Newark Still Affected by Decades-Old Riots
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya. And this is NEWS & NOTES.
It's been 40 years since racial discrimination fueled a backlash in America's cities. Newark, New Jersey, suffered one of the worst riots in the long, hot summer of 1967. Twenty-six people died and hundreds were injured. But planning for the 40th anniversary of the riots comes at an awkward time for Newark, which is finally experiencing a rebirth.
Matt Hackworth reports.
MATT HACKWORTH: About every decade, Newark relives its tumultuous summer of 1967. Ceremonies and panel discussions focus on the event that sparked the uprising: the rumor of the death of an African-American suspect being held by an almost all-white police force.
So far, says historian Clement Price, every time Newark has looked back, it's focused on the period of unrest.
Dr. CLEMENT PRICE (Director, Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, Rutgers University-Newark): Newark's riot, with the possible exception of the Detroit riot in '67, is the most infamous of America's riots in that period. America has been reminded that Newark had a riot for the last 40 years, so people think they know about Newark through the riot. I would prefer they know about Newark through the recovery that Newark has made 40 years after.
HACKWORTH: Today, Newark appears to be in recovery for the first time since 1967. Dump trucks come and go. New construction is everywhere here. A sports arena will open this summer, surrounded by upscale condos, galleries and performing arts venues. Popular African-American Mayor Cory Booker represents Newark's first administration, too young to remember the unrest.
As an historian, Clement Price is guiding Mayor Booker on how to commemorate the 40th anniversary.
Dr. PRICE: Mayor Booker and many of his - many members of his administration, I affectionately say they are kids by comparison to my generation. They are post-1967 Americans. They are post-Civil Rights Movement Americans. And because of that, my generation almost has an obligation to remind them of how important '67 was to their forbearers, both their civic forbearers and also to their parents.
HACKWORTH: And there in lies the challenge for historians and politicians. How do you commemorate a tragic event while highlighting the city's progress?
Ms. LINDA EPPS (President, New Jersey Historical Society): So we deliberately decided not to have the opening of the exhibit anywhere near July 12th because we did not want, in any way, for this to be mistaken as a celebration of those events.
HACKWORTH: Linda Epps is president of the New Jersey Historical Society. The group's been planning for just how it will mark the 40th anniversary for several years. Epps says there's a special sense of urgency in that eyewitnesses and participants are starting to pass away.
Ms. EPPS: In another 10 years, we'll lose more people who were actual eyewitnesses. And their oral testimony is a very important part of the exhibit.
HACKWORTH: A recording booth will let individuals offer their own impressions of what happened, and there are still lots of disagreement about what happened. Even the term riot is contested. Some would call it a revolution.
One thing the exhibit will show is how violence ultimately failed the cause for civil rights in Newark. That sits well with former SNCC activist and Newark eyewitness Shirley Sherrod.
Ms. SHIRLEY SHERROD (Former Member, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee): I think we have to take the lessons from the past and look at exactly what was won and what was lost. And I think in the end, we would see that we'd lost more use and balance than we would if we use our heads to really think and plan and put into action some of those plans to get us to where we want to go.
HACKWORTH: The exhibit opens in Newark in the fall, then it will travel across the country. More than 200 U.S. cities experienced some type of racial conflict in the late 1960s. Since Newark's is so well known, the traveling exhibit is a natural teaching point, both to commemorate the past and celebrate the city's bright future.
For NPR News, I'm Matt Hackworth in Newark.
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