The Jersey City Riots began on August 2, 1964, when police attempted to arrest Dolores Shannon, a 26-year-old black woman, in the Booker T. Washington housing project for alleged disorderly conduct. Walter Mays, 34, a black man sitting on his nearby porch, objected that police were handling Ms. Shannon too harshly. Though police claimed Mr. Mays attacked them, witnesses insisted police physically attacked Mr. Mays and then arrested him. A crowd of black people who had gathered at the scene chanted “police brutality!” in protest, and responding patrolmen were pelted with rocks and garbage. In the three days of riots that followed, black community members angered by police mistreatment and economic depression stoned cars and looted from local stores.
Experiencing the most extreme impacts of the city’s economic downturn, Jersey City’s African American community of 280,000 people was primarily comprised of low-income families living in racially segregated neighborhoods plagued by police brutality, limited recreational resources, and poor environmental maintenance from the city government. When the riots erupted, leaders from the local NAACP chapter and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) stepped forward to mediate between the African American community and Jersey City authorities led by Mayor Thomas J. Whelan.
Through these leaders, the black community presented Mayor Whelan with a list of demands: accessible recreational areas for black youth; more black police officers; and better living conditions. NAACP and CORE leaders urged city officials to consider the demands, but Mayor Whelan was resistant and accused the leaders of bringing “hooligan youth” to meet with him. A first meeting, held on August 3rd amidst continuing rioting, lasted just twenty-six minutes and made no progress.
The rioting ultimately ended on the third night of unrest, August 4th, when city officials dispatched 400 police officers to the streets. That same night, black clergy traveled through the city urging an end to the riots using NAACP bullhorns and sound equipment to announce that one of the community’s demands had been met: the city had agreed to re-open two closed local parks.
The Jersey City riot, one of the first race riots to occur after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, left 46 people injured, 71 homes and businesses damaged, and 52 people under arrest.
“The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is proud to present A History of Racial Injustice – 2018 Calendar. America’s history of racial inequality continues to undermine fair treatment, equal justice, and opportunity for many Americans. The genocide of Native people, the legacy of slavery and racial terror, and the legally supported abuse of racial minorities are not well understood. EJI believes that a deeper engagement with our nation’s history of racial injustice is important to addressing present-day questions of social justice and equality.