‘A rebellion against the status quo’ – Historian recalls Newark 1967 civil rights unrest
Whether one calls the 1967 unrest in Newark a riot, a rebellion or an uprising, Black Americans who experienced it live say it was a call to action to the nation's leaders that the American dream was not attainable for everyone.
Linda Caldwell Epps, a historian and someone who lived through the summer of 1967, spoke about it with News 12 News Jersey. She is also the founder of 1804 Consultants and a founding member of the Sankofa Collaborative.
"All men and women are created equal, and if they are, we have to change the way we live," Caldwell Epps said.
She explained that most mislabel the uprising.
"It's most commonly called 'riot.' I feel that that's a misnomer because it really was a rebellion against the status quo," she said.
On July 12, 1967, John W. Smith, a Black man, was driving his cab when he was pulled over by two white Newark police officers. Smith and the officers’ version of events diverged — there were no body cameras then to record the exchange — but Smith was badly beaten during his arrest.
Smith was taken to a police precinct. Residents who saw him dragged inside assumed he’d been killed by the officers, and word spread quickly through the crowded housing project. Though Smith was treated at a hospital and later released, a riot broke out that night, followed by looting. The unrest continued for three more nights. State police and National Guard troops were called in to quell the uprising.
"People saw the condition that he was in, being carried into the police station and started protesting that treatment. There were also people who came to the 4th Precinct because they saw the police beat him…and shared their version of the story," Caldwell Epps explained.
Though several other cities throughout New Jersey had similar race riots during the civil rights movement, Newark saw the most death and destruction. There over two dozen dead and hundreds of people injured in the city.
The rebellion in Newark went on for almost a week, with the National Guard touching down two days into the unrest and stayed for three. By the fifth day, the rebellion was over and the downtown area was no more.
"Newark, I believe, has taken the longest to recover. Certainly, the destruction here was by far the worst. We knew that people were angry and upset, but had certainly never witnessed that kind of destruction," Caldwell Epps said. "Many people were on the fence. They understood why people would rebel but didn't necessarily understand why you would tear up institutions that are in your own neighborhood."
The catalyst of the 1967 uprising is reminiscent of modern day struggles with police brutality. In Newark, nearly 56 years later, the city continues to rebuild.
"We have seen improvements and we've developed more sophisticated and better ways to address some of these issues that may at least make miniscule change, but you can see a progression," Caldwell Epps added.