|Who cares what games we choose? Little to win and nothing to lose.
- The Strawberry Alarm Clock
Seen through the smoke and orange glow of a city aflame, Trenton's infamous riots of psychedelic 1968 created some surreal sights:
* Men driving golf balls up Perry Street into the ranks of cops wearing Little League batting helmets and welding masks.
* Sofas, lounge chairs and mattresses by the dozens seeming to gallop up streets after sprouting legs and dashing like horses fleeing a stable fire.
* A young man falling dead on a landscape of shattered glass and burning embers.
This was the rioting and looting of April 1968 that many today mark as the last time Trenton was a commercial and residential hub. Historian Charles Webster puts it simply: "The riots killed Trenton."
After the racial strife in that senseless spring, Trenton's fancy downtown jewelry and clothing stores were gone. No longer were there department stores, furniture salons, sporting goods shops and meat markets.
More than 200 downtown Trenton businesses were ransacked and burned during the week of violence that followed the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on April 4.
More than 300 people, most of them young black men, were arrested on charges ranging from assault and arson to looting and violating the mayor's emergency curfew. Most of the assaults were on policemen, including one nearly killed when run over by a truck.
In addition to 16 other injured policemen, 15 firemen were treated at the strapped city hospitals for smoke inhalation, burns, sprains and cuts suffered fighting raging blazes - or at the hands of the rioters who threw rocks and bricks at them as they worked.
The losses to downtown businesses were put at $7 million -- not including what could have been if Trenton's commercial engine hadn't been killed off. Any plans to rebuild downtown were thwarted by insurance companies that dropped business coverage within hours of the chaos.
Trenton's Battle Monument neighborhood, the center of the action, remains scarred today by vacant lots and boarded up buildings.
Also scarred are the minds of the merchants, cops, pols, and others who survived the riots - Dorothy Killingsworth's maybe most of all.
She's the mother of Harlan Bruce Joseph, the 19-year-old Lincoln University divinity student who became Trenton's sacrifice to the gods of riot and chaos that held sway in those days across urban America.
Why the heir to the prestigious pastorship of Trenton's New Macedonia Baptist Church ended up dead, shot in the back by a policeman's errant bullet, is a story with roots in the deadly Newark riot of the year before and the outbreaks of violence from minority Baby Boomers elsewhere in America earlier in the '60s.
"This was something that was simmering in black communities for a while before our disturbances," said Carmen Armenti, who had the misfortune of ousting Art Holland and taking over as mayor 22 months before the riot.
"It was not an easy time to be a public official," Armenti said last week. "They were not good economic times, and there was high unemployment among African-Americans and a multitude of other frustrations for black people."
Keeping the lid on racial strife was the top political priority in those days, Armenti said, and Trenton was faring fairly well at it until King was cut down by a sniper's bullet as he stood on a hotel balcony in Memphis on April 4, 1968. That lit the fuse on the powder keg that was Trenton.
The night of the assassination and the next, as the weekend newspapers reported, roving bands of "Negro youths” smashed a few windows and tossed around a bunch of trash cans in a protest of King's murder that, while violent, wasn't anything like the riots then raging in more than 70 other American cities.
At 9:20 on the Tuesday morning of April 9, Trenton Central High School Principal William Walker decided to head off a protest about classes not being canceled in respect to King and sent all students home. Soon, droves of youngsters were downtown enjoying the sun and 70 degrees.
"Dance to the Music" by Sly and the Family Stone, the big hit on radio that month, was blaring out of a record store. Inside was the hot "Incense and Peppermint" record album of a psychedelic band called the Strawberry Alarm Clock.
Suddenly, someone threw a rock at a store display window, shattering the glass and whatever peace and love there was on the street that day. Who threw – and why so many young people quickly joined in the destruction - was never determined.
All the cops knew was that, in minutes, people were snatching trays of diamond rings out of the smashed window displays at swanky Lippman Jewelers on North Broad Street.
Outnumbered street cops, some handling those hated police dogs, tried to quell the disturbance while Armenti scrambled to convince the governor to send in state troopers and the National Guard.
Word of the action downtown spread quickly and, with city junior high-schoolers also dismissed early, Trenton's ritzy shopping district became a magnet for rambunctious young people drawn to the action and, as Armenti said, "a criminal element that sought to take advantage of the situation."
Joseph, aware of unrest at Trenton High from his days as an honor student there, went to the scene around the corner and up East State Street from his house on Carroll Street because he hoped to help head off trouble, his mother said the other day.
"He was that kind of kid - a peacemaker. He studied the Bible all the time. He walked through that door and I never saw him again," said Dorothy Killingsworth, 76, who still lives in the family home downtown on Carroll.
An hour or so after Joseph left the house, a friend of her son ran in hollering that "Bruce" had been shot. She called the hospital and asked about the condition of "my son, Harlan Bruce Joseph. The nurse said, 'What's you're relation to him?' I'll never forget that. I told her, 'If he's my son, then I guess I'm his mother.'
Her panic deepened by the nurse's reluctance to talk, Killingsworth rushed out for the drive to the hospital in the car of a young white couple from Princeton, friends of her son, who were visiting when word of the shooting came.
A member of the mayor's youth advisory board, Joseph was shot dead by Officer Mike Castiello as the cop tried to scare off looters pulling clothing and women's accessories out of the Charm-Aronson Shop on East State Street opposite City Hall. Castiello said at the time that some rioters jostled him as he tried to shoot over the heads of the looters.
By mid-afternoon, looting from smashed stores was widespread. Droves of youths were terrifying haberdashers and other fine clothing merchants by storming in for mass shoplifting. The shelves of corner grocery stores were cleared of stock after proprietors were run off.
The looting soon became even more organized. Cops and businessmen who remember said furniture stores were cleaned out fastest.
Young men and women simply hoisted chairs and other such items over their heads and ran. Sofas being held overhead for the run to some nearby home often appeared to have sprouted two sets of legs.
As evening came, the fires started. Most were started by firebombs hurled into stores through smashed-open windows. Firemen moved in to battle the blazes, but were thwarted by rioters throwing bricks and stones at them from rooftops now fully in control of the lawless.
By nightfall, Armenti was standing on the balcony of City Hall experiencing the surreal sights and smells of his beloved Trenton burning, while his cops were beating back a mob set on storming the old police headquarters on Chancery Lane.
All this happening in the shadows of the New Jersey State House and the monument built to honor George Washington for winning the battle that created the country on these same grounds back in 1776.
"I've never felt any lonelier than that night standing on the balcony and seeing the fires, and smelling the smoke,” said Armenti. It was also a moment of mourning for young Joseph and worry about the policemen he had sent into battle to take back downtown.
Tom Murphy and Richard Foley were young cops in the front line of the offensive that night, and the memory both hold most vividly is of the golf balls that came whizzing past them as they headed up Perry Street toward Broad to begin clearing rioters from the street.
Some looters had stolen all the golf balls out of Snyder's Sporting Goods, on Perry at Broad, and were using clubs to propel the projectiles at the shifting, dodging column of policemen advancing toward them from the next block.
"I'll never forget that scene as long as I live," said Murphy, who is now retired. "They were really whacking them at us. The golf balls were hitting guys and smashing car windshields. You had to dive for cover."
That's when one of the cops commandeered a supply of Little League batting helmets from one store and several welding masks from another and started handing them out to officers to wear as protection.
Officer Martin Hoffman was a foot patrolman assigned to quell trouble on nearby Front Street. A mob gang tackled him, got him down and started kicking.
"Then they ran him over with a truck," said Murphy. "He was lucky it had those high wheels like the ones on the SUVs we have today. If it was a car it would have killed him, but he only got hit in the head with that 'pumpkin' for the axle in the back of the truck."
Hoffman suffered broken ribs, internal injuries and head trauma that would keep him in a hospital for several days and eventually prompt him to leave the police force as a young man, Murphy said.
From atop burning buildings, cops and firemen were pelted with what Murphy called "Irish confetti" – bricks broken in half and equally heavy chunks of mortar from the old structures. When they got hit with missiles fired from atop the looted food market at 104 Princeton Ave., Murphy and some colleagues got really mad.
A deputy chief showed up with a Browning Automatic Rifle - old, but about the highest tech weapon the police force had - and Murphy and George Findler hustled to set up the tripod to train the big gun at the roof of 104 Princeton.
"The next time they threw a rock over, we opened up with that BAR and you should have seen all the brick and mortar start flying. Let me tell you, after that, there was no more rock throwing from the roof of 104 Princeton Avenue," Murphy said.
But there were threats from below also. As Murphy was looking up for projectiles, someone reached up and out from the cellar window of a store and slashed him across the shin with a razor knife. It took 19 stitches to close the wound.
Convery's Furniture Store on North Broad was the Iwo Jima and the Pork Chop Hill of Trenton's war that night. The living room sets and other furniture were cleaned out by looters quickly and the building torched early in the conflict. Firemen brought the flames under control before it was too seriously damaged.
But it was torched again not long after and ended up burning to the ground because the firemen trying to douse the flames were forced to retreat a few times by bombardments of rocks and bricks.
It took six hours of clubbing, grabbing and forcing fighting young people into police wagons to bring the riot under control. It also took hours of pleading with rioters to stop by the Rev. S. Howard Woodson, the top black political leader of the day, and Albert "Bo" Robinson, who had just joined a Trenton antipoverty agency he'd go on to head for 25 years.
Were it not for the efforts of Woodson, Robinson and younger activists like Deputy Mayor W. Oliver "Bucky" Leggett - a city councilman today - Trenton's riots might have been even more costly in life and property, Armenti and the cops said.
"Woodson and Bo were right out in the street during the -worst of it, trying to get people to put down that furniture and go home," recalled Foley, also now retired. "They were good guys."
Sporadic violence would break out in Trenton for the next two days, as Armenti's dawn-to-dusk curfew stayed in effect and cops worked 12-hour shifts. But it was easier by then because 200 state troopers were in town to help the locals.
And the troopers and their superior equipment for handling riots made a big impression on Murphy, who launched his 25-year career as leader of the patrol officers' union by insisting the city give its lawmen better tools for protecting themselves.
"We had guns that wouldn't shoot. The bullets just fell out of the barrels," said Murphy. "The gun they issued me was first issued to some officer in 1921. The state police had riot guns, and riot helmets and those 42-inch nightsticks.
"The Trenton cops were carrying 25-inch nightsticks that made it so you had to fight at closer quarters. If we had been better equipped for the riots the city might not have been damaged so much."
Two days after the outbreak of violence, Armenti and Gov. Richard Hughes hit the streets around the historic Battle Monument and listened patiently -- the gov holding an ice cream cone -- as black men and women of all ages crowded in on them to gripe about the difficulty of getting government jobs, unemployment in general and a host of other issues.
The governor, mayor and other leaders also paid a visit to Joseph's home on Carroll, where Killingsworth recalled they sat quietly in the front room while she and other relatives spoke about her son, who had come home from college in Chester County, Pa., after King was killed and the school closed for the funeral.
The powerful men listened as they were told Joseph was the heir to the flock of his grandfather, the Rev. James Killingsworth, pastor of Trenton's prominent Macedonia Baptist Church. They heard the stories of Joseph's days as president of the church choir and saw his honor roll and good citizenship citations.
"Coping with his death wasn't easy in the beginning," Killingsworth said the other day. "His brothers and sisters were afraid to go upstairs sometimes because Bruce's room was up there. His one brother used to say he could see him sitting in his room on the edge of the bed."
But the visit from the officials that day in 1968 was the beginning of the healing process for the mother. Plus, with six other children to raise, she and her now-deceased husband, Jersey prison Capt. William Killingsworth, had little choice but to move on with life.
Trenton started its healing process with Judge Albert Cooper trying to make a lasting impression on the rioters brought before him. Days after their wild time in the shadow of the Battle Monument, dozens of the young thugs were in prison serving terms of two years or more.
Over the next 25 years, the city dug out and downtown gradually improved as the state government erected modern office buildings where failed businesses and firebombed shells had once stood.
Residential neighborhoods nearby also improved, Killingsworth noted, pointing to the attractive house restorations and renovations on her Carroll Street.
But downtown Trenton's days as a glamorous commercial center ended with the riots of 1968.
After that, Killingsworth said, "you had to go to the mall to get a decent dress. I still go downtown to shop, but there's not the selection of things like there used to be. You buy an outfit and see somebody else wearing it the next day.”
|1968: A city aflame|
|By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian|