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Newark residents wonder 50 years after massive riot if things have gotten better

NEWARK, NJ — Exactly 50 years ago, on a similarly hot night in July, Newark — New Jersey’s largest city — erupted.

The beating of a black taxi driver by white police officers pushed an already tense city over the edge.

Residents clashed for days with the Newark Police Department. The National Guard even came.

Some believe the violence was an inevitable result of the racism and police brutality that was rampant on Newark’s streets. The conduct of officers was later condemned in a Federal investigation.

Junius Williams was a 23-year-old law student working in Newark during the summer of 1967. He was driving was driving his Ford sedan up Court Street on the second night of violence when a police cruiser cut him off, forcing him onto the grass median.

“Came out of the car - one had a shotgun. One or two others had pistols," Williams said. "[They said] 'Up against the car mother****.' So that’s what we did."

Instead of guns, the officers found law books in Williams’ trunk. They let him go.

“They wanted to kill us. I could see it in their eyes,” said Williams.

The violence ultimately led to 26 deaths and several hundred injuries. Newark was gutted to its core.

Many white residents decided to pack up and move away — a mass exodus that put a suddenly predominately “Black” and “Brown” city on a decade’s long journey in search of financial prosperity and equality.

"Every day there was something going on in terms of resistance," Williams said.

Fifty years later, Newark is in the middle of a renaissance.

At least downtown, where bright and shiny storefronts - the telltale signs of gentrification, now serve as Newark’s new welcome mat.

“They don’t go into the urban neighborhoods," said Newark native Theresa Shumate. "It’s just downtown Newark, so they don’t see what’s going on in Newark."

Newark residents will tell you that a sobering drive up Springfield Avenue offers a much different story.

"In the 70s it started changing, and in the 80s," Shumate said. "But after a while, now it’s beginning to get rough again.”

Just how far we have come in the last fifty years?

It is not an easy question.

But Junius Williams — who after graduating from Yale Law School returned to Newark to practice law — says the answer lies with the city’s next generation.

“I’m optimistic about the eternal ebullience of youth," Williams said about Newark's future. "They’re gonna find a way. We just have to find a way to help them.”