The 1967 Newark riots were a major civil disturbance that occurred in the city of Newark, New Jersey between July 12 and July 17, 1967. The six days of rioting, looting, and destruction left 26 dead and hundreds injured.
In the period leading up to the riots, several factors led local African-American residents to feel powerless and disenfranchised. In particular, many felt they had been largely excluded from meaningful political representation and often suffered police brutality. Furthermore, unemployment, poverty, and concerns about low-quality housing contributed to the tinder-box.
According to a Rutgers University study on the riot, many African-Americans, especially younger community leaders, felt they had remained largely disenfranchised in Newark despite the fact that Newark became one of the first majority black major cities in America alongside Washington, D.C. In sum, the city was entering a turbulent period of incipient change in political power. A former seven-term congressman representing New Jersey’s 11th congressional district, Mayor Hugh Addonizio (who was also the last non-black mayor of Newark) was charged with failing to incorporate blacks in various civil leadership positions and to help blacks get better employment opportunities. Black leaders argued that the Newark Police Department was dominated by white officers who would routinely stop and question black youths with or without provocation.
Despite being one of the first cities in the U.S. to hire African American police officers, the department’s demographics remained at odds with the city’s population, leading to poor relations between blacks and the police department. Only 145 of the 1322 police officers were black (11%) while the city remained over 50% black.
This unrest came to a head when two white Newark policemen, John DeSimone and Vito Pontrelli, arrested a black cabdriver, John Weerd Smith, for improperly passing them on 15th Avenue. Smith was taken to the 4th Police Precinct, which was across the street from Hayes Homes, a large public housing project. Residents of Hayes Homes saw an incapacitated Smith being dragged into the precinct, and a rumor was started that he had been killed while in police custody. Smith had been moved to a local hospital.