Published in the New York Times, New Jersey Section, Sunday, July 22, 2007
Plainfield Ponders the Legacy of Its Own Bloody ’67 Riots
By ANNIE CORREAL
THERE is no monument to the riots that roiled this city 40 years ago. “They have something in Newark, but nothing here,” said Steven Hatcher, 45, chairman of the Plainfield branch of the People’s Organization for Progress, a grass-roots organization that marked the 40th anniversary last weekend of what is sometimes called the Plainfield Rebellion.
On Saturday the organization invited two black activists to reflect on the question: “Forty years later, did the rebellion help us or hurt us?” Around 40 people gathered at the Plainfield Quaker Meeting House to hear the discussion.
The Plainfield riots, the second largest in state history after Newark’s, lasted from July 14 to 17, 1967. More than 10 people were treated for bullet wounds, and more than 100 were arrested after riots broke out following a fight in the West End, the city’s black district.
There was one fatality. On the third day of the riots, John Gleason, a white police officer, was stomped and shot by an angry mob after he chased and shot Bobby Lee Williams, a young black man. Later that night, looters raided a nearby munitions factory, carrying away rifles and ammunition. The National Guard was called in, and the next day city and state officials began negotiations with the rioters; a truce was announced on July 18.
“This is not a sellout. It’s an attempt to prevent further bloodshed and violence,” Linward Cathcart, who was a spokesman for the rioters, was quoted as saying in The Plainfield Courier-News at the time.
Last Saturday, Mr. Cathcart, 69, stood before the audience here and described the city before the uprising as an “indentured servant community.”
“We had no political clout,” he said. “There was no one we could sit down with and say, ‘We’ve been denied our rights.’ ”
The 1967 riots accelerated community organizing efforts, he said, and prompted an investigation into police brutality. Most important, Mr. Cathcart said, they helped bring black people to power in Plainfield. Everett C. Lattimore, Plainfield’s first black mayor, was elected in 1981. “And what do you think got him there?” Mr. Cathcart boomed into the microphone. “The riots!”
Zayid Muhammad, 45, of Newark, the national minister of culture for the New Black Panther Party, was raised in Plainfield but was sent to East Orange during the riots. He called the Plainfield rioting “a unique rebellion because the community was armed and it put a check on the police and military.”
Walter J. Hetfield, 47, had driven from Milton, Del., where he lives now, to attend the meeting with his girlfriend and his two daughters, ages 10 and 12. He wanted them to learn about their family’s past. His great-uncle George F. Hetfield had been the mayor of Plainfield at the time of the riots.
The younger Mr. Hetfield, a jazz musician, witnessed the events of 1967 “through the eyes of an 8-year-old” but recalled how many white families left Plainfield immediately after the riots; his was one that stayed.
“There was a lot of fear and misunderstanding” between the black and white communities, he said. “This meeting shows that the wounds are still here.”
The activists said the riots served as a step forward for the black community, a viewpoint they complained was not represented in news coverage at the time. But they could not avoid lamenting what had become of the community today.
“We can’t honor that and be proud of this,” said Mr. Cathcart, his voice rising as he denounced the poverty, drugs and joblessness that characterize the still predominantly black West End.
Holding out a hand to the leaders of the Quaker congregation in the wooden pews, he asked them to “reach out to our community.”
“We are in trouble,” he said. “We need help.”
Link to online story.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.