A year after I graduated from high school, my hometown–Plainfield, New Jersey–exploded. Over three nights and four days, starting on Friday, July 14, 1967, the riots in Plainfield’s black ghetto resulted in one death (a local policeman), forty-six injuries (half due to gunfire), 167 arrests and an estimated $700,000 in property damage. The Plainfield riots forty years ago were part of that long hot summer of civil disorders in 163 US cities, including Detroit and nearby Newark.
That summer, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a Commission on Civil Disorders–often called the Kerner Commission after its chair, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner–to examine the causes of the urban unrest and to make recommendations for change. The following year, I read the task force’s report, issued as a paperback book. I was stunned to see, among the thirty-two pages of photographs, one of my friend and high school classmate Maurrie Brown.
In the photo, Maurrie is standing in a white T-shirt in an apartment in the West End Gardens public housing project, the riot’s epicenter, looking shocked and distressed by the clothes and furniture strewn around the room. The National Guard and state police had just invaded and ransacked the homes of many ghetto residents, looking for forty- six semiautomatic rifles that had been stolen a few days earlier from the Plainfield Machine Company, a weapons manufacturer. The photo’s caption simply says, “The inside of a Plainfield home after National Guardsman and the state police have finished their search for arms.”
When the riots broke out, Maurrie was a student at a college in Virginia. He was home for the summer, working at the youth center in the city’s black ghetto. He went on to become a schoolteacher and athletic coach in Plainfield’s schools, and later a computer programmer for AT&T.
Last November, my Plainfield High School class held its fortieth reunion. Thanks to the reunion, I renewed my friendship with Maurrie. He had moved from New Jersey to North Carolina a few years ago, but he came back for the event.
Maurrie recounted that in the middle of the riot weekend, he had been at the beach (which New Jerseyans call “the shore”) with friends. When he returned on Sunday, he recalled, his neighborhood was like a war zone. Police and residents “were shooting like it was Vietnam.” The street lights had been shot out; overturned cars littered the streets. Dozens of stores had been looted and burned down. “It was kind of scary sleeping on the floor” of his apartment to avoid the bullets, he said. And when the National Guard came through his housing project looking for the stolen guns, “there was nothing we could do. They just came in, threw things around and left.”
With a population of about 46,000, eighteen miles from Newark, Plainfield was both an industrial city and a tree-lined bedroom suburb. In the 1950s and ’60s, it had a thriving downtown commercial district that attracted shoppers from throughout central New Jersey as well as many large manufacturing firms. Plainfield’s wealthy white neighborhoods, like Sleepy Hollow, had huge Victorian homes built in the late 1800s, many of whose residents commuted to jobs in New York City. It also had middle-class and working-class white areas with postwar bungalows and ranch houses owned primarily by second- generation Italians and Jews. The small black middle class lived on the east side, while most low-income blacks, many newly arrived from the South, lived in the larger West End neighborhood.