The Fixers: Devolution, Development, and Civil Society in Newark, 1960-1990

The Fixers: Devolution, Development, and Civil Society in Newark, 1960-1990

by Julia Rabig

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The Fixers: Devolution, Development, and Civil Society in Newark, 1960-1990 by Julia Rabig

Stories of Newark’s postwar decline are easy to find. But in The Fixers, Julia Rabig supplements these tales of misery with the story of the many imaginative challenges to the city’s decline mounted by Newark’s residents and suburban neighbors. In these pages, we meet the black nationalists whose dynamic organizing elected African American candidates in unprecedented numbers. There are tenants who mounted a historic rent strike to transform public housing and renegade white Catholic priests who joined black laywomen to pioneer the construction of low-income housing and influence housing policy. These are just a few of the “fixers” we meet—people who devised ways to work with limited resources and pull together the threads of a patchwork welfare state.

Rabig argues that fixers play dual roles. They support resistance, but also mediation; they fight for reform, but also more radical and far-reaching alternatives; they rally others to a collective cause, but sometimes they broker factions. Fixers reflect longer traditions of organizing while responding to the demands of their times. In so doing, they end up fixing (like a fixative) a new and enduring pattern of activist strategies, reforms, and institutional expectations—a pattern we continue to see today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226388458
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/28/2016
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Julia Rabig is a lecturer of history at Dartmouth College. She is coeditor of The Business of Black Power: Community Development, Capitalism, and Corporate Responsibility in Post-War America.

Read an Excerpt

The Fixers

Devolution, Development, and Civil Society in Newark, 1960â"1990

By Julia Rabig

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 Julia Rabig
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-38845-8


Fighting for Jobs in the "Laboratory of Democracy"

Four summers before the 1967 Newark uprising, two hundred activists who had been rallied by a local civil rights coalition called the Newark Coordinating Committee amassed at a construction site for the new Barringer High School. Nearly all the construction workers — also two hundred in number — were white. Arriving for their jobs on the morning of July 3, 1963, they encountered demonstrators in picket lines at every entrance to the new $6.5 million building. The workers charged toward the picketers, leading with their fists. Mayor Hugh J. Addonizio (a Democrat) and Harold Ashby, the first African American president of the board of education, suspended work on the school until the city's Commission on Human Rights could investigate the Newark Coordinating Committee's claims of discrimination. Lest the protesters interpret his intervention as a victory, Addonizio was dismissive of the committee: they were "not interested in resolving the problem," he complained, "but rather in prolonging and aggravating the differences."

The scolding tone Addonizio took toward the Barringer protest contrasted with the optimism he had expressed at the US Commission on Civil Rights hearings held in Newark the previous fall. Among the many facets of discrimination disclosed at the hearing, the most striking was the near-total absence of skilled black workers in the city's building trades. Union leaders denied responsibility, contending that members of the city's largest minority, soon to become its majority, rarely applied for union apprenticeships. While Mayor Addonizio conceded that much remained to be done to redress racial inequality, he still expressed optimism about the city's future. "Newark is the working laboratory of democracy," he assured the commission, citing the record of support for civil rights legislation he had established during his thirteen years as a congressman. "What we learn and develop here will be used in every major community throughout the world."

The Newark Evening News declared the Barringer clash the official beginning of Newark's civil rights movement. That facile designation erased the decades of activism that had often gone unnoticed by the paper, but it did capture the significance of the Barringer protest. The escalation of the city's civil rights movement upended existing patterns of patronage and more widely exposed ineffective federal, state, and local antidiscrimination measures. Employment protests disrupted the fragile strategies with which liberal officials sought to manage yawning racial inequality as their city shifted from a white to a black majority. Black Newarkers expanded the repertoire of strategies they deployed in the interlocked struggles for decent housing, employment, and political power. But progress was slow — if it happened at all — and the obstacles to change required a different approach, one that fixers would hone in the years to come.

In protests over the next several years, activists sought an immediate end to discrimination in the building trades and reached beyond the union hall and the construction site to achieve it. The Barringer High School protest ushered in widespread direct action by newly formed civil rights groups. In conjunction with new policies at the federal level, direct action challenged — but did not completely displace — the gradualism practiced by established civic organizations, corporations, and municipal officials. The second protest campaign, at the construction sites for Rutgers Law School and the Newark College of Engineering, positioned employment discrimination on publicly funded construction as part of African Americans' claims to full access to the goods and services for which they paid taxes. Both protests targeted construction projects because they promised to generate well-paying jobs. They highlighted the exclusion of black residents from the planning and construction of large public institutions, a problem that would also spur opposition to urban renewal later in the decade.

Opportunities Foreclosed: The Roots of the Barringer Protest

In 1963 Newark's population was about 382,000, a decline from its mid-century peak. Its unemployment rate — 7 percent — exceeded the national rate of 5–6 percent in the early 1960s. The unemployment rate among African Americans, 34 percent of the city's population by 1960, hovered around 13 percent. The construction industry employed only 4 percent of Newark's workers in 1960, but locally, construction industry wages had nearly doubled between 1949 and 1963, far outpacing the cost of living in the city or its suburbs. The construction trades also stood at the center of the urban renewal building frenzy that was predicted to bring more stable, high-wage employment in the coming decades and "a sound basis for establishing equal job opportunities for all."

The construction industry was also intimately connected to the physical creation of community: schools, hospitals, public housing, and other institutions that had so frequently denied African Americans full access. Barringer High School was especially significant in this respect. Black parents sought to enroll their children in Barringer, one of Newark's best schools, despite threats from the predominantly white student body. By asserting that black workers were as entitled to construction jobs at Barringer as white workers, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) also implicitly rejected the idea that black students would be interlopers there or at any of the city's schools. Following on the heels of black-led efforts to desegregate schools in nearby New Jersey suburbs, the Barringer protest underscored wider claims: black workers would help build the city's schools and their children would attend them.

The summer of 1963 seemed an especially auspicious time for the Barringer demonstration. Throughout the northeast — in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Pittsburg, and neighboring Elizabeth, New Jersey — activists targeted publicly funded construction projects with few or no black workers to demonstrate how little had changed despite increasing federal attention. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy had issued Executive Order 10925, which officially called for employers to take "affirmative action" to prohibit discrimination in hiring. In 1963 Kennedy turned to the construction industry specifically, calling for intensified Labor Department oversight of apprenticeship programs, and in late June, two months after protests in Philadelphia had begun, Kennedy issued Executive Order 11114 prohibiting discrimination in federally contracted construction. These measures lent crucial thrust to the movement for equality in the building trades but did not transform them.

Newark leaders were aware of their city's patterns of racial discrimination in the years prior to the Barringer protest, and their responses fit squarely in the vein of postwar liberalism. Throughout the 1950s, they spoke of public tolerance programs and studies of individual prejudice as fundamental to the ongoing struggle for equality, one upon which a US victory in the Cold War depended. To be sure, such efforts sustained a small interracial activist community and kept the issue of civil rights alive in a political culture that prized complacency. But the same anticommunist reasoning that made moderate progress on civil rights essential to protecting the nation's image in the Cold War inhibited radical critique of the racial and economic dimensions of inequality, while dampening a sense of urgency. The effectiveness of these activists was often inversely related to the loft of their rhetoric in part because they lacked recourse to meaningful enforcement mechanisms that would have allowed them to move beyond condemnations of personal prejudice to combat structural discrimination.

Nothing captures this dilemma as clearly as the experience of the Mayor's Commission on Group Relations. In 1950 Newark's municipal government created the commission in part to respond to black migration from the South. The mass departure of white residents for class- and race-stratified suburbs was just as transformative for Newark, but that subject received less attention, although some in the commission recognized its significance. Of greater concern to white officials were the political consequences of the city's demographic changes and the demands they would face from increasing numbers of black voters and organizations.

A series of municipal reforms dating back nearly half a century impacted African American representation in municipal government. In 1917 Newark had replaced the aldermanic system, in which each ward elected its own representatives, with a city commission, in which citywide elections produced five commissioners to lead municipal departments. Newark reformers sought this change to short-circuit the patronage expectations entrenched deeply within each ward, but the commission system merely shifted patronage from the wards to the city departments and agencies under each commissioner's supervision. When Irish Americans began to move to the suburbs of surrounding Essex County in the 1930s and 1940s, Italian Americans and Jews ascended in city politics. Upstart candidates had to engage seriously with Newark's neglected black voters, who now served as a wedge in close races against the Irish Americans. Yet even though their votes gained value, citywide elections mandated by the commission system undermined the influence black voters could have had by virtue of their concentration in the Central Ward. In 1953 another wave of reform produced the mayor-council system. A blend of aldermanic and commission systems, the mayor-council arrangement featured a council comprising one representative elected by each ward and four additional representatives selected in citywide elections. In 1954 Newark elected an Irish American former labor leader named Leo Carlin as mayor, while the Central Ward (originally called the Third Ward) elected the city's first black councilman, Irvine Turner.

The revival of the ward system did not substantially change the way city politicians operated, but it helped propel Turner into a role that brought some concrete benefits to black residents in the Central Ward. Ten years into Turner's political career a journalist described him as "a traditional ward boss ... who boasts that he feeds more people than the Newark welfare department." While this was no doubt an exaggeration, Turner did advocate fiercely for Newark's poor and working-class blacks. Yet he lacked independent leverage to translate his militant rhetoric into reality and challenge other councilmen.

The Newark City Council may have proved indifferent to the implementation of its Fair Practice Ordinance. But the Mayor's Commission on Human Relations insisted that the protection of civil rights not only was mandated by the state's constitution and the moral bonds of "brotherhood" but also constituted a bulwark for national security. At a US Senate subcommittee hearing in 1954, the commission's chairman, David M. Litwin, compared prejudice to a "cancerous body" and warned that "the invasion or violation of any one of our civil rights gives the communistic countries an advantage for propaganda purposes in their cold war of attrition." While the commission earnestly accepted its charge, it had no significant power to enforce antidiscrimination measures and had to resort to private negotiations with resistant employers. Litwin and the commission walked a tightrope between emphasizing the need for stricter federal antidiscrimination laws and insisting that such mechanisms would rarely be used — that the mere existence of a federal law would pressure employers into preemptive, voluntary compliance.

The Mayor's Commission emphasized communication and compromise in response to documented allegations of discrimination and offered few details about the resolutions it reached. The tone of the commission's publications — measured and optimistic — seemed intended to ease white residents' anxiety about their future in an increasingly black city while assuring black residents that they, too, had the administration's ear. The organization seemed to serve as a rhetorical panacea rather than a foundation for effective action, although some commission members publicly chafed against these constraints. Absent government power to enforce nondiscrimination law, the Urban League emerged as the most effective — if still quite limited — organization in Newark, assisting individual African American and Puerto Rican job seekers. Thousands of workers registered with the Urban League in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the group placed about one hundred of them — mostly skilled and professional workers — in positions annually.

By 1963 the Barringer controversy brought together Newark activists frustrated by the narrow scope of established organizations and liberal leadership. They turned to the newly formed Essex County chapter of CORE, which attracted militant working-class activists and college-educated men and women pursuing more direct tactics and immediate solutions.

Robert Curvin, one of CORE's early founders and an organizer of the Barringer protest, had a history of challenging northern New Jersey's racial conventions. While in high school during the 1950s, Curvin and his circle of politically active friends, both black and white, joined the NAACP Youth Council and used its meetings to launch informal direct actions against segregated swimming pools and roller rinks. Curvin served several years in the army and returned to Newark to attend Rutgers in 1957, gravitating to what he perceived as the "more activist" CORE rather than the NAACP. As in many other cities, Newark's CORE boycotted businesses that refused to hire blacks or that relegated their black employees to the worst jobs. Members also regularly protested hiring bias at a local White Castle hamburger stand, holding aloft signs that read "More jobs now" or "We want a Black and White Castle" and informing black customers who bypassed their pickets that they "weren't ready for freedom." Propelled by a heady sense of spontaneity and formidable stamina, CORE staged protests across the city addressing a range of issues from police brutality and calls for citizen review boards to housing discrimination.

The Barringer protest sparked a summer of intermittent picketing and caustic negotiations that forced employment discrimination into the news and called attention to the failure of existing, largely voluntary policies. CORE, a major participant in the Newark Coordinating Committee, moved from the margins to the center of Newark's civil rights movement. The Newark Coordinating Committee itself provided an alternative to the vague emphasis on tolerance that characterized so much civil rights discourse and the essentially toothless options offered by the Mayor's Commission. To activists seasoned by the Barringer protest, the city's liberal reform efforts not only had failed to address the needs of Newark's black communities but appeared to abide their marginalization. But established black leaders viewed these upstart activists with suspicion. Irvine Turner publicly opposed the pickets and criticized Curvin specifically, while the Newark NAACP initially refused to join the Newark Coordinating Committee–led protest. Although Curvin himself had joined the NAACP Youth Council as an adolescent, he clashed with the Newark branch as an adult. At one "very tense meeting," Curvin was ejected by a prominent NAACP leader and Addonizio appointee, Larrie Stalks, one of the few black women close to municipal power in Newark at the time. She objected when Curvin asked to talk about CORE's plans to bring young activists to the city for a summer organizing project. Curvin called the NAACP leaders of the 1950s and early 1960s "literal token representatives" because Addonizio had appointed them to secure support for him among Newark's black voters and sustain the reputation as a liberal on race relations that he had enjoyed in his previous career as a congressman. Indeed, prominent NAACP members did have municipal sway. Like Stalks, Harry Hazelwood Jr., president of the NAACP in the late 1950s, had numerous ties to city government and served as a city magistrate. The NAACP president at the time of the Barringer protest was Carlton B. Norris, Newark's first black detective, who had investigated nearly "every case of major violence or murder in Newark since the end of WWII." Under Norris, the NAACP had persistently advocated for the integration of Newark-area schools, but the strengthening of the organization's institutional base through highly successful fundraising and membership drives constituted his most significant achievement. Curvin's history with the organization no doubt shaped his subsequent perspective, and other scholarship on the waning years of broker politics echoed his interpretation: many established black leaders were cautious about expending the political capital they had gained through professional accomplishments and measured activism on new strategies.


Excerpted from The Fixers by Julia Rabig. Copyright © 2016 Julia Rabig. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

PART ONE At the Crossroads

1 Fighting for Jobs in the “Laboratory of Democracy”
2 Restructure or Rebel? Newark’s War on Poverty
3 “Case City Number One”: Urban Renewal and the Newark Uprising

PART TWO Fixers Emerge

4 The Making of a Fixer: Black Power, Corporate Power, and Affirmative Action
5 Fixers for the 1970s? The Stella Wright Rent Strike and the Transformation of Public Housing

PART THREE Institutionalizing the Movements

6 Black Power, Neighborhood Power, and the Growth of Organizational Fixers
7 From Redeeming the Cities to Building the New Ark: Black Nationalism and Community Economic Development
8 The New Community Corporation: Catholic Roots, Suburban Leverage, and Pragmatism



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