Riot or Rebellion: What Happened in Newark, NJ in 1967?

It’s been 50 years since the Newark riots, but has anything changed?


For five nights, gunfire, looting, and flames burgeoned the city of Newark, New Jersey, leaving 23 people dead, 700 injured and forever changing the psyche of the city’s residents.


As reported by the New York Times, Linda Caldwell Epps recalls that “there is not one truth, and your view depends on your race, your age and where you lived.” So just what happened between July 12 and July 18 in 1967?


Police reports indicate that a Black taxi driver, John Smith, was arrested after being charged with tailgating, driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street, using offensive language, and physically assaulting an officer.


However, a witness of the arrest called onto local civil rights organizations to look into the extent of Smith’s injuries as a result of the arrest. Their involvement helped to move him from a holding cell to a hospital for proper treatment.


The Black taxi cab community caught wind of the circumstance surrounding the arrest and began circulating reports through their radio network. Some accounts falsely reported that the driver was killed by police, while others communicated the extent of physical injuries. After years of racial tension between Newark police and Black residents, both reports elicited a reaction and the public wanted to act. Fast.


The protests that followed were both organized and organic. But the violence that stemmed from them was unplanned – yet was a response to decades of ill-treatment at the hands of police. Around 10:00pm on July 12, 1967, rumors begin to circulate that John Smith was killed by two Newark police men. By 12:30am, protesters threw bottles, rocks, and molotov cocktails at the city’s Fourth Precinct. The first gunshots were heard 30 minutes later.


In the days that followed, both protesters and policeman increase their ranks. City police call for an additional 500 officers to be on patrol, while groups like the Newark Community Union Project distribute flyers in order to increase their protesting body.


As of July 13th and 14th, 300 protesters gather in front of the police precinct and an additional 300 state troopers enter the city. Riots and ransacking of stores is now in full-force, and shootings begin to surface in the midst of protest.


According to records published by the University of Pennsylvania;

  • Teodock Bell, 28, is shot when police misinterpret him as robbing a tavern, which was actually his place of employment
  • William Furr, 24, dies when he is shot while escaping from the police. The same bullet also strikes Joe Bass, 12, in the neck and thigh.
  • James Rutledge, 19, is shot inside Joe Rae Tavern on Bergen and Custer Streets. Rutledge had 42 bullet holes in his body by the time officers cease-fire.
  • Eloise Spellman, 41 years old and mother of 11, is shot and killed while viewing the commotion outside of her apartment window.
  • Raymond Gilmer, 20, is shot in the head outside of 744 Bergen Street.


Over the course of six days, Newark endured one of the most violent and turbulent riots in history. The demonstrations resulted in urban destruction and lost lives that meshed within the context of gentrification, inequitable public programs, and blatant discrimination across the city of Newark – as especially within the operations of the police department. Though Newark continues to struggle to address many of the issues that fueled this violent battle in the 1960s, the riots did bring race relations to the forefront and helped to fuel the candidacy and elections of some of the city’s first Black leaders. However, much more work needs to be done to repair the economic and social impacts of the riot’s aftermath – even 50 years later.