On July 12, 1967, Newark police arrested and jailed Black cab driver John Smith, beating him so brutally that people believed he had been killed. In response, 400 people descended on the Fourth Precinct station, throwing rocks and bottles and setting a squad car aflame.
The protests sparked a five-day uprising on the streets, fuelled by decades of corruption, systemic racism and poverty. After two nights of civil unrest, New Jersey governor Richard Hughes deployed the nine battalions of the National Guard and 500 state troopers to quell the revolt just before dawn on July 14.
With 1,300 cops already on the street, Newark police director Dominick Spina gave the call for lethal force. Twenty-six people were killed by police gunfire, with hundreds more injured and thousands arrested. Rose Abraham, a 45-year-old mother of five, was the first of eight people to die that day; the last was 10-year-old Eddie Moss, who was killed when National Guardsmen opened fire on his family without warning.
In the swirl of violence, Life magazine dispatched 26-year-old, self-taught photographer Bud Lee (1941–2015) and reporter Dale Wittner. It was Lee’s first major assignment for Life, and the story he returned with changed his life forever.
“To be featured in Life, as a photographer, was to be elevated into the highest ranks of the photography world in an instant. This is what happened to Bud Lee,” says journalist Chris Campion, who edited and contributed an essay to the new book, The War Is Here: Newark 1967 (ZE Books), which provides a harrowing record of the events that unfolded in their presence.
On Saturday, July 15, Lee and Wittner happened upon a group of young Black men lifting a couple of cases of beer from a liquor store. Among them was 24-year-old Billy Furr, who was stuck in the city due to curfew. Lee was a first-hand witness as two police officers fatally shot Furr in the back, taking a photo of the killing that would run in Life.
The same hail of gunfire hit 12-year-old Joe Bass Jr., who was shot in the neck and the thigh. Lee's stark and shocking photograph of Bass, lying wounded on the ground, would run on the cover of Life's July 28 edition under the headline 'Newark: The Predictable Insurrection.'
It became the defining image of the summer of 1967, prompting a national dialogue about racial injustice and catapulting Lee to minor celebrity, which he found unsettling. For the remainder of his life, Lee was haunted by what he had witnessed and conflicted about what he had done.
Although he later learned a police informant called the cops, Campion notes, “Lee would subsequently blame himself and bear the guilt for the shooting of Joe Bass and the killing of Billy Furr, because he had not just been there strictly as an impartial observer but photographed the looting of the store – a prelude to the tragedy that followed.”