The 1960s were in full heat. The Vietnam War, campus unrest, political assassinations and a defiant counterculture were remaking the country. For African Americans, nonviolent protest was giving way to "black power" as the traditional civil rights movement was seen as failing the aspirations of poor blacks in decaying urban centers. There had been deadly race riots in Jersey City (1964), Harlem (1964) and Watts, Los Angeles (1965). So when black Newark taxi driver John Smith was stopped for a traffic violation on July 12, 1967, the rumor that he had not only been beaten but had died spread like a force of nature through Newark's impoverished black neighborhoods.
As meticulously reconstructed in Revolution '67, the response of Newark's black citizens to Smith's beating and purported death was a long time in the making. And the heavy-handed response of the police and city leaders also long in the making turned a spontaneous protest against police actions into a full-scale revolt. After six days, 26 people lay dead, 725 people were injured, and close to 1,500 had been arrested. Revolution '67 marshals chilling archival footage and the vivid memories of a remarkable number of key players on the scene citizens, community activists, police, National Guardsmen and the state's future governor to render an insiders' account of racial and economic division in an American city.
To tell its tale, Revolution '67 makes use of archival news footage from an era when portable cameras and television were making coverage more plentiful and more candid, punctuated by filmmaker Jerome Bongiorno's bold animation to illustrate the film's events and statistics. A musical score comprised of more than 60 jazz pieces by international artists sets the mood for Newark in the late '60s. Most dramatically, Revolution '67 offers an unprecedented array of eyewitness accounts of an emblematic American tragedy. The passion over events that summer in Newark remains strong among those who were on the scene.
Activist George Richardson recounts the challenges faced by black community activists in Newark prior to the riots. Controversial poet and Newark native Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) recalls the temper of the community and recounts being arrested for no better reason than venturing outside. Journalist Bob Herbert, now of the New York Times, remembers the shooting death of his friend Billy Furr on July 15 for taking beer from an already-looted store to give to thirsty newsmen.
Other witnesses include then-Essex County Prosecutor Brendan T. Byrne, who later became New Jersey governor; then-UCC Area Board President Sharpe James, later Newark's mayor; then-National Guardsman Paul Zigo; photographer Bud Lee; activists Carol Glassman and Richard Cammarieri; then-police officer Armando B. Fontoura, later Essex County sheriff; journalist Ronald Smothers; and Harold Lucas, former head of the Newark Housing Authority. Historical commentary is provided by preeminent historians Kenneth T. Jackson, Clement A. Price, Nell Irvin Painter and Charles F. Cummings.
Well-known '60s activist Tom Hayden and other community organizers living in Newark were suspected by some people to be "outside agitators" behind the disturbances, but the activists were experiencing quite a different reality. Hayden says that in Newark in 1967, he realized that the day of the white civil rights worker was over. In fact powerless to influence the black community, Hayden gave a frustrated Governor Richard Hughes the key to ending the tumult removing the troops. When the governor did so, the disorder subsided. Historians agree that contrary to news reports of the day, the reaction by city, state and national forces caused most, if not all, of the deaths.
The Newark riots were among the deadliest racial disturbances per capita in recent U.S. history. The outbreak, as told by Revolution '67, offers a "textbook" case of how endemic conditions poverty, racial injustice, police reaction and a corrupt power structure alienated Newark's neediest citizens and fed a cycle of resistance and destruction in poor black neighborhoods. The film is also a disturbing examination of how neither facts nor cool heads can stand in the way of explosive social forces once they have been set in motion.
The Newark rebellion, as many observers prefer to call it, could be seen as both predictable and predicted regardless of what had happened to Smith. In fact, the taxi driver, alleged to have sideswiped a double-parked police car, had been beaten by white police and taken to the Fourth Precinct, across the street from a large public-housing project. An angry crowd gathered, believing Smith was still being abused. But Smith, accompanied by black community leaders, had left via a side door for the hospital, even as word spread out front that he had died. Community leaders could not persuade the angry crowd that Smith was alive. Nor could the crowd be stopped from assaulting the police with empty bottles and at least one Molotov cocktail provoking an "overwhelming" response from the police.
Soon unverified alarms over black "snipers" had first police, then state troopers and National Guard troops firing into the upper stories of tenements at any real or imagined activity on rooftops. It was this type of indiscriminate gunfire that accounted for many, if not all, of the riot's most tragic fatalities people sitting in their own homes. Revolution '67 makes use of news footage, juxtaposed with the recollections of those who still argue about the existence of snipers, to disprove that there were any. Later investigations found that out of some 13,000 rounds of ammunition fired, only 100 of them were even alleged to have come from rioters rather than law enforcement, and not one of those cases was proved. Of all those arrested, no one was charged with being a sniper.
Revolution '67 documents the social forces at work a city government and police force that hadn't sufficiently analyzed the demographic change that had made Newark a black city, and the fears of suburban and rural state police and National Guardsmen sent into an urban civil war for which they were ill-prepared. Revolution '67 also captures the anger and desperation of a community bitterly disappointed by continued police actions and economic injustice after years of civil rights progress.
Revolution '67 is an illuminating account of important events too often relegated to footnotes in U.S. history and not explored in depth in school textbooks the black urban rebellions of the 1960s. The days of the Newark rebellion formed a fateful milestone in America's continuing struggles over race, economic justice and corruption, and recall lessons as hard-learned then as they are dangerous to forget today.
"I'm a native daughter and resident of Newark," says director Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno, "and for as long as I can remember, Newark has been stigmatized by the riots of 1967. The questions remain: What really happened, who's to blame, and why hasn't the city recovered? Are the problems Newark faced in the '60s the same that plague it today? That's why my husband and I made this film to get those answers."