37th Annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series

Opening Remarks by Chancellor Nancy Cantor

As we know, this year is the 50th anniversary since the 1967 rebellions in Newark, Detroit, and other cities captured the American psyche and defined a narrative that bears reflecting upon, as the 37-year tradition of the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture implores us all here today to do.  And as we start our collective reflections, I am quite sure that we all are drawing inspiration from Clem (Price), who surely would remind us to both celebrate and protect our city.  For having just marked its 350-year history of resilience and rebellion, our home, our sanctuary city, has been a sanctuary for generations before the moniker took on its particular contemporary meaning and significance. 

Indeed, we come together in Mark Krasovic’s words: “to ask how far American cities have come since that crucial period in their history, perhaps to dispel any easy notions that American cities “died” after 1967.”  Surely those of us who live and work in and love the City of Newark, want to dispel any such view of our city.  We join together to both reflect upon the decades of pressures on and systemic control over the lives of black urbanites (as well as those of other groups relegated too summarily and often cruelly to the side-lines of opportunity) and at the same time to tell and appreciate the fuller story of the creativity, perseverance, political action, that also flourishes here and in so many cities.

For we can’t seem to get away from the reality – or at least the narrative – that has always defined a tale of these two cities; two worlds.  There is the city within that produces movements like Black Lives Matter and My Brother’s Keeper, and produces voices like Amiri Baraka’s, that speak in protest (and protest we all must) as calls to collective action. Then there is the city without, the one that gives license to characterization (nay accusation) of crime-ridden, nearly hopeless “inner cities,” repeated unashamedly even by those occupying seats of power in our land, as if they ever really came inside.

These two tales, two cities, two worlds barely ever meet, and bear only the vaguest of (family) resemblance, in name only.  Let’s take Newark, our city.  Contrast the vision you conjure of a city whose children go on to populate award-winning college debate teams like the one we have at RU-N with that of the city whose families are somehow implicitly blamed for the failings of its under-resourced schools over which they have little to no control. Or consider the image evoked by the city in which 120 tenth graders from those same city schools immerse themselves in creative work at Express Newark in the newly restored Hahne’s & Co. building on Broad Street, every Saturday participating in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative’s Pathways to Achievement and Success program.  Set that city side-by-side with the city whose college attainment rate is way below the NJ average while its unemployment rate is way higher.  Or, what about the city with a fervently committed Opportunity Youth Network working day and night to reverse the fate of the other city, the one with a massive incarceration rate, and an all-too-well-travelled school to prison pipeline.  Two visions, two cities, two worlds.

Both cities are real on some days (though neither resembles the one that some are ready to blame and throw away) – but one is something the people create, embrace, dedicate their action to and the other is a vestige of unfilled promises and deplorable actions from the outside in. 

Consider if you will the remarkable CDCs that sprang up in Newark after 1967, the very ones that held a Summit just this year and filled the walls of the Great Hall at 15 Washington with posters of all their great works. Or recall what we at RU-N know well that 1967 spawned the Conklin takeover of 1969 and the minority student program at our law school, and that our identity was forever therefore positively set forth as an institution of Newark’s struggles and of Newark’s promise, not one standing idly besides them or looking from the outside in. 

Then there is the other Newark, the one in which something is done to or denied to its residents yet blamed upon them – consider in that regard, as Tom Sugrue reminded us that there are such things as facts in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, how wrong it was to blame the so-called rioters of 1967 for the declines that had begun long before, and as Nathan Connolly will no doubt remind us of again in the light of the long history of redlining and predatory lending practices that profited off of but never were shared with those same black urbanites. 

As we trace today the history since 1967, we need to keep asking when the tale of that first city will take hold in the American imagination, in the media, in the everyday narratives of striving peoples countering oppressive systems.  And, conversely, when will that second city stop populating the American psyche, feeding infamous twitter feeds, but as importantly populating the explanations we all, too often, give for not countering the architecture of segregation in our schools and neighborhoods? 

What can make both those things happen?  When will one city stand proudly forth (as Alondra Nelson documents in the narrative of black radical activists taking on medical discrimination) and the other recede, loosening its hold on the opportunity structure of black urban America (as Mary Pattillo’s analysis of race and class calls out).

We will hear much today on just that journey of activism and obstacle-leaping, so let me end by thanking not only our prescient scholars speaking in this 37th MTW day, but our equally dedicated public historians and artists and culture workers and educators at Rutgers-Newark. Those at the Price Institute (including of course Mark Krasovic’s rendition of The Newark Frontier, and its emblematic community action). Those who fill our hearts and minds with stories of generations of opportunity-seekers here in Newark. Stories that go from when Mayor Baraka’s grandfather made the great migration here to start a family tradition of forthright commitment to justice in Newark, to today’s Newest Americans, including our brave Syrian oud player defying all odds to obtain a PhD in American Studies or our Mexican-American DREAMER getting her law degree here to fight for justice, or those colleagues here who remind us in the Queer Newark Oral History Project that that struggle was always here in Newark too. 

That is what we call intersectionality and actually it is what defines America today, and Newark got there first, so how is it that we still think that struggles are written in black and white, that the 1967 rebellion was the “fault” of one while the American revolution was the “victory” of the other?  What, instead, have we learned about sharing the force of shared struggles, shared responsibility, and shared victories, in the years since 1967?  That is our task, and while there will be much light shed on it today, changing the narrative of the tale of two cities will require constant vigilance, as everything worthwhile always does, especially when power and place are at stake.  But try we must, as they did in 1967, and after.