Witnesses to history reflect on Newark riots 50 years later

Rutgers-Newark Prof. Junius Williams was a law student and community activist when he had a shotgun held to his head during the 1967 Newark rebellion. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura points to the badge that he wore as a rookie Newark police officer during the 1967 Newark riots. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Protestors jeering at National Guardsmen during the riots in Newark on July 12-17, 1967. Credits: Donated by Corbis-Bettmann
Store owners cleaning up after the riots in Newark on July 12-17, 1967. Credits: Donated by Corbis-Bettmann
The Newark Police Department's 4th Precinct (now the 1st Precinct), located in the city's Central Ward, was the epicenter of the 1967 riots that left 26 dead. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo

During the riots that exploded in Newark 50 years ago today, Junius Williams was a young Yale law student working over the summer as a community activist in the city.

On the first night, Williams and his friends were driving around the city to check things out when they were pulled over by Newark police. They weren’t supposed to be out on the streets because of a curfew and the police officer who approached the car was in no mood to show mercy to the young black men.

Williams said the officer shoved a shotgun in his temple. What saved him from taking a bullet to the brain, he believes, were the law books in the trunk of the car.

“The sergeant had to tell the other cops two or three times ‘They’re law students, let them go.’ Shotgun man put the gun down. Pistol man put his gun away,” Williams recalled.

Williams, 73, now head of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers-Newark, is a living witness to the events that unfolded during five tumultuous summer days in 1967 that left 26 people dead and millions of dollars in property damage.

A lack of economic opportunity, a fraying public school system and a political disconnect with a white-dominated city government and police force created a toxic mix in Newark, which had just become majority African-American.

The riot – or rebellion, as Williams and some others call it – became a demarcation point in Newark’s history as significant as BC and AD is to world history.

There was the Newark that existed before the riot – one filled with happy memories of shopping on Broad and Market Street, growing up in tight-knit communities and attending great schools, like Weequahic High School, which up to that time had more doctorates in its alumni ranks than any other school in America.

Then there was post-riot Newark – one that became a striking example of all that was wrong with urban America – poverty, drugs, gangs, violence, the disappearance of good-paying jobs and failing schools.

Armando Fontoura, born in Portugal and raised in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, is another living witness to the riot, though he has a different perspective on the events of July 12-17, 1967.

He had become a Newark police officer only three months earlier. The rookie officer was on his beat along Market Street near Penn Station on the first night of the riot when he was picked up by veteran police officers. As the group drove up the hill to the Central Ward, Fontoura recalled feeling like he had stepped into hell.

“I was scared, but I didn’t have time to be,” said Fontoura, 74, who has been the Essex County Sheriff for 25 years. “I’m hearing gunfire, and I don’t know where it’s coming from, whether it’s friendly fire or hostile. I was just over three months on the job, but after three days I was a veteran.”

There were three major armed forces on the street in Newark in July 1967: the Newark police, the National Guard and the State Police. In Fontoura’s mind, all of them were unprepared for the chaotic Armageddon before them.

“The National Guard had very little ammo, and all we officially had were .38 revolvers,” Fontoura said. “Guys I worked with who were hunters brought their own shotguns, and we wore all kinds of helmets. I was so excited to be a cop and protect my neighbors in the Ironbound. I wasn’t really attuned to what was happening in the rest of the city. We in the police were nowhere near ready for what happened. I didn’t see it coming, and I should have.”

Fontoura said that the State Police were indiscriminate, firing machine-guns at buildings.

"I never saw anybody shoot at us. All the time, the state troopers knew they were going to leave. We stayed, and we were left holding the bag," said Fontoura, who worked 12-hour shifts for six months after the furor flickered out. "After 26 people died, we got tension on the street that you could cut with a knife.”

Linwood Jackson is another living witness to the events, though he was barely five years old.

“It was fun,” said Jackson, who grew up on South 12th Street between Central Avenue and 9th Avenue, not far from where the upheaval erupted. “Us kids on the block saw military guys as important when they rolled by in Jeeps and tanks. Fire engines were going up and down the street all day and all of the night. There was excitement in the air.”

Jackson’s father, a social worker who worked with juvenile prisoners, and Jackson’s mother, a Newark schoolteacher, were far tenser. For days, they told their children to stay in the house away from the windows and sleep on the floor.

His extended family, which first moved to his largely Italian and Polish neighborhood in the early 1960s, was a stabilizing force on his block. His grandfather was one of the first black foremen for Coca-Cola in New Jersey.

Almost immediately after the gunfire stopped, longtime Newarkers started to leave. The mostly white residents of Vailsburg, an Irish enclave in the West Ward, Weequahic, a Jewish stronghold in the South Ward, and the North Ward, home to Italians, soon emptied out, an accelerated part of the nationwide surge toward the suburbs.

In Jackson’s neighborhood, families began to move away one by one, with the Jacksons heading to the South Ward five years after the Central Ward exploded. Occasionally returning to his old block, he watched in dismay as his neighborhood rapidly decayed.

Jackson now lives near the Broad Street train station on the edge of downtown Newark, which is on the cusp of a full-blown revival after years of wishes and hopes often dashed.

For him, if there is a next uprising, it won’t be caused by the same factors present in 1967. Instead, dramatic change in Newark is now fueled by what is being built up, not burned down.

“If the rent gets so high that people can’t afford a place to live, we could back go to those dark days. I could see the army in the street, and this time it won’t be fun for me,” Jackson said. “The development needs to be disseminated in a fair fashion. You can’t blame people for hustling, but people will get penalized just the same.”

“If you don’t understand what happened in 1967, it could happen again,” Jackson added. “And if people take the easy way out, the process will push them out, not me.”

Fontoura knew what he saw in the aftermath was a downward turning point for Newark.

“It was the exodus,” Fontoura said. “It broke my heart.”

Fontoura has a grandson who now wants to move back to the Ironbound. He hopes the city will keep trying to hire more cops and focus on public safety, something that he believes in the cornerstone for a full Newark comeback.

But looking back on the looting and mayhem he witnessed 50 years ago, Fontoura admits that despite real progress, some of the city’s landscape bears witness to how far Newark has to go.

“What happened should be just a footnote, but it’s not. You know why? Because some of the scars are still there,” Fontoura said, noting large swaths along Springfield Avenue that are still empty lots where buildings long ago burned down.

“It was terrible to watch the city’s downfall up close, and I want Newark to come back so bad,” Fontoura said. “Now I hope we have the leadership to bring it back. In my job, you have to be an optimist, not a pessimist. Otherwise, you won’t last.”

Williams has lasted long enough to be the intellectual eminence grise of Newark. He also hung in there long enough to see a Whole Foods Market, for many another dramatic marker of the city’s rebirth, open up on the same Broad Street where tanks rolled in 1967. Williams was spotted in the aisles on opening day, striding past the arugula, carrying organic tuna salad and some gourmet Spanish cheese. 

But Williams looked back to the past when he had a gun to his head as he looked beyond downtown into Newark’s future.

“There is a rebellion of ’67 taking place on a weekly basis as gangs kill each other over turf. Unlike 50 years ago, the anger and desperation is played out against themselves,” Williams said. “The power in the corporate suites has to work with the power in the streets to make sure that there is fairness and equity in what happens next throughout all of the neighborhoods in Newark.” 

“What happened in 1967 taught us this,” Williams said. “Things aren’t going to happen when you want it, but it is going to happen on time, when it’s time.”

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