Plainfield Riots Remembered 40 Years Later

This month marks 40 years since a wave of riots rippled through African-American communities across America. In Plainfield, N.J., residents reflect on the violence that hit the community in the summer of 1967.

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Forty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. It became better known as the Kerner Commission, for the Illinois governor who served as its chairman. LBJ was responding to the wave of racial violence that rippled through America that summer. Almost 30 people died in Newark. In Detroit, the death toll was 43. But riots erupted in 163 communities in the summer of '67, many of them in small towns.

This weekend, we turn our attention to two such places. We begin today with Plainfield, New Jersey, where a white police officer was killed and nearly 50 residents were hurt in the riots.

NPR's Allison Keyes visited Plainfield and found two people who lived through the upheaval.

ALLISON KEYES: Just a casual drive through Plainfield paints a clear portrait of a city divided in two. If you take Front Street from the west side where lower-income residents live, to the affluent bucolic east side of town, you'll see the landscape change. Rundown-looking frame houses, dollar stores and fast-food joints give way to large homes with expansive landscaped lawns shaded by huge maples. That divide, says Lillian Jamar, is what led to the problems here.

Ms. LILLIAN JAMAR (Member, Democratic City Committee): And when I first came to Plainfield from Newark, this was like a very quiet community. But at the time that this happened, blacks and whites were not that close.

KEYES: Jamar wouldn't let NPR give her exact age, but the petite, feisty African-American is close to 80 and has lived at the same house on the east side for 50 years. When she moved here, Jamar says, there were only three black families among the 1,300 families who attended her Catholic Church. She says blacks weren't happy with the way things were happening here.

Ms. JAMAR: They felt that they were being ostracized in a lot of things. The jobs that they had - construction jobs - they weren't available for them. They couldn't take a part in that. And there was no job market out there for them.

KEYES: Ninety-year-old Frank Meeks(ph), a white former city councilman, remembers things a little differently. He grew up in the West End, where people of colored mostly live now, and says, in the 1930s, after the Depression, everyone was poor together.

Mr. FRANK MEEKS (Resident, Plainfield; Former City Councilman): So it was the case of - the whites weren't privileged in any way, whatsoever. Everybody was equal, which was good, in a way. And the black population in Plainfield was probably about two to every ten whites or something like that, I would say. But we all played together. We went to school together. And there was no difficulty or animosity.

KEYES: Micks says that began to change in the late 1940s, partly due to the same divide Jamar talks about.

Mr. MEEKS: All the major things where decided by a white population. The council was all white. They did tremendous things with parks, schools and everything else. But it was still a case, you know, a person doesn't like to be told all the time what to do. They like to be able to do something on their own once in a while and make some of the decisions themselves.

KEYES: By the 1960s, Frank Meeks says, that attitude was showing up in Plainfield's younger African-American residents. Lillian Jamar, still a Democratic Committee woman and activist, adds that black people nationwide had been angry for a long time.

Ms. JAMAR: And this was what brought the riots on all over the country -because they were being overlooked for housing. It's like I told them, if you had the money, you couldn't buy the house. If you had the education, you couldn't get the job. Everything was because you were black. You couldn't this or you couldn't do that. And it made people angry.

KEYES: The rioting began on July 14, 1967. There were violent demonstrations over everything from lack of jobs to the lack of a swimming pool or other recreational facilities for blacks.

Fires were set at white-owned businesses and a black mob brutally murdered a white police officer after he shot a suspected looter. Word then got out that dozens of semi-automatic weapons had been stolen. And police began searching for them in black homes. Lillian Jamar drove from her on neighborhood to the riot-torn West End.

Ms. JAMAR: But the reason we had gone there was because we heard that they were going in these people's homes in the projects and turning the furniture over, looking for the guns, which they never found.

KEYES: Frank Meeks owned a car dealership at the center of town at the time. And he says rioters got within blocks of his business.

Mr. MEEKS: I set up a cot in the place and borrowed a shotgun from a friend. And I stayed in there for two days and two nights. And I was determined that I was not going to let them just come in and destroy my place.

KEYES: Meeks and Jamar say they have worked together a few times since the riot on issues that affect their city. In hindsight, both blamed outsiders for sparking the violence 40 years ago by bringing activist views to blacks here.

Mr. MEEKS: Things that maybe they had been not aware of before were enlarged in their minds, that sort of thing. And then you start getting - a lot of the people from Newark and Elizabeth that moved out to Plainfield. So that you didn't have the families that had been living in Plainfield where they'll be plucked away for two or three generations. We were getting entirely new elements and they had no history of Plainfield or any particular affection for it, so to speak.

Ms. JAMAR: So a lot of people did come in and they start telling the people who live in the area you don't have to take this. You have to do something about your surroundings, about what you and I are getting. You're supposed to have a piece of the pie. You're not getting a piece of the pie.

KEYES: Forty years later, the question of whether the riots brought positive change to the city is open to debate. Lillian Jamar says crime is up, the schools have declined and things for African-Americans haven't improved all that much.

Ms. JAMAR: We still have a lot of unrest here in this city. The system really hasn't done what it should do. We still got black on black crime(ph). It's still discrimination and if black people don't watch, it's going to back to what it was before because I can see it easing down, going backwards.

KEYES: Frank Meeks says he's seen African-Americans gain political power since the riots. And he thinks race relations have improved, but as for the white population…

Mr. MEEKS: A lot of them packed up and moved as soon as things became uncomfortable. And then consequently, the Democratic (unintelligible) of the city have changed tremendously. The circle has reached rock bottom or worse, I guess. And it's beginning to move up again. And a lot of the blacks are taking part in that.

KEYES: Plainfield has gone from being 60 percent white to 1969 to 62 percent black today. One quarter of the population is Hispanic.

There's no visible memorial mark around the spot where Officer John Gleason was killed, across from the Elmwood Grades Projects. But there are signs of hope. The people who lived here now look happy walking streets where the grass is green. The homes nearby have colorful gardens and there's a swimming pool at the teens center that stands here now. And the children playing are smiling.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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