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'Rough South': Chronicles of L.A.'s Violent Past

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'Rough South': Chronicles of L.A.'s Violent Past

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'Rough South': Chronicles of L.A.'s Violent Past

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Forty years ago this summer, the Watts area of Los Angeles blew up in a race riot that shocked the country. Newsweek reporter Karl Fleming had just arrived in the city from the Deep South. The terrain here was new, but the racial anger unexpectedly familiar. For today's book report, NPR's Karen Grisby Bates talked with Karl Fleming about his new autobiography, "Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir." Together, they revisited the neighborhood of Watts and Karl Fleming's story. Here's Karen's report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

Karl Fleming thought he was getting a break when Newsweek reassigned him from the South, where he'd covered the civil rights movement for several years, to Los Angeles. No more angry white crowds screaming he was a traitor to his race; no more funerals for people, mostly black, who'd been killed for trying to vote. He was, he thought, going to the wide open West, land of new beginnings, with a population that held more enlightened views on race. He was wrong. He saw how wrong in August 1965, when Watts, a black neighborhood of pastel bungalows and flower-edged lawns, blew up.

(Soundbite of explosion; recording)

Unidentified Man: A small army of policemen, most of them carrying shotguns, National Guardsmen riding Jeeps with .30-caliber machine-guns.

BATES: The watching nation was astonished. White Los Angeles was, too, but Karl Fleming wasn't. Riding toward Watts 40 years later, he recalls that black resentment against the Los Angeles Police Department had been simmering just beneath a boil for decades. Fleming remembers being called to cover the Watts riots and watching the angry night sky as he approached the burning neighborhood from the freeway.

Mr. KARL FLEMING (Author, "Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir"): Going along, entering into South Central, I can see these great billows of smoke rising into the air. I pulled off the freeway on Manchester Avenue and ran into absolute bedlam, cops racing, fire trucks racing, guns going off, buildings on fire, black people racing through the streets yelling, `Burn, baby, burn. Get whitey.' It was really something otherworldly. And it went on, of course, for a whole week and kept growing and growing and growing like a brush fire.

BATES: That fire consumed whole blocks of South Central Los Angeles. By the end, 35 people lay dead and more than 1,000 were wounded. Some damage estimates ran as high as $200 million.

A year after the first Watts riots, tensions were still taut and nerves on edge when there was another smaller eruption. Watts resident Leonard Deadwyler was speeding his pregnant wife to the hospital when the police pulled him over, made him exit the car and shot him dead. There were several versions as to why.

Mr. FLEMING: Exactly what happened was not known, but certainly it was not unusual for a white cop to have a black guy pulled over with a drawn gun in his face.

BATES: The rumpled Southern sheriffs Karl Fleming left behind had been replaced by a stern paramilitary force dressed in tailored dark uniforms, spit-polished shoes and dark glasses with reflecting lenses. The wrappers were different, Karl Fleming says, but the message to blacks was the same.

Mr. FLEMING: `You know what? We're in control, boy.'

BATES: And black Angelenos resented it. So back then, they gathered to protest Leonard Deadwyler's shooting right where we're standing today. Several hundred people came to this quiet shady park to hear activist speakers, including one who was nationally famous. Karl Fleming.

Mr. FLEMING: One of the speakers was Stokely Carmichael. I had known him for years, covering all the civil rights stories down South. And we were friendly--cocky young guy that he was, so cocky that people said he looked like he was strutting when he was standing still.

BATES: On that day, Carmichael remembered Fleming, too.

Mr. FLEMING: Stokely was on some kind of little raised platform talking about this killing and saying that, `We had to have justice and we had to have revenge. And we're going to go down to City Hall and demand they turn those cops that shot Deadwyler over and put him on trial and find him guilty, else there was going to be hell to pay.' And he said, `And not only that, there are these white reporters that come down here exploiting us.' And he looked direct--he pointed directly at me. I was the only white guy there, standing kind of at the back of the crowd.

BATES: Fleming was unsure whether Carmichael, famous for his ironic sense of humor, was indulging in a dark, private joke between them.

Mr. FLEMING: I guarantee you, I didn't find it very funny, because he didn't know it--as much about South Central LA as I did, because I had been here the previous year in the Watts riots and I had felt that black rage and I knew what it felt like to be a white guy standing around in South Central Watts, which was a really not-good feeling.

BATES: It certainly wasn't that day. The crowd's anger was rising as the sun was beginning to set. They marched to the 77th Street police station to protest and were turned away. Then they marched to this busy intersection at 84th and Manchester.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BATES: But the social agencies they'd hoped would receive them had already closed for the night. Karl Fleming saw things were getting ugly fast.

Mr. FLEMING: I knew something was going to happen, because I recognized the feeling that was in the air, just like that feeling that I would get down South before a big electric storm, almost like aluminum in your teeth. And someone all of a sudden threw a brick through the liquor store, which was right there across the street, side of this building. And then just all hell broke loose.

BATES: In the quickly gathering dusk, that liquor store was looted and shop windows were smashed. Fleming sensed that his reporter's camera would infuriate the crowd, so he rushed to place it in his car.

Mr. FLEMING: Locked the trunk and was walking back right here when all of a sudden, lights out.

BATES: He'd been hit in the head from behind. Fleming awoke slowly to find himself in a sticky liquid that he belatedly recognized as his own blood. He remembers people talking.

Mr. FLEMING: And then I realized they were talking about me. And I thought I was dying. And I thought, `No, not like this. Don't let me die like this.' You know, I had been in so much danger down South and always endangered by white people, and I had kind of fantasized about dying in glorious battle like Horatio at the bridge.

BATES: Instead, he was crumpled in the dark on city pavement that still held the day's heat, beaten by the people he had championed in his stories, some of them anyway. But others, also black, prevented the mob from beating him further and called an ambulance, saving his life. Fleming survived his attack, but he's left with a permanent limp, asthma attacks and what's now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. He's stayed in LA, though, and continued reporting across the nation. In April 1968, he covered Martin Luther King's Atlanta funeral. Two months later, he accompanied Bobby Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel here in Los Angeles on the night Kennedy was shot.

Mr. FLEMING: And stayed at that hospital in that kind of almost 48-hour vigil before he finally died. And I have such a vivid memory of one of his aides coming out of that hospital, walking down across the lawn with Kennedy's shoes in his hand and tears streaming down his cheeks. And I just had this feeling that, you know what, it's over. Something is deeply wrong with this country. And it was a sad time.

BATES: It was a sad time, but almost 40 years after Kennedy's death, standing on the very spot where he almost met his own, Karl Fleming says he's proud of what America has become and his part in covering that transformation.

Mr. FLEMING: You know, at this phase of my life as I look back, I'm optimistic. It was a great time to be a reporter, I'll tell you that, a unique time in this country. And I was a very, very fortunate guy to be a part of it.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: Karl Fleming's autobiography is "Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir." We have pictures of Karl in Watts at our Web site, npr.org.

I'm Alex Chadwick. More coming up on DAY TO DAY.

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