The Watts Riots: A Look Back, and What's Next
ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
Forty years ago today, large sections of South Los Angeles went up in flames. The violence and looting came to be known as the Watts riots. The chaos was a precursor to the urban unrest other cities would soon experience. In a few moments, we'll hear from a man who continues to activism that sprang from the 1965 riots, but, first, some history. Adolfo Guzman Lopez of member station KPCC examines why Watts exploded one hot August.
ADOLFO GUZMAN LOPEZ reporting:
An arrest sparked the violence. August 11th, 1965, had been a very hot day. Twenty-one-year-old Marquette Frye had been out drinking. He was almost home when a California highway patrolman pulled him over on suspicion of drunk driving. Tommy Jacquette was one of Frye's buddies, from school and juvenile hall. Not long ago, Jacquette returned to the corner where officers arrested Frye, 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard, near Watts.
Mr. TOMMY JACQUETTE: He was stopped right here at where this car is sitting here, and this is the apartment that we hung out, right here, at the time. We were teen-agers at that time, but young adults, and we just hung out and came over here and then did our little thing.
LOPEZ: At 7:00 on a hot evening, a lot of people were doing their little thing. No one wanted to be inside. Official accounts said Frye's mother showed up and scolded her son for drinking. Here's Jacquette's version of what happened next.
Mr. JACQUETTE: Once they began to arrest Marquette, and his mother got involved in it, they took her and they threw her over the hood of the car and twisted her arm at her back and arrested her.
LOPEZ: By the time officers arrested Frye, his mother and a brother who'd showed up, more than a thousand bystanders had gathered. Nearby, a rumor was going around that police had roughed up a pregnant woman. Then a rock flew out from the crowd and hit the rear window of a patrol car. That's when the crowd's growing aggravation broke into a six-day riot.
(Soundbite of newscast)
Mr. HUGH BRUNDAGE (Local TV Anchor): Fires have burned all over the Southeast and Central part of this city at one time or another today.
LOPEZ: Local TV anchor Hugh Brundage delivered the news to mesmerized families all over the county.
(Soundbite of newscast)
Mr. BRUNDAGE: Looting is rampant. Roving, lawless gangs streaking that section of the city with terror for both races.
LOPEZ: LA's mayor asked the governor for National Guard troops. Police departments from nearby cities sent reinforcements. The extent of the damage became clear only after the curfew ended almost a week later: 34 dead, about a thousand injured, almost 4,000 arrested, and about $40 million in property damage. Mervyn Dymally represents Watts in the California Assembly, as he did 40 years ago. He says the riots caught the few black elected officials off guard.
Assemblyman MERVYN DYMALLY (California): For me and many people who claimed that they knew it was coming, I don't share that view. It was, indeed, a surprise.
LOPEZ: But Dymally added 1965 was an up-and-down year for blacks. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, but California voters passed a ballot measure blocking new fair housing laws. Martin Luther King marched in Alabama. In New York, Malcolm X was gunned down. Los Angeles had enjoyed a national reputation as a paradise for African-Americans. Here's what black scholar W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1913.
Unidentified Man: (Reading) `Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well- and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligency in the colored population so high. Here is an aggressive, hopeful group with some wealth, large industrial opportunity and buoyant spirit.'
LOPEZ: In the 50 years after DuBois' observations, the city's African-American population boomed. People came mostly from the South, answering the call of blue-collar manufacturing jobs. Black homeownership was higher in LA than in most major cities. These settlers were willing to look the other way at the segregation that did exist, says historian and author Josh Sides.
Mr. JOSH SIDES (Historian, Author): And they're comparing their opportunities to what they had in Louisiana, in Texas, but their kids, as they reached their 20s, and the--as you may know, the majority of arrestees during the Watts riots are 20, 21. These kids have a very different perspective. They're not comparing their opportunities to what their parents had in Shreveport, they're comparing their opportunities to what their white and Latino peers have in Los Angeles.
LOPEZ: Los Angeles had police brutality, not lynchings. It had discrimination in public services, but not the legal segregation of the South. A blue-ribbon state commission that examined the riots echoed the complaints of the younger generation: joblessness, crowded public schools and inadequate public transportation contributed to hopelessness in the ghetto. A lot of political hand-wringing followed. Federal funds got the fast track. Job centers opened. Militant blacks relished their ability to bring a city to its knees. Whites kicked their flight into the suburbs into high gear. Many of those who could and were expected to rebuild Watts also left in the 1970s, so says author Earl Ofari Hutchinson.
Mr. EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON (Author): You had a wholesale flight out of Watts of the black middle class--black business people, black professional people, the well-to-do, educated, who couldn't live anywhere else because of segregation in the '60s. Now that the barriers came down, they were gone.
LOPEZ: In 1985, 20 years after the riots, Los Angeles' first black mayor, Tom Bradley, called them the Watts revolution. Forty years later, another revolution is happening. Latino immigrants are calling Watts home. For NPR News, I'm Adolfo Guzman Lopez in Los Angeles.
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