Unpublished Black History: A Mob Boss, Gunshots and Racial Violence

On June 28, 1971, Joseph A. Colombo Sr., the Brooklyn Mafia boss, was shot in the head and critically wounded at Columbus Circle as an Italian-American civil rights rally was about to begin.

The crowd reacted immediately “with confusion, sorrow, anger, rage and violence directed at Negroes in the crowd, because, as the radio told them and they told each other, Colombo had been shot by a black man,” The Times reported.

The gunman was killed, and our front-page article the next day showed a wounded Mr. Colombo, but the black man in the image above — unpublished until now — was simply a bystander. Librado Romero, a retired Times staff photographer who took the photo, said he lost track of the man and never found out what had happened to him, but he described the scene as a frenzy of “ugly, ugly anger.”

His recollection of that moment, found below, has been condensed and lightly edited.

Bill Sauro is the other photographer from The Times who was there. We were assigned to go up and cover Colombo speaking, so we walked up from Times Square, and we stopped for coffee because we were early. And then when we were approaching the scene at Columbus Circle, we heard the shots ring out.

We rushed up. We were kicking ourselves for not being there when it actually happened. We were very upset about that.

But Bill, by way of a side anecdote, he said, “It’s a good thing we stopped.” He always maintained that it was my suggestion that we stop, and he always used to say that I had saved his life because he knew Colombo, and he said, “I undoubtedly would have been talking to him, and I probably would have gotten shot as well.”

But at any rate, when we got there, I think we photographed the shooter’s corpse being put into an ambulance, or maybe he was still alive.

And then these skirmishes started happening all around us. I think what I did was get up on a lamppost so I could have a better view of everything; I think that’s where that picture was shot from.

I’ve seen it time and time again: when people are at odds, and then their anger rises to the point where they become violent toward one another.

When the Colombo thing happened, in terms of racial tension, it wasn’t at its peak, but it was still around. There was certainly tension — anything could trigger off a riot or a small one.

With Colombo, it all happened very quickly. It was all within 10 to 15 minutes.

There is a part of you that simply wishes it wasn’t happening. However, it’s not your place as a journalist to partake unless someone’s life is being threatened and you could possibly do something about it. That’s the exception. For the most part, you’re just bearing witness: You’re the eyes for the public to be able to realize what’s happened.

With this photo, that guy was alone and surrounded, and what he was trying to say or do, I just don’t know.

I don’t remember what happened after that.

Source: NY Times

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