The big picture: Bud Lee captures the 1967 Newark riots

Newark 1967 by Bud Lee.
Newark, 1967 by Bud Lee.

The big picture: Bud Lee captures the 1967 Newark riots

The American photographer’s stark images of the clashes in New Jersey and their aftermath kicked off a nationwide debate about police violence

The civil unrest that erupted in Newark, New Jersey, over six days in July 1967 has come to be thought of as an uprising rather than a series of riots. The immediate cause was the arrest and beating in custody of a local cab driver, John William Smith, but the sustained outpouring of anger that followed was an expression of lifetimes of ill treatment of the city’s majority Black population at the hands of the police and the courts. At the height of the conflict, the national guard was called in to occupy the streets with tanks and troops. By the time peace was eventually imposed, 26 people were dead and hundreds severely injured.

Bud Lee was a young photographer on his first major assignment with Life magazine. He brought those events to the national conscience, in particular with a cover photograph of a 12-year-old boy, Joey Bass Jr, who was wounded by the round of gunfire that killed another man, Billy Furr, shot in the back by police for looting a six-pack of beer. Lee’s pictures opened up a nationwide debate about police violence. A new book, The War Is Here: Newark 1967, collects those images, many of them unpublished, and reinhabits not only the fear and the violence – but also, as in this image, the defiance of that bloody week in Newark history.

Bud Lee died in 2015. In an introductory essay to the new book, the journalist Chris Campion describes how the photographer always felt strangely implicated in the death of Furr and the shooting of Bass, whom he visited throughout his months of recovery in hospital. He was traumatised by the idea that Furr might have been provoked to steal the case of beer to impress the man with the camera. Lee won a prestigious national “photo story of the year” for his Newark pictures, but he subsequently moved away from frontline news photography into portraiture and teaching.

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