In newark, as in many other cities, the heart of the black ghetto—the Central Ward, or “the Hill,” as some of its residents call it—is uptown. Not only is it, in the parlance of black urban crisis, another tinderbox, but, even to the way its boundaries are shaped out on the map, it looks roughly like a bulging oblong box of explosives. Its location, therefore, is perilous. One match tossed carelessly in its vicinity could shatter the integrity of Newark, for it sits at the very center of the city like a belly button.
Last July 12, a Wednesday evening, the match was tossed. That evening, a Negro cab driver by the name of John Smith was arrested on a charge of tailgaiting, and, in the full view of enraged spectators, was dragged into the Fourth Precinct; there, according to Smith—and the charge was supported by his subsequent physical appearance—he was badly beaten up. What happened in Newark for the remainder of that weekend is by now too well known to repeat. Suffice it to say that by Friday morning, Governor Richard Hughes, on an inspection tour through the smoke and wreckage, was remarking, as much in sadness as in anger, on “the funeral of the city.”
As one man said, it didn’t take much for that box to go off. The Central Ward is what even the least excitable of newspapers would describe as “a teeming, squalid slum.” The people there complain of overcharging by landlords and by businessmen along Springfield Avenue, “who despise us but live high off of us in the suburbs.” They resent the fact that in Newark, where they are more than 50 per cent of the population, they are represented by no more than two members on the city council, partly, of course, because not enough of them register and vote, but partly also because of political gerrymandering. Some 32 per cent of the housing is substandard—made up of frail wooden or crumbling brick structures. Moving through parts of the Central Ward, one gets the feeling of walking through an old frame house whose floorboards are loose and creaking, whose missing shingles let in the rain, whose dusty corners are alive with spiders.
Last year, Mayor Hugh Addonizio ordered forty-five acres of the Central Ward cleared to make way for the construction of a medical and dental college. (A slightly different account of this from within the community itself has it that the number of acres ordered to be cleared was 150, of which only 46 were to be used for the college, with the rest remaining idle in the event of further need.) In any case, hundreds of Negro families would have been put out of their homes by the proposed construction.
If the matter of the college was one of the more frequently-cited “causes” of the events in Newark, there was no lack of others. The unemployment rate throughout the city is 8.2 per cent, almost double the national standard. According to the New York Times, “This year $4.4-million was earmarked for Newark’s massive problems. Limited state and city funds were also thrown in. Versatile community action programs proliferated amid the stench of poverty.” But this made little difference. “We did our best,” an official of the Office of Economic Opportunity has said, “but Newark is bad and we were simply overwhelmed.” But by far the greatest grievance in the Central Ward is against the police, of whom more than 90 per cent, according to the Negroes, are white, and who are consistently accused of brutality and contempt for the community. “The cops are just here to get the niggers,” one young man told me. “What happened here was mainly a rebellion against the cops.”
Some, of course, insist it was a riot; others claim it was an insurrection; and still others have their own views as to whether the rebellion, the riot, or the insurrection was aimed at the police, at the landlords, at the businessmen along Springfield Avenue, at bad housing and joblessness, or at white control. Just as there are differing interpretations of the nature and objectives of the eruption, so are there differing styles of response to the pressures of the Central Ward. On the basis of what one hears, it would seem that some people do not worry one way or the other about how their situation will work out: they appear convinced that they are never going “to get up off the ground until the man gets up off us.” Some argue strongly for Negro self-help. Some insist that “we need the cops.” Some manage to escape, particularly to the more prosperous South Ward, even though many of them find when they get there that they have exchanged ghetto frustrations for open hostility with the middle-class Italians. Some welcome the anti-poverty programs that have sprung up in Newark as the real hope. Some are still pinning their hopes on the objectives and strategies of the traditional civil-rights leaders, while others dismiss them contemptuously as “a bunch of house niggers.”
But sounding through this cacophony is the insistent, and dominant, tone of the more articulate black militants. To them, most of the foregoing issues are irrelevant; the issue of real importance now is not so much the quality of life in the ghetto, as what share of the power they themselves should have in determining what the ultimate quality of that life must be. The militants are largely young people. Many of them are not read in radical or black nationalist writings, but, out of their feeling of irrelevance and impotence in a system run by whites, they have arrived at a rough-gut perception of the need for black involvement—or, as some of them would say, black power—in the determining of their community affairs. Others, the more ideologically sophisticated middle-class intellectuals, quote Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Stokely Carmichael, Le-Roi Jones, Nat Turner, and H. Rap Brown. A number of them do not live in the ghetto but view it as exciting raw material for the kind of black nationalist constituency they dream of building for themselves. Others, equally intelligent, travel more lightly in doctrine; they are simply declaring for black dignity. They are the children of non-violent integrationist protest who are finished with the American Dream. All of these people may start out from disparate points, but sooner or later they converge in the common agreement that their only remaining option is one of racial politics.
One May correctly suspect that, given a certain degree of intensity of racial and political feelings, a militant is quite likely to riot. And along the same lines, one might also expect that, given a certain degree of economic privation, a man who is unemployed is quite likely to riot. Yet he may also not riot. Some did, of course, but others of the unemployed in Newark’s Central Ward felt that all the rioters ought to be shot. And though one may get away with the prediction that a militant is likely to riot, one may be wrong in predicting that he is also likely to loot; for to many of them, throwing a brick or a firebomb through a store window proved sufficient as gestures of repudiation.
An example of a young rioter is twenty-three-year old John Thomas. He is a militant, impatient with the atmosphere of inferiority and powerlessness that pervades the ghetto, but knows little or nothing about ideology of any kind. He is tall and handsome, was born and raised “right here on the hill of Newark” by parents who migrated from South Carolina in the late 30’s. Elementary and junior high school were “very beautiful” for him, but he dropped out of high school in his senior year “because I wasn’t learning anything and because the white cats were getting to me.” He joined a Negro gang and fought with white gangs all over Newark. “Sometimes we beat them and sometimes they beat the shit out of us.” But his mother, who has been “doing white people’s dirty housework” for as long as he can remember, got him to drop out of the gang, and he went to barber school to learn a trade.
“Today,” he says, “I do all right for myself. I make good money. But that’s beside the point. Money or no, they still got you under their heels. Especially the police, they treat us all like dogs or little children. To them, policework is a way of beating niggers. They say they want you to respect them, but how can you respect them the way they treat you? For instance, there’s a lot of people here who make book or sell numbers using the candystore as a front. They couldn’t do it without the cops. And the cops will walk right in, in front of all the kids and black people in the community, take their payoff, and walk right out again. They couldn’t care less about what the black people think. If a black guy has a little racket going and is doing well, before you know it his business gets busted. No matter how much he kicks back to the cops he still gets busted. He can stay in business but he mustn’t do too well. Man, they take away our manhood in this place.”
In a way, says Thomas, he was glad when the cops arrested John Smith, because it gave the Negroes a chance to show how they felt. He knew from the start that he was going to be in it. His girlfriend, who didn’t take much of an interest in those things herself, tried to keep him from getting involved. That Thursday evening, when it seemed that all efforts at cooling the situation had failed, she got him to go with her to a movie downtown. When they came out at 11 o’clock they sensed that trouble had started because the buses weren’t taking any Negroes uptown. In spite of his girlfriend’s pleas that they go home, he walked all the way up to Springfield Avenue, where most of the rioting and looting had broken out. He took her home and then came back out again. He wanted to get a group together, but he didn’t see anybody he knew. So he just stood around and watched. “I didn’t want anything,” he says, “it’s not in my nature to steal.”
“Next evening I got some cats together and gave them a plan. That day they had let loose the troopers who shot up a lot of Negroes. First we made some cocktails. I feel if you’re going to hurt the white man you got to hit him right. Lots of guys were coming down from the suburbs with sticks, jumping out of their cars, beating black people. We got some of them with bricks and bottles. Then we started hitting different places. Hitting and moving. That’s the only way. You shouldn’t stay in one place too long. We took care of business all over. I’m not going to say everything we did, but we were very busy that night, man, very busy.
“I don’t feel it was a riot as people say. It was a rebellion against the onesided legal and political system we live with up here on the hill. The black man has no voice in City Hall. They treat us like dogs down there. You go to City Hall to discuss grievances and they keep you waiting for two hours before they show up. Then when the meeting starts they walk out every few minutes to smoke cigarettes or to go to the bathroom. They’re insulting us, man, that’s what they’re doing. It’s a slap in our face.
“As for the two Negroes they got on the city council, they should get rid of them. They’re not my leaders. The only time I hear they’re supposed to be my leaders is when I read it in the newspapers. Some of them are more so your enemy than the white man because they can get into your home and get you to trust them. And the things you wouldn’t say to whitey you say to them.
“And as far as the rebellion is concerned, I was behind it a hundred per cent. It makes you feel good to see people strike back at their enemy. Where I am concerned, I am ready to die. I broke up with my girlfriend the other day. I told her that from now on, my girlfriend is my people.”
At one point, one of the customers in Thomas’s barbershop volunteered an opinion. “I think all you guys are crazy,” he said. “I work in a hospital emergency ward and all the bleeding heads I seen coming in was nigger heads. You can’t hurt the white man, you only hurting yourself. Well, just look out there on Springfield Avenue; you all burn his store down but now you got to travel all the way downtown to shop. Besides, if you close him up on this block today, his sister is going to open up down the block next week.”
“Yes,” Thomas said, “but his sister will treat me with more respect next week.”
A different kind of “activist” is Calvin Grant. His attitude combines smugness, self-delusion, and grudging concession that problems exist in the Central Ward. He speaks as a man who thinks he is above involvement but who is only too happy to share in the booty that comes from the efforts of those who do get involved. He is now thirty years old and works as a lab technician in a paint company.
“I feel this whole riot is just a way of blowing off steam,” he says. “They feel that these merchants along Springfield Avenue have been stealing them for years. It was just a way of people hitting the merchants in their pockets where it hurts most.” Given this view, one might not have expected Grant to take part, but he did. Sitting at home, he saw other tenants in his building running home with loads of merchandise in their arms.
“I’m telling no lie,” he says, “I took off and went down there too to see what I could get.”
Very reluctantly, with a sardonic smile that showed the wide gap in his front teeth, he offered further opinions on the situation in Newark. A large muscular man with powerful shoulders, he nevertheless gave the impression that if a cop arrived while he was talking, he would have taken off in the opposite direction.
“The black man in Newark, he ain’t going to get nothing unless the white man lets him. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the man for everything. I mean, after all, we got the majority of the people, and we can just about do what we want with this town as far as getting into office and things like that. But we got to get together. Sometimes, though, I don’t know. Like the other day this friend of mine ask me what did I think about the white man dictating to the colored man. I told him, I said well, you know, I don’t think about it one way or the other. So he told me I was sitting on a high fence and did I ever think that when I fall off I’m going to have to fall black. That made me think a little bit. Then I start looking around, and I start seeing things like what’s going on on my job. I got a pretty good job but I will never be able to rise any higher than what I am now. I will never be able to make it like the white boys, no matter what I do. The white man’s got the upper hand, and if he doesn’t let you, you ain’t going nowhere.
“But this riot here, or whatever they call it, I seen it coming for a long time. If it wasn’t the cops beating a taxi driver it would have been something else. The man’s been beating the people for so long they feel it’s about time to get him. And they did. I mean they got what they wanted and still they didn’t pay for it. Still, it didn’t get as bad as I think it might have. It could have been organized and then it would have been worse.
“But I will tell you one thing. If it ever comes to another one, I don’t want to be around here. Because all the people who didn’t go into the last one, the colored people, all the rest of the cops and the troopers, they will all be joining in. Even in this last one people was getting beat and didn’t know what they was getting beat for. One guy was out walking his dog, and the cops just kicked him and beat him to the ground, beat the dog too. I seen the dog the other clay, it’s got a cast on its leg now.” And he laughed.
A seventeen-year-old youngster, who said he also threw bricks and firebombs, plans to enroll this fall in Kentucky State College to study political science. He wants to come back and run for mayor. His father, he says, is a successful businessman in the city and his mother teaches in the school system. Yet, citing Rap Brown, he declared that if Newark doesn’t come around “next time we will burn down Springfield Avenue, burn down Central Avenue, burn down Clinton Avenue.”
Bruce White represents the Negro businessman in the Central Ward who was caught in between. The rioters spared his bar, but, as he says, the cops and troopers took care of it the day they roamed through the ghetto shooting up Negro business places. “These so-called rioters,” he says, “they ain’t nothing but a bunch of hoodlums. If they got gripes, this ain’t no way to go about it. It’s wrong. They just trying to get a few things for nothing. About the only good it done is to give some white folks something to think about. Conditions is bad, but you can’t change them by hurting your own people. We got the numbers. We can use politics like the whites do, put things to the vote. This riot is nothing but an excuse to steal and take.”
Cecil Turner, head of Newark’s community poverty projects, with more than fifteen years of service in Democratic club politics in the Central Ward, was an uninvolved observer. “Newark,” he says, “is a weekend town. In Newark, Negroes have money only on weekends. That’s when they come together in bars because there’s nowhere else to go. It was convenient for the riot to take place on a weekend, because it is the best time to pass the word around.” He laughs and adds: “It’s tough to round up Negroes on the telephone; it’s not easy for them to get a telephone in the first place, and then as soon as they get one it’s unlisted.”
Turner offers a tour of some of the landmarks of the rioting. We drive past the Sutter Homes, a group of apartment buildings that was the scene of most of the sniper fire, and he points out the Fourth Precinct, sitting like an armed garrison in hostile territory, dwarfed by the Hayes apartment buildings, across the street from which Negro tenants frequently hurl down epithets at the police. “The first fire broke out at the corner of Bergen Street and 15th Avenue,” he says, pointing out the charred building; “I wouldn’t know if the riot was organized, but while the police and firemen were all grouped around the burning building, looting was being carried out a few blocks away.”
Springfield Avenue, the center of the attack, still looked devastated, almost a month later. The sidewalks were now swept clean of broken glass, but as far up and down the avenue as one could see, storefronts were either burnt out or boarded up with plywood. Miraculously, a few stores had escaped damage and were open for business as usual. Even some of those that were damaged had “Open For Business” signs painted on their plywood facades.
The signs above the crippled storefronts were instructive now only as a testimony to the tastes and predilections of the looters a month before: WINES AND LIQUORS . . . WHOLESALE-RETAIL . . . BRIDAL GOWNS . . . LUNCHEONETTE . . . DRUGS . . . LADIES SHOES . . . SUPERMARKET . . . FLORIST . . . MEN’S WEAR . . . LADIES WEAR . . . CARPETS AND RUGS . . . FURNITURE . . . MEATS . . . JEWELRY . . . WIGS . . . BABY FURNITURE . . . HOSIERY . . . LUGGAGE. . . .
It was hard to imagine that only a month ago, hundreds of the same people who were now parading innocently up and down the avenue were taking part in its destruction. To a stranger’s eye, at least, they managed to look more like the victims of unknown sinners than sinners themselves.
Turner commented on some of the activities of the looters as if he himself took a comic delight in some of the things they did. “Fifty per cent of the stores hit,” he said, smiling mischievously, “were liquor stores. Then came the clothes stores, then furniture, then meats. Man, you should see people with whole sides of meats on their backs. Before the riot Cooper’s Furniture Store was supposed to move for urban renewal. He told the city it would take him two months to move out. Well, when the looters hit that place they cleaned him out inside of four hours. Wasn’t nothing left but the pricetags. One woman dashed into a furniture store with a little baby in her arms and came back out pushing the baby in a carriage. One of the first liquor stores they hit belonged to a guy who claimed he was on good terms with the community.”
Turner’s descriptions brought to mind Ralph Ellison’s account in Invisible Man of night looters at work in a Harlem riot, one of the most brilliant and authentic fictional statements in American writing of the serio-comic spirit of the Negro under conditions of pressure. Here are two short passages, selected at random from the final chapter of the novel:
“Fill it up, man. Don’t be bashful. You wait till we tackle one of those pawnshops. That Du’s got him a cotton-picking sack fulla stuff. He could go into business.” “Well, I’ll be damned, I thought it was a cotton sack. Where’d he get that thing?” “He brought it with him when he came North,” Scofield said. “Du swears that when he goes back he’ll have it full of ten-dollar bills. Hell, after tonight he’ll need him a warehouse for all the stuff he’s got. You fill that briefcase, buddy. Get yourself something.”
“You hurt daddy?” “Some—I I don’t know—” I couldn’t quite see them. “Damn! He’s got a hole in his head!” a voice said. “Hell, it’s just a nick. One them forty-fives hit your little finger and you got to go down!” “Well, this one over here is gone down for the last time,” someone called from the walk. “They got him clean.”
Ellison’s book, published more than fifteen years ago, indicates, in fact, that there is little that is new about the differing moods and feelings that have brought about the recent riots and that have been let loose during them. Indeed, the final chapter of the novel could well serve as a scenario for much of what has gone on this summer. One of the quotes attributed to Le Roi Jones in the New York Times of August 7, could have come straight out of Invisible Man. Jones, addressing a group of Negroes, told them not to “grab whiskey and TV sets,” but to “get something to protect yourselves.” In the novel, Ras the Destroyer, perhaps a more militant nationalist than Jones, calls out to a group of looters: “Come away from that stupid looting. Come jine with us to burst in the armory and get guns and ammunition.”
It is Turner’s feeling that, beyond the grievances that exist, the newspapers helped to fan the riots. “Every time these people open a newspaper,” he says, “they are reading about how there’s supposed to be a long hot summer. It was like the newspapers were begging for it. And sooner or later the people start believing what they read, and go right out and tear up things.”
Traditional leadership, he says, is becoming increasingly impotent among young Negroes in Newark. “They don’t believe in America the way they used to. Few years ago most young guys around here used process in their hair. Now you can count the young fellows with process, and then only those who just made it up from the South. Today everybody is going Afro, wearing Afro clothes and Afro hairdos. They mighn’t know anything about American history, but there is nothing you can tell them that they don’t know about Negro history.”
But, inevitably, there are those few young people who remain—caught, really—in the tension between American history and promise on the one hand and Negro history and experience on the other. The headlines out of Newark give little or no account of them, but their great struggle today is how to remain within the reach of patient and constructive strategies without repudiating the passions that lead others to violence. One such young man is Frank Smith, a twenty-seven-year-old trainee in the Rutgers Community Action Program and a part-time worker with the North Jersey Community Union.
“I didn’t take part in the riot,” he says gravely, a certain pride in his common sense perhaps wrestling with a certain guilt over his non-involvement. Then he clutches at redemption: “But I went out in the streets. I saw many of the things that went on. I felt it was my business to be there because whatever made those people throw rocks also affects me indirectly. This is proven clearly by the attitude of the police and the troopers. The last thing they ever do is stop you and ask you who you are, what you are, or why you are there. You’re black, and that’s enough for them. Everybody gets beaten in the head. The government is as bad as the police. It has ignored the needs of the community for the longest time. So the people are rebelling. Their methods are not the ones I would recommend, but to most of them out there on the streets, rioting is just as useful a path to get to where they want to go. The very least you can do is understand their feelings. And any Negro who says he doesn’t is a phony.”
Smith’s path to the Rutgers program, which prepares young men to assume leadership roles in poverty and community programs, was a roundabout one. He was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he attended elementary and junior high school. In 1954, his family moved to Newark, where he enrolled in the Vocational and Technical High School to study auto mechanics. He stayed there for four years. “It was a total waste,” he says. “They looked at you as simply somebody who wasn’t good enough to go to college, and they just shoveled you through. They didn’t give a damn whether you learned or not.” Smith learned so little, he says, that when he got out of high school he wasn’t good enough to get a decent job as an auto mechanic. He bounced around for a while until someone helped him get a job in the post. office. “I learned a lot from the people I met there. I wanted to go to college, but I couldn’t see the advantage of coming out and making no more money than I could make at the post office. I stayed because of the money but I began to hate it when I started to feel that a man ought to be able to do more with himself than just pull down a paycheck every week.” There were, of course, hundreds of young Negroes who were rioting for precisely that: a chance to pull down a paycheck every week. But if Smith’s case indicates anything, it is the complex nature of the Negro’s demands on society—not just a chance to make some money, but also the creation of a climate conducive to the fulfillment of human possibility.
It was at that point, however, that Smith heard of the Rutgers training program and decided to join it, despite a considerable loss in income. “It’s one of the best things that could have happened to me,” he says. “It gives me a chance to feel that I can now help to make a difference in the lives of a lot of people. I think it is one of the best programs designed to help underprivileged people.”
Of course, he says, no solution to the conditions in Newark will be possible without massive government help, the building by the people themselves of grassroots organizations, and “maximum feasible participation” in the working out of their own problems. “A part of the hopelessness of the people here is that enough of these opportunities for participation do not exist. They say to themselves, ‘We better start tearing up some of the things that are around, because if they are not going to do us any good, we are not going to allow them to do anybody else any good.’”
In spite of his ambivalence, Smith is one of the young representatives in the ghetto of a group that may well be making their last stand in behalf of the possibility of a just, multiracial American settlement, and in behalf also of democratic strategies to achieve that settlement. It is not paying them too high a tribute to say that the American Dream which, up until now, has played them such deceitful games, has ceased to deserve from them such courageous support. Their dream, in fact, has been so long in coming true that the least anyone can grant them is the right to revise the terms on which they will now accept its fulfillment. But even on Frank Smith’s revised terms, a humane and democratic vision of America is still proclaimed. He says:
Socially, I don’t care too much any more about whether a white man likes me, or doesn’t want me to live next door to him. I’m not terribly interested in living next door to him either. I feel that my being able to handle my own situation, having the power to make a difference in my own future in any manner I choose, within the framework of the law—a law that respects my humanity—is all that any man really desires.
The stranger from Manhattan enters and leaves at downtown Newark. The impression, on leaving, is what it was on entering: sterility, a dingy collection of commercial buildings with a stunted air over them, spreading away in a monotonously flat expanse. Nowhere is there to be seen that leap skyward that nourishes and releases the imagination. The Cultural Center on Broad Street, probably the place where the fashionable used to repair for a leisurely musical evening, now stands in jaded baroque among a row of modest storefronts, looking like an early affluent mistake. There are many Negro faces mixed in the crowds downtown, but they all seem like visitors’ faces, wearing a look of connection to some other turf. A cop roars off from a traffic intersection on a powerful motorbike; his eyes are hidden behind broad, metal-rimmed dark glasses, and his blue shortsleeves are rolled up above his biceps. He leaves behind a fleeting hint of what one has heard and read of Southern small-town terror.
Nor does it help that one’s first look at the city comes on a hot midsummer’s day: in this stifling and oppressive embrace, one imagines that Newark could easily be a place where nothing grows, where tender shoots sprout and then wilt. It makes one wonder a little about what will become of all the tender black dreams, both those that are radically new and those old ones that keep sprouting over and over again through the dead ground.