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.”
So, 50 years ago this month, on the evening of July 12, when a black cab driver named John Smith was beaten bloody by a pair of white cops, the city erupted. After residents saw the officers hauling Smith’s pummeled body into the Fourth Precinct, word spread that he might have died and a rabble quickly formed. Organizers tried to keep calm but soon enough someone threw a molotov cocktail and the pandemonium began. The incident resonated not because it was spectacular but because it felt so maddeningly familiar to African Americans in Newark, who were long accustomed to the realities of police brutality. Even the cab driver’s name—John Smith—conjured an image of an archetypal everyman.
“It was the drip, drip, drip of all of these indignities building up,” said Komozi Woodard, a professor of history at Sarah Lawrence College who grew up in Newark and witnessed the riots as a young man. “And finally we realized that the government was lying through its teeth, that they had no intention of helping our community.”
When the rubble was cleared after several days of mayhem, 26 people had died—many were hit by gunfire doing mundane things like talking with friends or taking out the garbage—and more than 700 were injured, along with around $10 million in property damage that left vast swaths of the town in decay.
The city’s leadership did not care to contemplate the origins of the crisis. The morning after the first night of unrest, Police Director Dominick Spina assembled a group of officers for a pep talk on the steps of the Fourth Precinct.
“Just return it to normal and don’t treat it as a situation,” he reportedly said. “Because once you begin to look at problems as problems, they become problems.”
This brand of willful disregard has come to characterize the response to racial uprisings ever since. The flames in Newark had hardly subsided before more riots ignited in Plainfield, New Jersey; Cambridge, Maryland; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and of course Detroit, Michigan, where President Johnson invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807 to authorize the deployment of federal troops. By some measures, the country experienced 159 instances of racial unrest that year alone.
But each generation must be as forgetful as the last—50 years later, we’ve barely begun to reckon with the implications of these uprisings, let alone address their root causes. So often, the reactions to these conflicts follow a woefully familiar script: paramilitary policing that only exacerbates the turmoil, sensationalistic media coverage that distorts public understanding, followed at last by a feckless government report that says much of what the black community already knows and does little of what it needs.
“The headline hasn’t much changed since 1967 in terms of how we remember those riots,” Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard, said in an interview. “The critique from the black community is seen as illegitimate in most arenas of American life, so the longer-term response has been the explicit or veiled message that society was not to blame.”
That summer, with so many cities in upheaval, President Johnson convened an 11-member panel known as The Kerner Commission to study three driving questions behind the uprisings: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” Even after a more condemnatory initial draft was quashed, the final report was unsparing in its assessment. “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the report famously concluded. It identified “white racism” and the police as the principal sources of the disorder and called on the government to make huge investments in social services, curtail de-facto segregation, and retrain police forces, among other fixes.
Johnson, however, ignored the commission and summarily refused to follow through on its recommendations—an outcome that the report itself anticipated. In one portion, the authors quote testimony by the psychologist Kenneth B. Clark. “I read that report … of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot,” he said. “I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission—it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland—with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”
What emerged instead from Johnson’s inaction was a warped new narrative about the uprisings: that the demonstrators were poised to strike again. “We have seen the gathering hate, we have heard the threats to burn and bomb and destroy,” said Nixon in a 1968 speech. “In Watts and Harlem and Detroit and Newark, we have had a foretaste of what the organizers of insurrection are planning for the summers ahead.”
This midnight rhetoric of law and order whipped up a mass white hysteria that helped usher in a Nixon presidency and, in many respects, the era of mass incarceration that would follow. Rather than tending to the roots of the uprisings, the country doubled down on the exact tactics that prompted them.
“It has nothing to do with the evidence of long-standing oppression—it has to do with the political currency of white perceptions of black criminality,” said Muhammad. “As long as there is a political marketplace in America for upholding white fear of black criminality, all the deliberations, thought gathering, and reports will pay very few dividends for moving the policy debates about black lives.”
The persistent struggles of Newark and Detroit only further fueled what Muhammad described as “a response of victim blaming.” In this historical reading, still perpetuated by conservative firebrands such as Thomas Sowell and Rush Limbaugh, the ills of those cities are ascribed not to the decades of neglect, discrimination and corruption, but to the demonstrators themselves.
"It was not despair that fueled the riot,” Sowell, an economist, wrote in 2011. “It was the riot which marked the beginning of the decline of Detroit to its current state of despair.”
In this way, some historians argue, the misfortune of these cities has been weaponized for the sake of advancing a political agenda.
“In essence the cause and effect have been reversed,” said Woodard. “So the blame has been laid on the protesters rather than the government policies that caused us to rebel in the first place.”
Perhaps it should come as little surprise then that the uprisings of 1967 seem to find so many modern parallels. The Department of Justice reports filed after the recent uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, read like they were written by college students haplessly attempting to plagiarize the Kerner Commission. Police officers in Baltimore, the DOJ wrote, must confront “the perception that there are ‘two Baltimores’: one wealthy and largely white, the second impoverished and predominantly black.” And in Ferguson: “Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities.”
In Newark, the wounds of 1967 continue to fester as well. “Today we’re fighting for quality education, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, health care, and decent jobs,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark branch of the NAACP. “They’re the exact same demands we had 50 years ago.” There too, the DOJ issued a report in 2014, detailing the police department’s pattern of pervasive civil-rights violations and “policing that results in disproportionate stops and arrests of Newark’s black residents.”
The continuation of these inequities, painful as they’ve been, have allowed for a certain sense of historical clarity. “There was never going to be the magic wand to transform the city,” scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. said in an interview. “It wasn’t just about changing people’s hearts—these were endemic structural problems and seismic shifts happening in the socioeconomic structure of the country.”
But the uncomfortable truth for so many to acknowledge is that the uprisings also proved to be a potent political force in many respects. As Gates noted, the unrest in Newark helped give rise to black radicals like the poet Amiri Baraka, the election in 1970 of Kenneth A. Gibson (the city’s first black mayor), and a whole generation of local black leadership, including Baraka’s son, current mayor Ras J. Baraka.
“To have the poet Baraka not only as a political figure through riots but also as one of the major public faces of and philosophers of the nascent black power movement is quite remarkable,” said Gates. “And then there is a direct connection between July 1967 and election of Ken Gibson.”
Sometimes, even the specter of creeping radicalism is among the most powerful bargaining chips black activists and leaders can play. President Johnson was more than happy to deal with Martin Luther King Jr., for example, if Malcolm X was the alternative. “One lesson of history is that a robust radical community has often made it possible for reformers to negotiate the terms of change,” said Muhammad.
Still, for the residents of Newark who watched their city burn, the legacy of the rebellions is much more personal. J. Barry Washington, a retired business consultant, was 19 years old that summer. For the most part, he watched the chaos unfold from his bedroom window in the Hayes Homes, a large public housing project opposite the Fourth Precinct. One of those nights, though, he was walking home from work when a white national guardsman stopped him on the street and bludgeoned him in the ribs with the butt of his firearm. Bruised but not beaten, he stumbled home a new man.
“I saw that moment as my awakening,” he said. “I learned then that my skin meant I was always subject to violence. And that’s something I’ll never forget.”