The sound of fire engines screaming through Newark’s streets during the July 1967 riots is a memory that cuts especially deep for Michael F. Moran, Jr.
His father, Michael F. Moran, Sr., was the sole Newark firefighter who died in the line of duty during the unrest. He was shot and killed while battling a blaze on Central Avenue, close to his firehouse.
Moran, a Marine Corps veteran and the father of seven, was 41 years old. His namesake son, his oldest child, was 15.
“What happened left my family and the city with an emotional scar,” said Moran, Jr. “It’s part of my family and part of my life. It’s part of who we all are who went through it.”
Rumors ignited the flames that devoured Newark. New Jersey’s largest city exploded on July 12, 1967 when speculation incorrectly spread that John W. Smith, an African-American cab driver, was dead after being arrested, beaten and dragged inside what was then the 4th Precinct in the city’s Central Ward.
Rumors of snipers firing from rooftops, often confirmed by the authorities in the chaos, also became part of the communal history of the upheaval, including what happened to Moran.
“The people in Newark have to choose sides,” said then-New Jersey Gov. Richard J. Hughes during the conflagration. “They are either citizens of America or criminals who would shoot down a fire captain in the back and then depend on people to speak in platitudes about police brutality.”
Many people at the time asserted that snipers shot Moran. Others claim stray bullets fired by law enforcement or the National Guard were the more likely culprit. Moran, Jr., now an attorney, noted the confusion of the times and a perceived lack of communication among the various armed forces in the streets.
But 50 years later, he doesn't seek a final answer about how his father died.
“I don’t really want to know,” Moran said. “The result was that my father died in the line of duty. The rest just doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t make any difference. You move on and do the best with your life to be happy.”
Moran’s neighbors in the then-predominantly Irish Vailsburg section of Newark embraced his family in its time of crisis. Residents raised funds and checked in at the family’s Eastern Parkway home. Catholic parish priests from Sacred Heart Church offered solace.
Better memories started to salve psychic wounds. Moran remembered his father moonlighting as a carpenter to support his large family, yet still making time for his children.
“When you’re a kid, it’s hard to appreciate the stresses my father was under – a large family, multiple jobs, plus fighting fires,” Moran said. “As I got older, I valued how he sacrificed for us even more.”
His mother, pregnant at the time of her husband’s death, gave birth to their youngest child, a daughter, giving joy in the midst of grief.
“My mother was our living hero,” Moran said. “She gave us the foundation to keep going.”
The Moran family kept living in Newark for another decade after their firefighter father’s death. They kept Newark in their hearts after leaving the city and still wish the best for its people. Their memories, tempered by tragedy, are not tinged with bitterness. Instead, there is acceptance, even forgiveness.
“Anger was never a part of our upbringing, and our parents taught us to make our own judgments,” Moran said. “I don’t associate what happened to my father with writing off Newark. The whole story has yet to be told.”