Humanity in Action Mourns Passing of Bob Curvin

October 26, 2015

The Humanity in Action community mourns the passing of Bob Curvin, a scholar and former board member of Humanity in Action. Judith S. Goldstein, Founder and Executive Director of Humanity in Action, has shared the following message. 

October 2015

It is with great sadness that we learned that Bob Curvin, a former board member of Humanity in Action, died on September 29, 2015.  An article published in the New York Times the following day conveys the special quality and great accomplishment of his life. Bob was an outstanding civil rights leader, activist and courageous mediator in his beloved home city Newark and around the world. He was also a wise man, foundation leader, writer, mentor, board member and the dearest friend, father, grandfather and husband. Those of us who worked with Bob on promoting more equitable societies will be ever grateful for his guidance, rich insights and support.

Judith S. Goldstein

 

Robert Curvin, Scholar Who Fought Bias and Poverty in Newark, Dies at 81

Sam Roberts
The New York Times
September 30, 2015

Robert Curvin, a fiercely loyal advocate for Newark who never gave up on his troubled city and devoted a scholarly career to alleviating urban poverty, died on Tuesday at his home in the Vailsburg section of the city. He was 81.

The cause was multiple myeloma, his wife, Patricia, said.

Dr. Curvin was a co-founder of the Newark chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, successfully lobbied to integrate construction jobs in the early 1960s, earned a doctorate from Princeton, helped make Kenneth A. Gibson the first black mayor of a major Northeast city when he won election in Newark in 1970, and was a Ford Foundation official.

He also served on the editorial board of The New York Times for nearly six years and was a dean at the New School in Manhattan.

Dr. Curvin was realistic about the outlook for Newark, including the educational and employment challenges it faced, and he was frank about his disappointment in the city’s mayors.

As he recalled last year in his book “Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion and the Search for Transformation,” no other American city except Detroit and Gary, Ind., had experienced a faster or more tumultuous racial turnover after World War II — from two-thirds white to two-thirds black within a decade.

But he expressed hope that violence and corruption could be tempered, and that over the long term the city’s fundamental problems could be overcome.

“I’m committed to this notion that you have to have hope or you run away,” he said.

Hugh B. Price, a former president of the National Urban League and a former colleague of Dr. Curvin’s at The Times, said of him: “He never lost faith in the people and potential of his city — and by extension all industrial-age cities that have wrestled with the profound economic and demographic challenges of the post-World War II era. His scholarship, positions of influence and sheer optimism helped fuel the revitalization of struggling communities across the country.”

Robert Curvin was born on Feb. 23, 1934, in Belleville, N.J., a township adjacent to Newark. He was one of eight siblings.

His mother, Alma Thomas, had arthritis, diabetes and heart disease. When she could, she worked as a presser in a clothing factory, but otherwise she resorted to relief. His father, William, a laborer, left home when Robert was 6.

Only a coal stove heated their apartment in a predominantly white, blue-collar community, where Dr. Curvin recalled being taunted to “go back to Africa” by a young neighbor. 

He spoke of going to a Brooklyn Dodgers game to see Jackie Robinson, who was overcoming racial obstacles of his own.

“A child in such circumstances needs heroes, and Jackie Robinson came at just the right time for me,” Dr. Curvin told The New York Times Magazine in 1982. He added, “The level of my expectations was raised by his example.” 

Robert joined a youth chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. when he was 17, and then enlisted in the Army and served as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division. (He was the only black person in his platoon at officer candidate school in Oklahoma.) He emerged after more than five years as a first lieutenant. 

Besides his wife, the former Patricia Hall, he is survived by their children, Nicole and Frank; three grandchildren; a brother, William; and four sisters, Dorothy Spears, Ermel Parker, Hilda Johnson and Helen Martin.

It was after he had graduated from the Newark branch of Rutgers University in 1960 that Dr. Curvin, deciding that the N.A.A.C.P. was too moderate, helped found the Newark-Essex County chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a national organization established by James Farmer and others. The chapter, which was racially integrated, agitated against police brutality and discriminatory hiring.

“I regard him as gifted as any of the movement’s well-known national leaders,” August Meier, a historian of the civil rights movement, wrote of Dr. Curvin in 1992 in his memoir, “A White Scholar and the Black Community 1945-1965.”

After graduation with a degree in biology, when he could not find a job with a pharmaceutical company, Dr. Curvin became a welfare caseworker. He earned a master’s degree in social work before receiving his doctorate.

Dr. Curvin took his civil rights advocacy to the streets of Newark in the summer of 1967, when cities across the United States were erupting in racial violence. When rumors circulated that a black cabdriver had been beaten to death by white police officers, Dr. Curvin was among the witnesses invited inside the station house to verify that the cabby, though injured, was still alive. 

“He displayed immense personal courage during the height of the riots by grasping a bullhorn, climbing atop a car and exhorting a restive crowd not to riot and instead stage a peaceful march on City Hall,” Mr. Price recalled.

But his pleas were ignored.

“There was a rain of stones, rocks, Molotov cocktails at the precinct,” Dr. Curvin said in an NPR interview in 2007. “The flames started flickering down the side of the building, and the police came charging out with night sticks, shields, riot gear, charging the crowd.”

Twenty-three people were killed and more than 700 were injured in the unrest. Dr. Curvin described what ensued as a rebellion, rather than a riot.

“In a rebellion there is at least the aim to try to affect government actions and policy,” he told The Star-Ledger in 2014. He added, “Using the word ‘riot’ suggests that all these people out there had no justifiable cause to behave in the way they did.” 

Dr. Curvin was named to The Times’s editorial board in 1977 by Max Frankel, then the editorial page editor. In an email, Mr. Frankel, who went on to become executive editor, recalled Dr. Curvin as “a most valuable, sensitive and deliberative voice, giving us great insight into the needs and tensions of poor Americans and also sophisticated understanding of white as well as black politics in New Jersey.” 

In 1979, while writing editorials for the paper, Dr. Curvin, with Bruce Porter, published “Blackout Looting: New York City, July 13, 1977,” a meticulous study that attributed street violence that summer to high unemployment, high prices for household staples and a “spiritual kind of hunger.”

“The welfare check or the unemployment allotment is important for survival,” they wrote, “but just surviving is not enough in a society that is constantly beating into the minds of all its citizens that all kinds of goods and luxuries are necessary for a decent life.” 

Dr. Curvin later served as director of the Ford Foundation’s Urban Poverty Program; president of the Greentree Foundation, which hosts international conferences; dean of the Milano School of Management and Urban Policy at the New School; chairman of the Fund for the City of New York; and senior policy fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers.

In the Star-Ledger interview, he insisted that better education was the key to the city’s recovery.

“If you are turned out of school without basic skills to read, write and compute, and to have civil and effective relations with people,” he said, “then you’re out there with nothing to lean on.”

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