“It was almost a de facto apartheid structure, with a few people of color sprinkled in to reflect the majority.”
Striking words from first-term Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, whose family has deep roots in the city. The mayor, who has announced his bid for a second term, captivated an audience of more than 100 at an event Tuesday commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Newark riots.
“A year before the rebellion, when the city (of Newark) had turned a majority black, 83 percent of the police force was white and 60 percent of the population was black. A majority of the elected class was white, the leaders of social service agencies, the schools, the fire department, etc., were all white,” Baraka said.
In a nearly 30-minute speech, which received two standing ovations, an impassioned Baraka recapped Newark’s economic history and criticized the lack of significant changes both within the city and within the African-American community since the riots.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy was also at the event Tuesday in Newark.
Introduced as “a man who is going to become the next governor of the state of New Jersey,” Murphy spoke briefly on the topic.
“I can say without hesitation I am the least qualified person to be speaking in this room,” he said.
“I was 10 years old when this rebellion occurred. I witnessed it from Boston, Massachusetts, and over the years become increasingly, somewhere between obsessed and a student with great curiosity, of what lead to the events of July 1967, what happened then and in the aftermath since then in this great city. I say that not just as a candidate for governor, but as a recently stepped down national (board member) with the NAACP.
“The whole notion of the migration from the South to the North … I saw somewhat with a heavy heart. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And I need not tell you that, but given the environment, and given the ‘us versus them’ political reality in which we operate — and I’m not here to talk politics, but the reality of dividing us, constantly convincing us that it’s a zero-sum society, whether it’s in our state or in our country.
“At one level, we have come so far, and, on another level, when you pick up the paper every morning, you realize how far we still have to travel.”
“Some of the conditions that existed (in 1967) still exist today,” Baraka said. “There has been huge strides, we just haven’t rooted out some of the systemic problems that still exist in the city. We’ve come a world of away of the climate (that) existed in 1967.”
The rebellion, as the event’s speakers called it, signaled a dynamic shift in power that had been building since the post-World War II era.
“Newark was and still is a major industrial city with a very large port, which makes it a successful urban and economic center in a location with huge shipyards that became increasingly important during World War II,” Baraka said.
In 1939, African-Americans represented 9 percent of the population, at a total of about 40,000 people, he said. By 1960, there were more than 130,000.
WWII-related jobs, which attracted African-Americans escaping the Jim Crow laws in the South, disappeared after the war, paired with what is now known as Redlining, when the Federal Housing Authority engaged in discriminatory home lending that caused an outmigration of white homeownership to the suburbs and eroded the city’s tax base, Baraka said.
This meant the African-American community began growing into the majority, despite local authorities remaining predominantly white.
The conflict that sparked the struggle, which led to a state takeover, buildings being burned down and 26 deaths, was the treatment of African-American workers.
Specifically, the beating of a black taxi driver by Newark police.
But other underlying issues were also brought to light.
The result of the events was the city’s first black mayor, and African-Americans and Puerto Ricans getting construction jobs at what would become the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which is now a part of Rutgers University.
The land allotted to UMDNJ was also reduced as a result, in an effort to preserve the surrounding community.But Baraka criticized both locals and the media for keeping the city stuck in a defeatist pattern for five decades.
“The news stories are not just responsible for keeping us in this place, many of us are in collusion with the news that keeps us trotting in place,” he said. “We treat what happened in our city ... with a mix of intrigue and romanticism. Never with the danger and the horror that it really represented of a systemic and constant beatdown of a people.
“We have to stop playing on the defensive and start moving the ball down the field. We are so used to playing the game without the ball that, when we get the ball, we don’t know what to do.”
Though Newark’s recent messaging has constantly focused on growth and revitalization, delays and a slow pace in the ongoing development process have left some business leaders in the region skeptical.
“They’ve been fed a daily narrative of Newark as this city in kind of despair, and they don't know what I know or see what I see in the city and the growth and development that I see here,” Baraka told NJBIZ separately. “All the media that constantly portrays the story has to really dig deeper.”
Mayor Ras Baraka spoke for about 30 minutes at the event Tuesday in Newark. Here is a roughly 14-minute audio excerpt from his remarks.