Fifty years later, remembering the riots that changed Newark

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

What made the summer of ’67 sizzle had been simmering for years in Newark. Then-teenager Barbara King lived in Hayes Homes where she felt the sense of separation and inequality in New Jersey’s largest city.

“Things were separate. The people who lived there. Most of all the goods and service came from people who didn’t live there,” King said.

Junius Williams was a young activist with the Newark Community Union Project.

“People were suffering, and people were, I can’t say people weren’t able to do anything about it because a lot of people were doing something about it. But just the enormity of the situation was overwhelming,” said Williams, director of the Abbot Leadership Institute at Rutgers University-Newark.

Essex County Sheriff Armondo Fontoura had just joined the Newark Police Department. This was his first badge.

“Here in Newark everything is honkey dory,” said Fontoura.

Polar opposite views of the same city with some of the same oversight challenges today.

“No oversight whatsoever,” said Williams. “You had a police force that was 90 percent white in a town that was 58 percent black. And they brought all the attitudes that you associate with as far as racism is concerned. And when you combine that with an administration that didn’t really give a damn.”

July 12, 1967. Police stopped cab driver John Smith. Police say he attacked them. Witnesses tell a different story. Officers took a bloodied and battered Smith to what was then the 4th precinct on 17th Avenue right across from Hayes Homes. Residents protested.

“This particular night it seemed like it was just too much that we heard about this cab driver,” recalled King.

The next day a bigger protest was met by police in riot gear. Someone tossed a fiery device from the crowd. The riots, the rebellion, the disorder, the disturbance – whatever it would be called – was on.

“I said to myself all those people in the bars and in the street, they had won the bet because there were wages all over. Will Newark become the next city to go up, or will it be avoided?” Williams said.

“I didn’t see that coming. In retrospect, there were folks here that hurting that weren’t participating the same way that I was. So I didn’t see that coming,” said Fontoura.

“At first, there was a carnival atmosphere. People said, ‘Well, we’re going to get what we deserve. We’re going take what we need. We’re going to get it.’  A lot of people think that folks just indiscriminately rampaged, burning down housing, etc. That’s not what happened. People targeted certain businesses that had treated them unfairly, took what they wanted and torched the place. People also burned up the business records because they didn’t want people to have and go pay those usurious interest rates to pay for furniture or whatever it was they were paying for. People saved some businesses that were white. They camped in the place to stop it from happening. Black people did,” said Williams.

“It was chaos. It was chaos, chaos. And granted in one area in particular, the Central Ward on Springfield Avenue. And you saw it, you saw it coming. And when the state police come in on day two and the Guard came in and the State Police, they did what they could, but those of us in Newark, we were ill-prepared. We had no equipment, we had no training, we didn’t even have radios, we had no helmets. People were bringing in their own helmets. There were guys bringing in their own shotguns, those that were hunters. We didn’t have enough of that to go around. And then after awhile you hear more gunfire, you hear the gunfire and didn’t know where it came from. And you got some cops and other folks who are just firing back. Why? We didn’t see anything, but you heard more and more gunfire than the police officer was killed, Freddy Toto and then the firefighter was killed and that just kind of changed everything. There was a lot of bitterness on both sides, both the cops and the public, of course. And then of course when calm was restored, to a degree, the State Police left,” Fontoura said.

By the third day, the National Guard had arrived.

“I saw police, National Guards, police riding through the streets with tanks pointed at us which I never saw that before. Guns pointed at us and riding up and down the street and we didn’t understand that. We didn’t understand why was there someone trying to help, instead of why were were the criminals. We lived there,” said King.

Gunfire echoed through the city and the pain ricocheted as fast as the bullets that killed an 8-year-old taking out the trash, a police office and firefighter. The indelible images would haunt this city for five decades.

On the 30th anniversary, Newark residents erected a monument here on Springfield Avenue, a monument with the names of the men, women and children lost during those violent days, including Eloise Spellman, who lived and died in Hayes Homes.

Spellman was the mother of 11 living on the tenth floor. National guardsmen and state police riddled the building with bullets saying they were responding to sniper fire.

“She had little babies. All her children in living room and a bullet comes through and shoots and kills her and their lives are destroyed forever,” said King.

Fifty years later, Newark has more than 100,000 fewer residents, no more high-rise public housing, an un-ending battle over affordable housing and economic opportunity for its citizens, a police force under a federal monitor to reform and under a mayor who’s a native son.

“I’m very proud of the work that he’s doing and the fact that he understand that public safety is, and who knew that Ras Baraka would be the guy to understand that public safety is the number one issue. And he began to rebuild the police department — the right way,” Fontoura said.

But were opportunities to learn from ’67 lost?

What did America learn from the Newark riots? “Not enough, because America’s priorities have not changed. American’s priorities have not changed to build and re-build the cities,” Williams said.

Newark – 50 years after the riots.