who want to tear the cities apart. There are legal ways to effect change, and violence is not one of them.

Cities are like people - they are born, they grow, they get sick, they weaken and fall apart, and then hopefully they come back to life again. That's what happened to Newark, but not in a "natural" progression. The city had gone downhill for the past 40 or so years and if finally making a nice come-back for the past five. Let's hope that the worst is behind us and that Newark can come-of-age in this New century and be bigger and greater than at any time in it's past.


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