Half-a-Century After MLK & RFK Murders NJ’s Still Captive to Racist Past

Fifty years ago, during that blood soaked spring of 1968 I was twelve years old  and living in Glen Rock. Looking back,  the assassination that spring of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, were defining moments for me as a young Irish Catholic.

My family hadn’t really recovered from the murder of President Kennedy, the first Catholic president, five years earlier. Whatever illusion we had that with JFK’s election somehow Catholics had ‘made it’ was clarified on Nov. 22, 1963. 

Living in the midst of this tumultuous time prompted me to push back on the jingoistic notion hyped in school that the creation of this nation was a near divine event because it produced this democracy with a ‘peaceful’ transfer of power, so different from the rest of the world. We were a nation of ‘law and order’ the teachers said.

Really? I’ll never forget being left alone for the first time with my five younger brothers and sisters so my parents could go to mass to mourn JFK’s death. After mass, my father called from the church to check-up on us and I told him we had all seen Oswald get shot on TV.

The American soundtrack for those years was filled with the crackle of small arms fire, mortar blasts and carpet bombing bursts from over in Vietnam. At dinner time we were barraged with TV images of Vietnamese children my age, or younger, frantically running down the street because they had been hit by American dropped napalm.

Forget ‘deep state’, before my confirmation I knew just what ‘my’ government was capable of.  And racism was deeply imbedded in its foreign and domestic policy.

Fortunately, or unfortunately for me, both my parents inculcated the notion in all six of their children that somehow we were responsible to actually do something if our government was doing the wrong thing.

Looking back, that was probably the most important thing our parents gave us, a sense of agency over the course of our nation’s history. And it just wasn’t campaigning for candidates, but doing things like going to public meetings and vocally opposing a faction that wanted to exclude African-Americans from the municipal pool. 

The Sunday after Martin Luther King’s murder my father took me to a racial unity march, which started in the African-American section of Ridgewood and grew to a hushed mass of humanity by the time it came to a halt in the central business district for prayer. 

There was a tension in the air and I remember onlookers glaring at us like we were trouble. Not everybody was upset Dr. King was killed. In the 60’s there was this ambient street tension that things could go either way.

What that era did  for New Jersey  was expose  the gap between its self-image, as being a tolerant state, with the deeper darker reality that it was deeply segregated and that  a whole lot of people liked it that way. 

The state had always lied to itself about race. It fancied itself  a ’northern state’ that fought to end slavery but the actual historical record is of a state that struggled to hold on to it as long as it could, even going so far to have the state subsidize it even as it was claiming to abolish it.

According to the late Rutgers professor Dr. Clement Price, “support for the institution” of slavery “was stronger in New Jersey than in any other northern colony.” Back in 2008, on the occasion of the New Jersey State Legislature’s formal apology for slavery, Price told the public television program “Due Process” that “slavery was very important to New Jersey’s colonial economy.”

From its founding, when it was called the “New Netherlands,” as a Dutch colony in the early 1600s , and even after their English successors re-named it “New Jersey,” promoting slavery was hard-wired into the state’s political economy. According to the New Jersey State Library’s Unit on African American Slavery in the Colonial Era, the colony’s first constitution, the Concessions and Agreement of 1654/1665, actually “provided additional acreage” for each slave a prospective settler had.

By the end of the 17th century, Jersey-bound settlers were promised anywhere from between 60 to 75 acres for each slave they had on hand. Other documents indicate as much as a 150-acre incentive per slave.

In the early 1700s, the ongoing chronic shortage of manual and skilled labor for an expanding empire prompted Queen Anne to order that “a constant and sufficient supply of merchantable negroes” be available “at moderate rates” to New Jersey settlers. The crown also wanted to ensure that there were no “encroachments” on the slave-trading franchise enjoyed by Royal African Company by any enterprising locals.

The major slave port of entry for the slave traffic in New Jersey was through Perth Amboy. From 1737 up until 1800, the slave population went from just under 4,000 to well over 12,000. By far the highest concentration of slave labor was in Bergen County, where by 1800 there were close to 3,000 slaves, almost 20 percent of the population. 

During the American Revolution, the Rev. Jacob Green, a Morris County preacher, used the tumult of the times as a powerful opportunity to call for abolition. The rhetorical fault line of this great national debate ran right through our state.

According to David Mitros, historian and author, the Rev. Green, who established the First Presbyterian Church of Hanover, was also the first New Jersey man to go on the public record calling for the separation from Great Britain. In his book, “Jacob Green, and the Slavery Debate in Revolutionary Morris Count,” Mitros writes that Green, in the darkest days of the Revolution, warned from the pulpit that the nascent nation risked appearing a great hypocrite if if maintained slavery at its inception.

“What foreign nation can believe that we who so loudly complain of Britain’s’s attempts to oppress and enslave us,” Green said, “are at the same time, voluntarily holding multitudes of fellow creatures in abject slavery… [even as we declare] that we esteem liberty the greatest earthly blessing.” This sermon was published in 1779 as a pamphlet by the New Jersey Journal, and helped frame the debate around the apparent contradiction of maintaining slavery while proclaiming national liberty.

From slavery’s inception in New Jersey, slaves were subject to a separate set of laws and courts that had the power to dispense brutal punishment for any infractions. 

“In contrast to New England’s liberal laws, the slave codes of New Jersey and other middle colonies resembled those of the South,” writes David Mitros, in his comprehensive “Slave Records of Morris County, NJ (1756-1841).

“Judged in separate courts with no access to trail by jury, Blacks and American Indians accused of crimes in colonial New Jersey had little hope of receiving justice,” writes Mitros. “When a slave received the death sentence, the slave owner received monetary compensation from the state.”

During the American Revolution the British offered slaves their freedom in exchange for fighting for the crown and thousands of African-Americans took them up on the offer. In New Jersey, the state itself sold the slaves they confiscated from loyalist sympathizers.

In 1786, while the state banned the importation of slaves, it prohibited free black people from moving into the state.

New Jersey’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1804 mandated that children born to slaves born after July 4, 1804, would eventually be granted their freedom — for boys only after they served for 25 years as slaves to their mother’s master; for females the age was set at 21. 

Of course, the structure of the Gradual Abolition Act of 1804 required that thousands of African-American women would give birth to children that would start their lives as slaves. It also had a provision for slave owners to “abandon” these children a year after their birth to the “county poorhouse,” where they would be declared a pauper and “bound out” as indentured servants to the highest bidder by the overseers of the poor “in the same manner as other poor children.”

“Some slave owners took full advantage of the law,” writes Mitros. “They abandoned the slave children, then bid them back to receive the state subsidy” for maintaining these “paupers,” which got them $3 a month for their maintenance from the state treasury. Eventually this self-serving practice was ended in 1811, because it was consuming too much of the state’s revenue.

New Jersey fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War but, according to Jim Gigantino, professor of history at the University of Arkansas, New Jersey was the most enthusiastic Northern state when it came to holding on to slavery years after other Northern states had ended it. 

Just before the end of the Civil War, New Jersey even voted down the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, only voting to ratify it in 1866, after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination months earlier.

Gigantino, author of the  book “The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey 1775-1865,” says that after the Civil War, New Jersey obscured its well-established support of slavery by choosing to “memorialize things about the end of slavery.”

“So when we talk about slavery in modern times we talk about emancipation or abolition of slavery,” Gigantino says. “This is a purposeful reinvention of New Jersey as part of the free North narrative of participation in the underground railroad, participating in this freedom process.”

Professor Gigantino says his new research indicates that as many as 400 African-Americans remained in some form of slavery at the end of the Civil War, not the reported 18 long accepted in the historical record.

So, it is through this prism we have to look at the long tortured path that led to the 1999 admission by the State of New Jersey that the State Police had  been engaged in systemic racial profiling of African-Americans after years of denying it.

In the fifty years since Dr, King was killed America New Jersey doubled down, targeting African-American communities under the so-called war on drugs banner. In the United States the prison population exploded from 300,000 to 2.3 million. New Jersey saw a similar spike.

In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech the Pew Research Center documented that by 2010 African-American men were six-times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, up from five times more likely a half-century earlier.   

Between 1990 and 2015 New Jersey law enforcement made over 470,000 small-scale marijuana possession arrests according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “Black New Jerseyans are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate about three times higher than whites, despite studies that show that Black and white individuals use marijuana at similar rates, according to the ACLU of NJ’s report “Vision to End Mass Incarceration in New Jersey” issued last December.

In 2014 New Jersey the political tide began to turn against mass incarceration. Governor Chris Christie, citing first hand experience with a friend who had died from a drug overdose, called for a public health response to what had been historically considered a criminal justice matter prior to the opioid crisis hitting white suburbs.

Bail reforms and drug courts followed, but the legacy of  generations of African-Americans being targeted for disparate policing had already taken a toll in broken families and in grandparents having to step up and compensate for a missing generation of parents.

And, yet even as Governor Christie was campaigning up in New Hampshire on his “enlightened” approach the Star Ledger reported New Jersey was setting another record for marijuana arrests, jumping from 28,148 in 2015 to 35,700 in 2016, a 27 percent jump.

As the Star Ledger recently reported those most recent stats meant New Jersey had the second highest pot arrest rate in the nation,  behind only Wyoming and third in the nation behind Texas and New York in the number of arrests.

Earlier this year the Intercept reported that the  New Jersey State Prison and Southern State Correctional Facility were both banning the seminal The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander.

If you can’t change history you might as well suppress it.

“Michelle Alexander’s book chronicles how people of color are not just locked in, but locked out of civic life, and New Jersey has exiled them even further by banning this text specifically for them,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha in a statement published by Intercept. “The ratios and percentages of mass incarceration play out in terms of human lives. Keeping a book that examines a national tragedy out of the hands of the people mired within it adds insult to injury.”

“If you know even a little bit about the prison system in New Jersey, this ban is not even mildly surprising,” wrote the Intercept’s Shaun King. “In spite of reducing its overall prison population, New Jersey continues to lead the nation in the racial disparity between black and white inmates. While the disparity nationwide remains large, with African-Americans having a national average of a 5 to 1 incarceration rate to that of whites, in New Jersey the rate was more than double the national average, ballooning up to an outrageous 12 to 1 ratio. What that effectively means is that African-Americans make up less than 15 percent of New Jersey’s overall population, but represent a staggering 60 percent of the state’s prisoners.”

So, even as Trenton talks about marijuana legalization the tens of thousands of life altering arrests continue.  It kind of reminds me of that Gradual Abolition Act of 1804.  

New Jersey, ever so gradual…

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2 responses to “Half-a-Century After MLK & RFK Murders NJ’s Still Captive to Racist Past”

  1. In 1968, I was living on Harding Rd in Glen Rock. I gave birth to our fourth child in May of that year. I had lived in the borough for my whole life, and my mother had lived there since her teen years. I don’t disagree that there was racism there. All of the POC I knew were in service occupations. They cleaned homes and they ran the taxi stand near what is now Harding Plaza. However as I grew up, I came to understand that class distinctions are not only about race. My father was one of the few I knew who carried a lunch bucket to work.

    I do remember a time when there was discussion about welcoming POC into the Glen Rock Municipal Pool, but my recollection is that it was more a reaction to a group, to which I belonged (I think it was called “Human Rights Council” and was chaired by one of the prominent Millard family), that wanted to invite kids from Paterson, many of whom were probably African-American. Although I could be wrong, I believe Glen Rock kids were all welcome at the pool from its construction. Some of us white kids who predated the construction of the Glen Rock pool understood exclusion because we weren’t welcome at Graydon in Ridgewood.

    And one more thing, I first noticed my children’s white father and his African-American friend Earl Young when they sang “We Three Kings” at a Christmas cantata. Years later Mr. Young (as my children referred to him) was our mailman and it has always touched me to think about the fact that his wife Mary was the only person from my children’s early years who attended our second daughter’s wedding in Atlanta, GA. I learned from the Youngs, as I continue to learn from the POC I know in South Carolina where I have now lived for 30 years.

    Although I am painfully aware that the golf course which adjoins my home is mostly played by light-skinned folks and maintained by dark-skinned folks, I honor the souls of those enslaved people who worked what was once a rice plantation where my house sits. The blue bottle tree near my door is a message to them that they are welcome. Best regards.

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