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40 Years On, Newark Re-Examines Painful Riot Past

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40 Years On, Newark Re-Examines Painful Riot Past

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40 Years On, Newark Re-Examines Painful Riot Past

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Forty years ago this week, Newark, New Jersey, erupted into violence.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

Unidentified Man: There will be a curfew upon pedestrians starting at 11 o'clock.

SIMON: The rioting continued for days. By the end of the 1960s, half of Newark's population had moved out of the city. And the city has never fully recovered. Nonetheless, Newark is marking the anniversary of the riots with public events and exhibitions.

NPR's Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON: The turning point for this city came on the hot summer night of July 12, 1967. A black cab driver named John Smith was pulled over and badly beaten by police within sight of the residents of a large public housing project. He was dragged into the Fourth Precinct station house, and an angry crowd quickly gathered outside.

Mr. BOB CURVIN (Former Director, Congress of Racial Equality, Newark): By the time I got there, there were probably close to a couple hundred people, you know, milling around, screaming, yelling.

SOLOMON: Newark resident Bob Curvin, himself African-American, was a civil rights organizer at the time. He stood on a car to address the crowd, urging them to march downtown to protest frequent brutality by the mostly white police force. But the crowd had lost patience with peaceful protests.

Mr. CURVIN: There was a rain of stones, rocks, Molotov cocktails at the precinct. The flames started flickering, flowing down the side of the building, and the police came charging out with nightsticks, shields, and riot gear into the crowd. And I fled.

(Soundbite of riot)

SOLOMON: Five days of rioting ensued. Stores were looted and some burned down. After a policeman was killed, the governor sent in the National Guard with orders to use their weapons at will.

(Soundbite of archived reporting)

Mr. RONNIE WATKINS (Reporter, Pacifica Radio): Sporadic gunfire has broken out immediately across the street from the hospital. I'm now following three Newark city policemen into the area where the shooting occurred.

SOLOMON: Reporters Ronnie Watkins and Bob Ortiz from the Pacifica Radio Archive.

(Soundbite of shooting)

Mr. WATKINS: The whole scene is incomprehensible, absurd.

Mr. BOB ORTIZ (Reporter, Pacifica Radio): They had tanks and armored vehicles blocking every road. We couldn't get into Newark.

SOLOMON: Craig Wilson grew up in the Jewish section of Newark and worked at his father's shop, Moe's Dry Goods that was just blacks from the Fourth precinct. It was part of a row of small stores owned mostly by white merchants in Newark's black neighborhood. When the riot ended, Wilson returned to the street.

Mr. CRAIG WILSON (Resident, Newark): All the windows were shattered. The stores were somewhat burned out. Everything was stolen, I mean, the stores were all empty shelves, most of them. It was just devastation.

SOLOMON: Inexplicably, his father's store was the only one on the block left untouched. The residents of the neighborhood called the Central Ward were devastated, too. Official figures reported 26 deaths, 725 injuries and some 1,500 arrests.

A governor's commission found that most of the deaths were caused by police or National Guard shotguns.

But the causes of the riot go far deeper than one act of police brutality.

Fr. WILLIAM LINDER (Parish Priest): My first assignment was at a parish that was an African-American parish right in the middle of the Central Ward, surrounded by three high-rise complexes of public housing. And we had another 25,000 in substandard buildings.

SOLOMON: William Linder, a white Catholic priest, came to Newark in 1963 at a time when the city was undergoing major changes. After World War II, white ethnic Newarkers began to move to the suburbs in huge numbers. Spurred on by new interstate highways, low interest mortgages, and widespread access to college provided by the G.I. Bill. As blacks move into the Central Ward, they faced severe job and housing discrimination.

Fr. LINDER: There was no local homeownership - at all. I would say almost zero. The schoolteachers were white. All the principals were white. The social workers were white. And in fact, even the rackets were controlled outside of our community.

SOLOMON: City hall and the police department are now mostly black-run institutions. But they struggle for the resources to do a good job. Linder started and still runs a nonprofit organization that built housing and social service centers and even brought the first supermarket to the neighborhood in 25 years.

And while homeownership rates are still low, there are owner-occupied homes in the Central Ward, some of them built by Linder's group.

Dr. CLEMENT PRICE (History, Rutgers University, Newark): This community now looks fundamentally different than it did 30-some odd years ago. It was a Walden neighborhood.

SOLOMON: Clement Price is a historian at Rutgers University in Newark.

Dr. PRICE: We're at the Fourth Precinct, which is a ground zero for the events of the summer of 1967.

SOLOMON: Price is standing where Newark's past meets its present. Directly across the street from the police station where public housing towers once stood are new townhouses that offer ownership to low-income families.

Dr. PRICE: Everybody has a front yard. Every dwelling has an address. I'm looking across the street, in No. 9. I mean, that's like an American narrative, to have an address. So this is a community, which has changed, and the Fourth Precinct now reminds us of a Newark which I believe is a part of the past and now the part of the future.

SOLOMON: Price does want the past remembered, however, and thinks the Fourth Precinct should be preserved as a landmark. His colleague, Rutgers sociologist Max Herman, is working on a book about the riots. For most of the past 40 years, Herman says, Newark has tried to ignore its history in favor of a message of renaissance.

Mr. MAX HERMAN (Sociologist, Rutgers University): Those raw emotions exist nonetheless. And it also holds the city back because there hasn't been an airing of - an honest airing of what's happened in the past. You can't have a renaissance without reconciliation. You can't have reconciliation without truth telling.

SOLOMON: For the first time, many of the city's institutions are commemorating the riots. Herman is working on an exhibition coming to the New Jersey Historical Society and another will be held at a contemporary art center.

The photos, video footage and oral histories will allow Newarkers to relive the riots, and this time, through the wide-angle lens that 40 years can give. It just might provide the kind of truth-telling, Herman says, the city needs.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

SIMON: And you can watch a slideshow history of the Newark riots on our Web site, npr.org.

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