Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Newark Rebellion

Protesters and guardsman with a bayonet
(Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)
Fifty years ago today, the Newark Rebellion, also known--still too often ideologically misnamed and misread, I would argue, as the "Newark Riots"--unfolded in New Jersey's largest city. The rebellion was one of a wave of uprisings in the US and across the globe, especially during the tumultuous year that followed, 1968, and left Newark deeply scarred, in human and material terms, and in the local and national imagination. Lasting five days, resulting in 26 dead (mostly Black residents of Newark, as well as a White firefighter and cop) and 700 people injured, the riots left numerous streets in the city in ruins, to the cost of roughly $10 million (roughly $73 million adjusted for inflation today).

A coalition of organizations, including ALI - Abbott Leadership Institute, The North, New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), People's Organization For Progress New Community Corporation, WBGO News, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Newark Public Library, City of Newark, NJ - City Hall, Newark NAACP, and The New Jersey Historical Society, has organized a weeklong 50th anniversary commemoration of the rebellion that began yesterday. Events include a prayer and memorial service; a 50th anniversary march to the monument memorializing the rebellion; a public forum to be aired on local NPR-affiliated radio station WBGO; an intergenerational conversation about the rebellion; and, to conclude the week, a conversation at the Newark Public Library involving people who lived through the rebellion.

Commemoration poster
My Rutgers-Newark colleague Junius Williams, who directs ALI and lived through the rebellion, has created a deeply informative website, RiseUpNewark, that provides a rich background to how Newark came to be the city it was and is, as well as specific sections examining the period leading up the rebellion (1950-60) through the decade in which it occurred.  I would venture to say that the vast majority of Newarkers and New Jerseyans have not encountered the trove Williams's site provides, and though it is specific to Newark, its broad outlines suggest a narrative applicable to many other urban areas across the US. Professor Williams has also written a first-person account, "The Rebellion in Newark," that appears in New Jersey Monthly.

Here's an excerpt (the medical school he mentions eventually became the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), and is now the Rutgers School of Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS)):
For weeks, black people had been saying the community was ready to explode. I heard it in bars and at neighborhood meetings. I heard it from speakers protesting the two hot issues of the day: Mayor Hugh Addonizio’s plan to build a medical and dental school on 150 acres in the Central Ward that would displace 20,000 mostly black and Puerto Rican residents; and the mayor’s decision to place James Callaghan, a white man with a high school diploma, in the position of board secretary (business administrator) for the Newark public schools, instead of Wilbur Parker, the first black CPA in New Jersey. “Keep this shit up and there’s gonna be a riot in Newark!” was the word on the street. (Applause meter off the charts; everybody agreed.)

In addition, the New York Times, which covered the rebellion in real time, devotes a feature on the momentous event's anniversary today. Rather than straight reportage, the Times assembles the voices of people who lived through the uprising, creating an oral historical collage that provides a fuller view than standard reportage usually provides. In many of the accounts, the frustration and sorrow at the conditions that led to the uprising, and its aftermath, are front and center. One of the immediate consequences was the acceleration of White flight, already underway since the 1950s, and the departure of numerous businesses, some of which were departing Newark as cities all over the country were deindustrializing, a shift that continues today.

I think it's fair to say that Newark is on the upswing these days under its current mayor, Ras Baraka, but the turnaround has been a long-term process and is nowhere near complete. Some of the key challenges the city faced before 1967 are still in place, and the still pressing issue of decent wage-paying jobs for the city's residents has not abated. Gentrification, evident near Rutgers-Newark and the downtown area, will only exacerbate this problem, though having (some) people in power, particularly in the city, who want to listen and collaborate with Newark's people is a major advance over the situation of 50 years ago.

A man taken from a building in which
sniper fire was coming (Neal Boenzi/New York Times)
Below are a few excerpts from the Times' curated testimonies. I found some of the feature's photos, like the one at the top of this blog post, particularly evocative and moving.
Junius Williams
As the smoke cleared and the last dying embers of the flames receded, some of us realized the power structure was afraid. First time they had ever been afraid of us in this city. So we began to think of, how are we are going to take advantage of this violence that nobody wanted? My group was formed, the Newark Area Planning Association, and we decided we were going to work on the medical school. We had to cut that medical school down. Some people didn’t want it at all, but some of us saw it as something valuable.

The black community was definitely empowered. Nobody wanted that violence. But at the same time, people were politically adept enough to see that we had the opportunity to turn that destructive power into something that was positive for the community, which if they had just allowed us to do in the beginning, it never would have happened.
Jonathan Lazarus
I grew up in Newark when it was a thriving commercial and manufacturing hub, a city of vast parks, strong schools, wonderful branch libraries and viable neighborhoods, all except the Central Ward, the deliberately overlooked ground-zero ghetto. This all went away with the riots. My family moved to the suburbs in 1957, so we escaped the immediacy of the destruction, but felt its impact for a lifetime.
I worked nights in Newark for the remainder of my news career and saw the scarring effects of those four nights of hell linger for decades. But Newark has definitely managed to turn a corner. 
Development, jobs and commerce are improving. The city has become a higher education center. Political leadership, while imperfect, is superior to previous iterations, both black and white. And, after a 40-year absence, the city ended its food-desert reputation by enticing supermarkets to come in.
Mildred C. Crump
There has been significant progress, but not enough, trust me. But there's been progress for African-Americans. Now we’re a black and brown community. Our Hispanic brothers and sisters were part of the progression that we made. For example, my husband and I bought a house in the South Ward where the Jewish community was in prominence. That could never have happened if 1967 had not happened.

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