Webmaster of Jack
Forty years ago this weekend, the city in which I was growing up
-- Newark, N.J. -- was rocked by brutal race riots that went on
for nearly a week. The death and destruction took place "uptown"
-- in the black neighborhoods on the other side of the railroad
tracks from where we lived, particularly along a shopping street
called Springfield Avenue. By the time it was over, 26 people were
dead, 725 were injured, and close to 1,500 were arrested. Property
damage exceeded $10 million, which was a considerable chunk of change
in those days.
We lived on the east side of town, in the melting-pot Ironbound
section, where things remained fairly calm. A half-block from our
house, there were public housing "projects" which were
mostly black, and the folks on our all-white street, who watched
the projects warily all the time anyway, were really watching them
closely that hot week. But nothing much happened in our neck of
the woods. I think one storefront around the corner had its display
window broken, but that was about it within a mile or two of our
Not so elsewhere in Newark. Scores of white-owned businesses in
the central part of the city were looted and burned to the ground.
Jewish merchants were particularly targeted by the rioters' rage.
Indeed, entire blocks were destroyed, adding to the devastated landscape
that had already been created by the "urban renewal" process
of razing dilapidated buildings and leaving the lots vacant. Black-owned
businesses painted the words "soul brother" on their shop
windows to avoid being cleaned out and then torched. City police,
state troopers, and National Guard troops marched through the streets
with machine guns. Martial law was in effect. Two of the drawbridges
across the Passaic River between Newark and the much whiter town
of Harrison were left up all night to stop the havoc from spreading.
The Portuguese immigrants on the east side of Penn Station posted
signs daring the "soul brothers" to bring the action down
to their neighborhood, but the mayhem never got past the tracks.
When the violence got too intense, my parents suddenly whisked us
three kids off to my mother's sister's house in the Philadelphia
suburbs for the weekend. But we got back to Newark in time for me
and my high school buddies to sit out on the front stoop on Ferry
Street, where we used to while away each and every sweet, romantic
teenage summer night, and watch the troops as they pulled out of
Newark in an eastbound convoy. It was the afternoon of the day after
I'll never forget the sight. That long line of vehicles, many wrapped
in barbed wire and most loaded with heavily armed troops, seemed
to go on forever. The uniformed military men, mostly white, were
filthy and exhausted. But they were quite comfortable with, even
boastful about, the number of black people they had taken down.
Several vehicles sported handmade signs proudly noting how many
"soul brothers" that particular group of Guardsmen had
History has a way of placing events like this under an amber glass,
like the Declaration of Independence, where it all seems so neat
and tidy. Look at the Wikipedia entry -- hardly anyone remembers,
it seems, or even cares. "Maybe it should be merged with the
Plainfield riot entry" -- sheesh.
This was a civil war, played out in our own America. All hell broke
loose. Many men on both sides of the color line behaved like animals.
Cops and troops opened fire on people for looting a case of beer.
The uniformed men shot first, and asked questions later (if at all).
Organized groups of African-American snipers shot at the lawmen
from upper-story windows. Kids were hit by bullets from both sides.
A firefighter was shot dead off a fire ladder as he investigated
an alarm. At least one hospital was fired upon. The dam of hatred
built by years of injustice broke open, and vengeance flowed.
That was pretty much the end for Newark. It had already been on
a decline, and the riots sealed its fate. Businesses never rebuilt,
most of the remaining white residents ran as fast as they could,
and the conditions of the poor African-American community never
improved much. For years, they had nowhere to shop, because the
shops had all been burned down. Then came AIDS, and crack, and the
gangs. Heroin had always been there, and it never left. The local
government was, and still is, fundamentally corrupt -- rotten to
the core. There are still pockets of modest prosperity in the city,
but not where the riots were. If you're smart, you won't go into
those neighborhoods, ever, under any circumstances. You wonder if
the city could ever really stage a comeback.
What did it all prove, besides how much people had grown to hate
each other? Nothing.
As a teenager, I never fully grasped what I had witnessed that
afternoon on the front porch on Ferry Street. The friendly messages
that were pouring out of our stereos from Motown artists and other
black performers provided a nice distraction from the realities
that had rolled past my friends and me that day. Pretty soon there
were other stories. Vietnam started showing up on the TV news, and
Woodstock, and Kent State. We lived in Newark five more years after
the riots; then yet another war, inside our own house, forced my
mom and us kids to move over one of those drawbridges. By the time
of Watergate and Nixon, the events of July 1967 had faded into a
But the older I get, the more I think back in horror at what I
saw with my own eyes. How far have we come in the intervening four
decades? God help the human race.