“[T]he Only Surprise To Me Was That the Rioting Had Not Happened Sooner”: A letter from my father

I really wish I had found this 1989 letter from my father earlier. It’s a problematic letter because it is truly from the past, where terminology is not at all carefully thought through. Additionally, I’m posting an edited version of it (mostly for length and irrelevant/father-daughter asides) here, with my own notes in brackets, because I think it belongs on SOME kind of record, even if it’s only my own:

Dear Laura Jo…

[Responding to a letter I had written him about discovering Do The Right Thing and Public Enemy]…I’ll be glad to share with you some of the experience I had in the Newark area.

We went to Bloomfield, on the western edge of Newark, in the spring of 1965. [Ed. note – I was born a few months later, in a hospital in Glen Ridge.] The church we served was no more than a half dozen blocks from the Newark line. The ethnic/racial battle line at the time was drawn between blacks and Italians. [This was 1989 – capitalization/proper-nouning of “ethnicity” was all over the place.] The white Anglos [my dad was from Oklahoma/New Mexico/Texas – “white” was not enough of a description, and “white ethnic” hadn’t been invented as a term yet] had left the area around the church and headed farther out into the suburbs, giving place to Italians migrating out from central Newark. There was a lot of friction along all the lines of division, but, as I say, it was extremely intense between blacks and Italians. So, in effect, anyone traveling east-west in that area passed through four very identifiable concentric rings of racial/ethnic culture, all running as hard as they could to escape the crime, drugs, poverty, etc., in the guts of Newark.

During the ensuing year, I became aware of the build-up of tensions through close associations I had with ministers and lay people int he other churches throughout Essex County, especially down in the Newark area.

In the summer of 1966 we successfully merged our floundering little church with three others in Bloomfield, who were also floundering, to create one viable congregation. I was, ironically, in the position of having successfully worked myself out of a steady job [been there, done that, got THREE tee-shirts, apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, apparently]. Problem is, that kind of success doesn’t pay the bills. [No, sir, it don’t.]

So the Presbytery hired me temporarily to do odd jobs around the area, one of which was to fill in as an interim minister in an almost entirely black congregation [holyyyyyyyyyy God, that must have gone over well]…, until they could find a full time black minister [read your job descriptions carefully, people]. I was apprehensive from the start about that, especially since the church was located in one of the worst parts of inner city Newark. However, partyl because I found a black family in the congregation whose name was also Nixon [for the 500000th time, people, we are  not related, and this is precisely why I took my husband’s last name when I married him, I hate the questions], I was able to have a pretty good relationship with most of the people. In fact, I developed some very warm and rewarding relationships among most of them before my time was up there.

One of the things that contributed to that was an event that took place one Saturday morning in the basement of the church. I and some of the members were doing something there that day, and we got into some sort of conversation which led to them backing me into a corner and proceeding, as a group, to educate me about what it was like to be black in Newark. It was a mind blower…From that point on I did a lot of visiting and listening, and part of what I heard really alarmed me, so that by the time the riots actually broke out with burning, killing, looting, and the whole nine yards, the only surprise to me was that the rioting had not happened sooner. Turns out that the city and all city departments, including the police department, was owned by the Mafia. The Mayor, a guy named Addonizio, was finally indicted by the grand jury, after we left the area, on all kinds of charges, including embezzlement, racketeering, conspiracy to do everything, bribery, fraud, extortion, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum…

Those black people that Saturday morning thought enough of me to lay it out for me in no uncertain terms.  They themselves had suffered through all kinds of intimidation and abuse (economically, morally, emotionally, etc.) at the hands of officialdom, and they were fed up!  And this had been going on for decades! I found myself almost at the point of totally identifying with their side of things…And when the shooting started…there were many, many instances of over-reaction by the city officials, and people on both sides died in the streets. It was mainly people against property, but human beings did get caught in the middle, and there was no hesitation in gunning them down. Mom and I could hear through the open window at night, in Montclair that summer – gun shots, sirens, etc. – and we could see the smoke from the burning buildings during the day.

At any rate, in the spring of 1967 I more or less had to take the job at the big white Anglo church in Montclair as an associate pastor. When the riots broke out that summer I found myself in one heck of a bind: I knew why the blacks had rioted, and I didn’t blame them in many ways; but the uptight whites around me were incensed, some of them at me whenever I just slightly hinted that there might actually be reasons for what was happening. I did round up a group of people in that church to load up a caravan of station wagons to run food in to one of the Newark Presbyterian churches to feed those who had gotten pinned down in their apartments and housing projects and couldn’t get out to go shopping for food – these were not necessarily participants in the hostilities, mostly old people, mothers, and children. But our church in Montclair lost several major families over what we did. One man called me up one day and cussed me all over the place for running food down there to feed those “damned nigger criminals”. The white backlash was, believe me, scary! But when outrage builds and builds and builds for many, many years, it has to break out. You can’t plug volcanoes to stop them from erupting. The super heated magma is going to go someplace, regardless.

During the fall of 1967 and into 1968 and ’69 there were a lot of serious and sincere efforts from both sides to reconcile, and a lot of good, productive bridges were in fact built. But scary! Incredibly so….

The only way I have ever been able to do anything in the direction of civil rights is to go out of my way to make friends with some black person or persons, and let it be known that if any trouble started I at least wanted some of us on both sides to remain in a talking relationship so there could at least be a line of communication somewhere that could be trusted. This has been pretty productive in several instances, even here in little Seaford. Trust is the issue, I think. But it’s got to be wanted and welcomed on both sides….

I can’t believe I’ve gone on like this! Obviously that period of life was what they call a “significant emotional experience” for me. I don’t know if any of this rambling is of any use to you, but I’ve found it exciting to struggle with it in retrospect after all these years…

Yes, Dad. I think it’s of great use to me, and great use to a lot of people right now. Thank you for doing what you did. Thank you for writing this to me. I’mma share it with the internet now, ‘kay?

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