Book Review: Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America

Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and RiotsKevin Mumford
NYU Press, 2007

In 1961 an integrated group of Newark CORE supporters gathered in Military Park to send off a continent of Freedom Riders who were sacrificing their time, money, and physical safety for civil rights. The destination was . . . . Chattanooga . . . Tennessee.

The Newark Freedom Riders were doing something brave and important, yet one has to wonder why the Newarkers were embarking on a 1,600 mile odyssey against racism when there was racism, no less intense or damaging, right in their very city. Robert Curvin, leader of Essex County CORE, wondered the exact same thing. Over the next few years Curvin would attempt, despite criticism from CORE’s national leadership, to focus the energy and money of Newark’s civil rights supporters on Newark.

Read the full review after the jump.

Thus you have the setting for the civil rights movement in Newark and the subject of Kevin Mumford’s addition to the Newark history bookshelf “Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America” or, more precisely, race, rights, and riots in the Urban North.

If New Jersey never was a Jim Crow state, it was no beacon of liberty either. New Jersey, with New York, was one of the last two northern states to ban slavery. New Jersey refused to ratify the 14th (equal protection) and 15th (right to vote) amendments. In Newark, like everywhere else in the industrial North, blacks were shunted into the worst jobs at the lowest pay, subject to extremely rigid segregation in residence, and increasingly subject to brutality and arbitrary arrest by the police.

Unlike their southern counterparts, black civil rights advocates in Newark were able to find allies in the white community. During World War II black Newarkers and their liberal allies supported a “Double V” campaign, victory over Japan and Germany abroad, and victory over racism at home. Newark, unlike New York and Detroit, stayed cool during the War, with the only civil rights fight taking place over the Red Cross segregating blood by race. After WWII Protestant churches in Newark, under a group called the Newark Presbytery, promoted residential integration. The conservative Italian Tribute respectfully reported on anti-discrimination legislation and condemned job discrimination.

As it did elsewhere, the black-liberal white alliance in Newark splintered in the middle-1960s. In 1961, CORE’s Freedom Riders who left from Military Park had been black and white, but by the late 1960s black and white cooperation was becoming rarer. By the mid to late 1960s the loudest voices in the black community were no longer demanding equality and integration, but black cultural independence, Black Power, if you will. Whites could help blacks achieve integration, but not cultural autonomy.

Moreover, as the attitudes of black activists hardened white attitudes did as well. It had been easy for northern, middle-class whites to support voting rights for blacks, it had been easy for northern whites to support desegregation of schools in the South that their children didn’t attend, it had been likewise easy for northern whites to support open bus seating on busses they never rode, but the prospect of integrated schools and integrated neighborhoods in Newark, combined with other factors, resulted in white flight. Many of the whites who stayed in Newark were either financially unable to move or uncommonly devoted to their old neighborhoods. With the rising tide of black militancy and a shrinking, increasingly conservative white community in Newark the stage was set for years of confrontations.

Mumford’s chapters on the civil rights movement in Newark and the background of the riots are quite good and original. Mumford’s take on the causes of the riots is unique in that he places the blame for the riots squarely on police brutality and not on Mayor Addonizio and not on poverty. If you are already familiar with Addonizio’s proposal to raze 150 acres in the Central Ward for a medical school and his disgraceful appointment of a white former councilman without a high school degree, James Callaghan, as secretary of the Board of Education instead of Wilbur Parker, New Jersey’s first black CPA, then Mumford’s argument that the riots were primarily caused by police brutality is a useful alternative perspective.

However, it is Mumford’s chapters on the riots and their aftermath that many readers will find incomplete and biased. Repeatedly Mumford excuses the destruction as “political agency” and ignores the fact that there were white victims too of the riots. Mumford does not glorify the riots, but he certainly does not condemn them in the way he condemns many other misdeeds of the era.

The clearest indication of where Mumford’s feelings lay is in his frequent use of the term “civil disobedience” for the riots. (pp. 1, 8, 134, 154, 157) Civil disobedience, as Henry David Thoreau defined it, was non-violent opposition to a perceived unjust government. Civil disobedience is not attacking and looting private businesses. The two most famous practitioners of civil disobedience, Gandhi and King, adamantly opposed rioting a means to anything good. Gandhi went on near-fatal hunger strikes when his followers rioted, Martin Luther King vigorously condemned each riot he ever saw, including Newark. Referring to the riots as “civil disobedience” gives an honorable title to, arguably praises based on the term’s other connotations, something that ruined Newark.

One can believe that the rioters were motivated by political grievances, but one need not believe that everything that occurred during the riots was a political act.

In this sense, apparently random and spontaneous actions were manifestations of long-term social contest. Figure 7.5 supplements the other shots of riot-time consumption by depictions two shoppers [sic]. Here two black women carry away a load of clothing; some of it in boxes, but most of it apparently not purchased. Their participation in looting powerfully registered their dissent from the consumer’s republic and resistance to their mishandling by law enforcement. (pg 158)

If the women had stolen the goods, is it right to call them “shoppers”? This was a riot, so why is something assumed to be purchased if it is boxed? You can loot from a storeroom as easily as you can loot from a rack. If the women wanted material goods, how are they dissenting from the consumer’s republic? How does Mumford know the women were ever “mishandled by law enforcement”? Even if they were, what did the merchant whose store was looted ever have to do with it? If someone stole burglarized a store in Newark at a time other than July 1967 would Mumford consider that a political act as well?

Mumford is right to point out that the rioting by blacks around July 12th was not very bloody and that nearly all of the lethal force that left 24 people dead was committed by law enforcement, often without any cause. It’s necessary for anyone writing about the riots to pay homage to the innocent people like Eloise Spellman who were killed by law enforcement, but Mumford’s retelling of the riots is incomplete in that he displays very little sympathy for the merchants, black and white, who lost their stores – their livelihoods, their investments – in the events. Mumford is concerned about women in Newark (see the chapter, “The Reconstruction of Black Womanhood,”) but he also displays less sympathy for the generation of Newarkers who, as a result of the destruction, had to trudge out to the suburbs to do basic food shopping at supermarkets often staffed by other Newarkers.

In “Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America” the voices of the majority of African-American Newarkers who condemned the riots, called the rioters “hoodlums” and predicted that Newark would become a “ghost town” are deemphasized. Mumford cites the condemnations of the Urban League, NAACP, and Martin Luther King, and gives the above quotes, but his emphasis is elsewhere.

Some of Mumford’s most interesting chapters, are on the post-Riots Amiri Baraka-Anthony Imperiale conflict. Though one was on the side of black power and the other was part of the white backlash, they were in a way similar in how they related to their communities, how they denounced City Hall, and how they never doubted their own convictions. There were obvious differences, but the Italians and African-Americans of Newark had more in common than they admitted. Both groups were below average in income and education and both groups had massive grievances against city government for urban renewal.

In the years after the Riots Amiri Baraka spent most of his effort promoting a constructive, yet separatist, religio-philosophy called “Kawaida,” consisting of reconnection with Africa. However, Baraka also spouted frankly anti-white and Antisemitic rhetoric and saw “Toms on the planet” everywhere. Imperiale spouted his even more racialized invective, calling Martin Luther King “Martin Luther Coon” and denouncing Mayor Hugh Addonizio for having city flags flown at half-mast when MLK was assassinated. Imperiale had armed vigilantes from his Citizen Councils ride around black areas of Newark in “Jungle Cruisers.” Both sides planted bombs in the other’s territory. In the hope of avoiding another riot the two sides established a “Hot Line” phone, a la the White House and the Kremlin, to cool things down if necessary.

Eventually, however, the Hot Line phone wasn’t what cooled Newark off. In Mumford’s telling, it was the election of Kenneth Gibson as Newark’s first black mayor. Baraka’s symbolic change of clothes from dashikis to blue jeans and tee-shirts probably helped too.

Kevin Mumford’s book is a worthy addition to the Newark history bookshelf, yet it is not the comprehensive history in the Civil Rights Era and post-Civil Rights Era Newark that we desperately need. Either because Mumford was writing a very short book or because of his own opinions, many important episodes and people in Newark history are not mentioned here. Of white Newarkers, only Anthony Imperiale and Tom Hayden emerge from the pages in any depth. Progressive white Newarkers like Rabbi Joachim Prinz and Monsignor William J. Linder (founder of the New Community Corporation) are omitted. The majority of white Newarkers who were between Imperiale and Hayden, who may have had more complex views of intregation and separatism, who were against street crime and vigilantism, who would have welcomed black neighbors but worried about racial “tipping” get little attention.

“Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America” is a highly satisfying read in the first two of the subjects mentioned in the subtitle – race and rights. Though this is not a comprehensive history of race and rights in Newark, it is overall worth studying. Mumford’s third subject – riots – however is handled less deftly. How one views the chapters on the Riots will depend on one’s political leanings. It’s likely that Mumford’s Riot chapters will offend some readers who see the riots differently from the author.

Author: Ken Walker

Husband, Father, Newarker, PCA Elder, Business Analyst. In a glass case of emotion since 1978.

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