Any African American 50 years of age or older undoubtedly has painful memories of the race-related riots that erupted between 1964 and 1971, devastating hundreds of U.S. urban centers – the most deadly taking place in Los Angeles (1965), Newark (1967), Detroit (1967), and Washington (1968).
During those years, an estimated 700 civil disturbances occurred, resulting in massive numbers of injuries, deaths, arrests, and significant property damage, concentrated in predominantly Black areas.
And while the U.S. has recorded race-related uprisings throughout its history, the events in the 60s were unprecedented in both frequency and scope. The violence and destruction, as well as the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968, signaled the end of the well-crafted, non-violent demonstrations reminiscent of the early years of the Civil Rights Movement.
In many cities, including Newark, law enforcement authorities took extraordinary measures to end the riots including the mobilization of National Guard units. And to honor those who lost their lives in Newark, the People’s Organization For Progress (POP) held a 1967 Newark Rebellion Commemoration March And Rally on the 56th anniversary of the uprising on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.
Dozens of participants gathered for the event, joining POP Chairman Lawrence Hamm and other members of the organization at the Rebellion Monument, located at 250 Springfield Avenue in Newark – an area commonly referred to as Rebellion Park which is dedicated to those killed during the unrest in 1967.
Those in attendance marched from the monument to the 1st Police Precinct on 7th Avenue, where the 1967 Newark Rebellion began, and back.
What started the 1967 Newark Uprising?
“The 1967 Newark uprising was sparked by a police brutality incident,” said Hamm, 69, who was born and raised in Newark. “Newark police officers beat an African American cab driver named John Smith. This led to a confrontation between protestors and police outside of the police precinct building in the city’s Central Ward, which ignited the uprising that spread to other parts of Newark.”
Hamm, who was a teenager when the uprising in Newark occurred, vividly remembers the four days of the riots as buildings were set ablaze, businesses were looted, and police fought with citizens, most of whom were Black, in efforts to defuse the situation.
“When I heard that Springfield Avenue, which was just two blocks away from our three-family house, was on fire, I wanted to go see for myself. But my mother ordered me to stay on the porch,” Hamm said. “But I could still literally watch the rebellion unfold.
“When the police beat and arrested that cab driver and took him to the precinct on 17th, we knew there was going to be trouble because it had a notorious reputation and it was located right in the middle of the projects. The rumor was that Smith, like so many before him, had died at the hands of the police. Later, we found out that wasn’t true. But by that time, the uprising had already started.
“There were about 135 uprisings across the U.S. in 1967 and while the first to jump off in New Jersey was in Jersey City, Newark was among that largest and most violent and destructive in the nation. The governor, Richard Hughes, sent 700 state troopers into Newark and after that wasn’t enough, he then declared a state of emergency and invoked martial law. What’s amazing is that just one week later, on July 20, the first national Black Power Conference opened in Newark with some of the most militant people in the country leading the way,” said Hamm.
Held in the tradition of earlier Pan-African congresses, the Black Power Conference brought more than 1,000 delegates representing 286 organizations and institutions from 126 cities in 26 states, Bermuda, and Nigeria, to Newark from July 20 to July 23, 1967, during which they discussed the most pressing Black issues of the day.
The conference held workshops, presented papers for specific programs, and developed more than 80 resolutions calling for the emphasis of Black Power in political, economic, and cultural affairs. Only one resolution, a Black Power Manifesto, won official approval.
Nathan Wright, Jr. was the conference chairman, with Amiri Baraka among the speakers and workshop coordinators that included Ossie Davis, James Farmer, and Cleveland Sellers.
What’s next for Newark?
Hamm said this year’s commemoration of the uprising included demands for justice for the victims of police brutality, the passage of bills (A-1515/S-2295) by the New Jersey legislature that will enable cities and towns to establish police review boards with subpoena powers, and the impeachment of Clarence Thomas and other members of the U.S. Supreme Court ultra-conservative super majority because of their decisions that negatively impact peoples’ rights.
“Police brutality was a major problem in the United States in 1967 and it is still a major problem today. In fact, police killings of civilians continue to increase,” Hamm said. “Last year was the highest number since experts started tracking them.
“We know that getting rid of Thomas is going to be something that takes some time. But we’re not going to let up. As for the two bills, one now in the Assembly and the other in the Senate, we’re calling for the passage of both before the end of the current legislative session in November. It must be done. If not, we must go to the polls and remove some folks from office. If they hurt us, we’re going to hurt them back.
“During the Newark Riots, the people demanded a police review board with subpoena powers,” Hamm said. “Fifty-six years later we are still demanding the same thing. It’s outrageous that we have to fight for something that other cities like New York have had for more than 50 years. However, we will continue to fight until we get it.” he said.
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