Monday, July 17, 2017

From the Rebellion Came Black Leadership in Newark
Jul 14, 2017 · by Karen Rouse

After decades of Irish and Italian leadership, the Newark Riots ushered in a political shift, cementing the election of its first black mayor in 1970.  Since then, every mayor elected has been black.

Each man has been impacted by the riots, but in significantly different ways.

Ken Gibson, 85, served for four terms. He rejects the idea that his election was a result of the 1967 riots that marked the city. Gibson says the people of Newark had been organizing for years, and were simply ready to elect a mayor that would represent a city that had become predominantly black.

"The riots didn't make me mayor, the people were ready," Gibson said. He had been organizing and campaigning before the riots.

Gibson also says the riots made his job more difficult because outsiders feared the city as a place of violence and business people didn't want to invest in Newark anymore. As mayor, he says he focused on housing for senior citizens and health care to the elderly. After he left office, Gibson plead guilty to tax evasion charges.

Sharpe James was among the original slate of minority leaders elected to the city council in 1970. They were called the People's Choice ticket, and James represented the South Ward, where he still lives today. In 1986, James was elected mayor, and he brought in what he calls the "Renaissance" era. Among other things, James brought to the city the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, a Home Depot, light rail station stops, a stadium for the New Jersey Devils and a hotel.

He credits Gibson with bringing calm to the city and racial reconciliation after the unrest of the riots. He said Gibson's leadership opened he door for the renaissance. Unlike Gibson, James says the riots did mark a turning point in the political landscape for Newark.

"Call it a riot, call it a rebellion, call it what you want, but Newark, for the first time, woke up," James said. He did not run for re-election after 20 years in office, and was convicted on corruption charges and served time in federal prison.

Cory Booker was Newark's third black mayor, the first born after the riots. Booker is the best known of all the city's black mayors. He has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien — often featured as the new, more sophisticated leader trying to turnaround a major city. He rode his statewide and national prominence to a seat in the U.S. Senate.

But the support Booker enjoyed outside Newark never translated into similar support inside the city. He was viewed as an outsider who was using the city as a political stepping stone, and even the investment and philanthropic dollars he brought to the city were considered more of a problem than a benefit.

Booker said he felt a debt to people like Ken Gibson. It motivated him on projects like Nat Turner Park.

"I felt an urgency to get that park built," Booker said.  "That park was right smack in the Central Ward which had been so devastating. It was honoring a vision that grassroots community people had for that neighborhood that had never been realized."

In 2014, Ras Baraka became Newark's fourth black mayor. He is the son of poet Amiri Baraka, who was beaten during the Newark riots, and later was a key organizer that helped get both Ken Gibson and Sharpe James elected in the 1970 city-wide elections. Baraka has the benefit of his three predecessors, but he also has the burdens of a city that continues to struggle with poverty, a poorly education citizenry, and fragile police-community relations.

"We have to be as angry at poverty as we are at gun violence," Baraka told a group recently.  

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