Friday, September 28, 2007

Learning from Newark 1967

According to an urban legend, when Newark, NJ erupted in civil disorders in July 1967 you could stand on the west side of Manhattan and see flames on the horizon. The hard facts of geography make that unlikely, but the story suggests how Newark cast a shadow over the metropolitan area. Now those events are the subject of a strong exhibit, What's Going On? Newark and the Legacy of the Sixties at the New Jersey Historical Society.

The exhibit, mounted at the Society's building in Newark, puts the fortieth anniversary of Newark's disorders in a broad historical context. The show illuminates both Newark's descent into violence and its struggles for recovery.

The show takes the shape of an elongated horseshoe. You enter at a digital timeline, complete with visuals and audio, that sketches out the story of Newark from the 1920s to 2006. Illuminating everything from Pearl Harbor to Cory Booker's election, the timeline can seem fast and busy. Nevertheless, it gives you a basic orientation to what you are about to see.

You move counterclockwise through the exhibit. The opening section addresses Black migration to Newark, neighborhood life, and work.

The show gains depth and momentum as it introduces the voices of Newarkers, which you hear through headphones, relating their experiences in the city. More information setting these people in context--their pictures, their biographies--would have helped. Still, their words invigorate the exhibit.

The racial discrimination, deindustrialization, political corruption, ill-conceived urban renewal schemes, and police brutality that ravaged Newark are all covered in detail. So is the activism that tried to right these wrongs. In this exhibit Newark was, in the words of a Life Magazine headline, a "predictable insurrection."

The 26 deaths of that summer, as I noticed at a memorial service in July, are still deeply felt in Newark. Another audio-visual wall, this one mounted more than halfway through the show, identifies the slain, where they were killed, and situates their deaths in the flow of the upheaval.

What's Going On? tells a story with strong resonance for African Americans, but the exhibit includes other perspectives as well.

For me, the most moving section of the show was a display with three elements: a flag that covered the coffin of Newark Police Detective Frederick Toto, who was shot to death with a .22 round during the disorders; bullets and casings found in a ninth floor apartment of the Hayes Homes projects that strongly suggest the presence of a sniper there; and a painting of Eloise Spellman, who lived in the Hayes Homes one floor above the apartment where the bullets were found. Mrs. Spellman, who was shot in the neck while inside her home, bled to death while waiting for an ambulance.

Acknowledging these two deaths in this way doesn't necessarily heal the pain of the survivors, but it does enable us to contemplate, in one frame, their griefs and losses. In a segregated and polarized country, in a city where the decision to call 1967 a riot or a rebellion still sparks debate, that's progress.

"What's Going On" concludes with Newark's struggles to recover. While there are grounds for optimism, there is still much work to be done. One portion of the exhibit charts Newark's changing unemployment rate in the civilian workforce: in 1960, 8.2%; in 1970, 6.5%; and in 2004, 13.9--22.7%.

At the opening that I attended Wednesday, buttons were available that identified the exhibit and suggested something to do to build a better future, such as "Act," "Share," "Listen," and "Hope." I chose one that said "Educate." That's what this show does.

Last July, at a Newark 1967 memorial march, I asked Mayor Cory Booker why it was important to recover this history. He answered that Newarkers need to grasp that their city was devastated not by random acts, but by real forces of racism, deindustrialization, corruption, and police brutality. Armed with that understanding he said, people can summon up the knowledge and energy to reclaim their city.

For me, that's a good answer.

And if you want to understand the place of 1967 in Newark's history, What's Going On? is a very good place to start. The show is scheduled to be open at least until December 2008.

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