Few corners of American life looked as dire or as combustible as Newark, New Jersey, in the summer of 1967. In an application for a Federal grant that year, officials noted that, of every major city, Newark had “the highest percentage of substandard housing, the most crime per 100,000 people, the heaviest per capita tax burden and the highest rates of venereal disease, new tuberculosis cases and maternal mortality.”
The brunt of that pain was felt by the city’s African American community. While the dual forces of the Great Migration and white flight had made Newark one of the first majority black cities in the country, the local power structure, led by its Italian-American Democratic mayor, Hugh Addonizio, shut out its black citizens from any meaningful place in city governance. And then there was the city’s police force, which was 90 percent white, and as author Brad R. Tuttle wrote in How Newark Became Newark, black residents had come to expect “unfair, sometimes brutal treatment” at the hands of the city’s police.
In previous years, black activists in Newark had voiced their frustration with repeated strikes, marches, and other more traditional forms of protest. But this was the “Long Hot Summer” —the Black Power movement was in ascendance, patience was waning, and the weather had a way of bringing long-simmering tensions to a boil. It was not only radical voices in the city, like the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, who foretold the unrest to come. Earlier that year, even Martin Luther King Jr. had called Newark one of several “powder kegs” around the nation, ready to “explode in racial violence.”