Robert Curvin, 'legendary' Newark civil rights leader and historian, dies at 81

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on September 29, 2015

Robert Curvin, CORE official, uses bullhorn to ask crowd to calm down as they gather in front of the Fourth Precinct Police station during the Newark Riots of 1967. The Newark Riots were a major civil disturbance that lasted from July 12 to July 17th, 1967 and at least were partially caused by the beating and arrest of a African American taxi driver. Later, during the incident in front of the police station, rioters threw rocks and firebombs

NEWARK – On July 12, 1967, Robert Curvin stood outside Newark's 4th Precinct headquarters, bullhorn firmly in hand.

Inside the building was John Smith, a cab driver still clinging to life after being arrested and beaten by police, drawing throngs of city residents ready to explode after decades of mistreatment and racial tension. Curvin pleaded for peace, but it was not to be.

The incident marked the beginning of five days of civil unrest – riots to some, a rebellion for others – that forever changed the course of Newark, and cast a pall over the city from which it is still working to emerge.

That Curvin, who died Tuesday at 81 after a lengthy illness, stood center stage in such a seminal event came as little surprise to those that knew him. An iconic activist, he was among the city's early leaders in the civil rights movement, serving as national vice chair and Newark chapter head for the Congress of Racial Equality, one of the major organizations credited with bringing issues of racial equality to the fore in the 1950s.

"He's a legend as it relates to civil rights here in Newark," said Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex). "Those of us from back in those days, we haven't really forgotten where we come from and how much had to be done. He was one of those people, up until his demise, that recognized there's still a lot to be done."

In the years following the 1967 uprising, Curvin played a pivotal role in the city's political arena, working as a trusted advisor to its first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson, in 1970. Though he never accepted a city job, he also proved a valuable resource for Gibson's successor, Sharpe James.

"He knew everybody. Everybody knew him," said James. "He was a walking encyclopedia about where Newark's been, where we are today and where we are going."

Though he may have had the ear of the city's political elite, Curvin was busy building a lengthy resume that belied his unique aptitude for both activism and academia.

By 1990, he had found the non-profit New Community Corporation, spent seven years on the editorial board at the New York Times, earned a doctorate in political science from Princeton, served as dean of the Milano School of Management and Urban Policy at New School University, and begun a 12-year stint heading the Ford Foundation, which ended in 2000.

Curvin largely focused on academic pursuits during his later years, penning books on urban politics and the history of Newark. Just last year, he published "Inside Newark. Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation" – a comprehensive look at the city's path since the infamous riots.

"He was right in there at the top of his game, even at the end of his life," said People's Organization for Progress Chairman Lawrence Hamm, a fellow civil rights leader who had known Curvin for more than 40 years.

A longtime resident of Newark's Vailsburg section, Curvin and his wife Patricia remained in the same home on Reynolds Place for most of their lives. They raised a son, Dr. Frank Curvin, and a daughter, Nicole.

He also spent his final years serving his original alma mater, Rutgers-Newark, working as a visiting scholar and professor in the school's Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

In a statement, Chancellor Nancy Cantor called his death a "huge blow" to the campus community.

"In our midst was one of the country's most incisive social critics, deeply committed to issues of social justice and yet, he was so gentle and kind. He was someone we could all love and trust."

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