The convergence of two events, one past and one future, has preoccupied my mind this week.
We are only a few days from the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Half a century used to strike me as a long time; no more. That’s what reaching one’s seventies will do to a person. That night, that year, will always be in my mind fresh and awful. America has had some bad days and some bad years in my lifetime, but none as bad as April 4th and 1968.
Converging with that remembered event is the news I recently read that screenwriter David Chase is planning a movie prequel to his masterpiece, “The Sopranos”. The film is tentatively titled “The Many Saints of Newark” and its subject is the strife that existed in that industrial city between its Italian and African-American communities, a civic hatred that existed both before and after the deadly riots of the summer of 1967.
In 1968 I was a young teacher at a parochial high school bordering Vailsburg, one of the two remaining white neighborhoods in Newark. To say it was a tumultuous time is an understatement and no single locus captured the heat more profoundly than the animosity that existed between the city’s Italian-American and African-American communities.
Newark, like many American cities, is a collection of neighborhoods. Its divisions were its political wards. Each had its own ethnic/racial/economic identity. By the late sixties, only two white neighborhoods remained, The North Ward, heavily residential and Italian, and Vailsburg in the West, a mix of Irish and Italian. The Central and South wards had become decidedly black soon after the war while the industrial East Ward, known as “Down Neck” (and original home to my own family) was largely Irish and Polish until the mid-sixties. Philip Roth readers will also recognize the heavily-Jewish Weequahic section whose demographics changed in the late fifties as thousands of families fled to the suburbs of Maplewood and South Orange.
Newark had changed following the Great Migration of post-War America. Tens of thousands of Southern blacks moved north, eager to improve their economic lives in industrial cities. Consequently, whites abandoned the cities in fear that they would be “lost” to the invading underclass. And so, by the late 1960’s, only two white wards remained. The North Ward and Vailsburg did not go gently into that night of racial transformation.
The North Ward had a protector. His name was Anthony “Tough Tony” Imperiale. He was an ex-Marine and he created a civic entity known as the North Ward First Aid Squad. Imperiale was clearly the physical model for the stout Tony Soprano, save for a comical rug that sat noticeably on his large head. His organization was nothing less than a fully-equipped vigilante army dedicated to maintaining the racial purity of the North Ward. It was heavily armed and, although I have never seen visual evidence, it was widely believed that the group even had its own tank. Imperiale’s most famous declaration was “when the Black Panther comes, the white hunter will be waiting.”
The North Ward First Aid Squad had auxiliary units in nearby Vailsburg as well. In their vigilance, many squad members maintained constant communications through military-style walkie-talkies. I recall one afternoon being in the office of a colleague, one of Imperiale’s troops, when his device squalked in loud panic, “Two moolies on Kerrigan Blvd! Two moolies on Kerrigan Blvd!” (Moolies was a popular Italian slur for blacks. It was short for moulinyan, the Italian word for eggplant.) Such a warning would trigger an immediate “investigation” by street soldiers as to why the two men would be walking down a Vailsburg street in mid-afternoon.
My school was nearly all white. My classes were largely comprised of working-class and middle-class Italian and Irish boys whose parents saw the school as their last, best chance to avoid the perceived “jungles” that the Newark public high schools had become. Often, our school’s relatively modest tuitions were subsidized by Newark parishes whose white pastors did their best to protect their young men from the “evils” one would encounter in urban public high schools.
The undercurrent of racial animus was palpable in my school and I found myself, young, idealistic and somewhat naïve, using my literature lessons from time to time to speak on racial justice and anti-war themes. One morning, a concerned student approached me after class to tell me that earlier that day he had overheard another student brag that he was going to set fire to my house with my children inside. The student in question was a physically imposing and menacing young man whose father was a Newark cop. I was frightened and reported the claim to my superiors but nothing was done about it. (In their defense, they brought in a school parent who was an FBI agent. He told us this wasn’t a likely threat since the FBI had already officially determined that there were no white supremacist activities north of Atlantic City. Apparently the FBI’s practice of ignoring reported civilian concerns is still in tact.) Three days later, an arson attempt was made on my next door neighbor’s house. No one was able to officially connect the two events. As was the school’s policy, at the end of the year, the faculty would vote on the retention of academically marginal students. The young man in question, with below-average grades, was asked to leave. Out of fear of reprisal, I did not comment on the boy or the incident, nor did I vote on his retention status.
On the evening of April 4th, 1968 I was attending a county-wide athletic banquet celebrating the annual county basketball tournament. I had just finished my second year as assistant basketball coach at my school and I was still in awe of the fact that I was sharing a meal at a table of perhaps ten men who were, in my mind, celebrities. These were some of the coaches and athletic directors of high schools and colleges whom I had grown up admiring. I was more than little impressed with myself that I was able to co-mingle with these sports leaders.
Following the entrée and before dessert, I rose to go to the men’s room. As was often the case at fine restaurants in those days, there was an attendant in the room whose duty it was to stand behind the patron as he washed his hands and provide a linen towel for drying. It was always uncomfortable for me to have an older man tend to my needs like that. As I was washing my hands I looked in the mirror and saw the attendant, a small, gray-haired black man, was crying. I immediately asked what the matter was. He replied, “Dr. King was just assassinated.” I don’t recall what I said. I attempted as best I could to be supportive and to express my shared grief. Indeed, I considered it my loss as well as his. That man, that face, those tears will be with me until I die. As will the moments that followed.
The table was boisterous. Despite the fact that it was a basketball banquet, most of the men I ate with that night were football coaches and nearly all Italian-Americans, including the head coach of my own school’s team whose achievements on the field were legendary. I sat in silence for five minutes or more as they roared in laughter and camaraderie over some event or person that, for me, would never have meaning. When the excitement died down, I took an opening to speak, “Martin Luther King was just assassinated.”
There was a pause, perhaps just a moment, maybe to assess whether this anonymous young man at the table was somehow trying feebly to gain entrance into their club. The awkwardness ended as the man across the table from me, the athletic director of a local university who had earned role-model status in my mind, declared firmly, “Well, that’s one nigger down. There are plenty more where he came from.”
I cannot claim with accuracy that his second sentence included those words. My reconstruction is an attempt to catch the spirit of his reaction. But it was the first five words that are burned into my consciousness. “That’s one nigger down.”
The group shifted in their seats, murmuring in agreement, brothers in hatred. My own school colleague, the football coaching legend, being the loudest. The exact comments are lost to me. The tone is not. Trying to recollect a young adult’s response is difficult. I would be proud to report that I was outraged and spoke out against their bigotry, but that would be a lie. The best I can recall is that I was scared. I was sitting among the best in my field, coaches / educators, and their comments repelled me. But I lacked the experience, the self-confidence, perhaps even the character to respond. I chose silence.
Over the years I have shared the memory of that night with my students, all except for the ethnic theme, as that was no longer relevant to the over-riding message. I shared the story with them because throughout my career I was constantly confronted by my students’ perception that the sixties was a great time to be young and that they were somehow cheated by missing out on a good party. What they missed was no party. What they missed out on was life in a nightmare, the daily disintegration of civil society, a nation torn apart by two wars, both racial in origin, one fought in Asia and one fought in my home town. From my vantage point, now fifty years later, it still looks like we lost both.