(The UNITED STATES and EQUAL RIGHTS, 1947-65 – continued)
Unemployment was high among blacks in Los Angeles. There was even some hunger, to the extent that some embarrassed women, dressed like the poor persons they were and looking quite plain, were selling themselves at the corner of Washington and Jefferson Boulevards in downtown Los Angeles – alongside a few women in their heels and tight dresses and professional manner. The plain-looking women at Washington and Jefferson were after food for their children, while all of them had to worry about the police, who made periodic sweeps in the area.
Some whites were saying that if one could not afford children, one should not have children. But to poor black women this was an odious and racist idea. They believed they had as much right to have children as middle-class and upper-class whites.
Meanwhile, white policemen in Los Angles were not pleased to have duty in black neighborhoods. Aggrieved people were often unpleasant toward outsiders with authority. And in these times blacks were more inclined to feel free to express their anger. And it was anger that the police found one hot August day in 1965 when they were having difficulty arresting a man for drunk driving. A crowd gathered, many not knowing the origins of the confrontation. An officer thought that a woman spit on him and was trying to arrest her. The crowd erupted in anger, and the crowd grew. An angry crowd does not always hit at targets that are at the center of their grievances, and so it was with this crowd. Rocks and bottles were thrown at passing cars, including cars driven by other blacks. More police arrived and squared off against the demonstrators into the night.
News of the eruption spread, and blacks several miles away in the community known as Watts began demonstrating. In Watts, rock throwing young blacks faced-off against police with riot sticks, and the rioting in Watts spread. The police withdrew, hoping that this would calm the community. Instead, the demonstrators erupted in joy, believing that they had won a victory over their oppressors. They overturned the trucks belonging to television crews. Cab drivers returning blacks to their community had to run to escape beatings, and not all of them escaped.
With the police not around, some in Watts felt free to start looting, and the smashing of windows and invasions of businesses began. Alongside the urge to possess was the urge to destroy, and they repeated the slogan of a local disc jockey: "burn baby burn!" Fires spread. Arriving firemen were shot at. Fireman refused to respond to fires without police escort. Black storeowners put up signs in their shop windows, describing themselves as "blood brothers." But their shops were destroyed with the others. The comedian Dick Gregory arrived and tried to convince the celebrating people that they should go home, and he was shot, receiving only a minor wound.
On the third day of the riots in Watts, 1,500 National Guardsmen arrived. They were too few, and on the fourth day 2,000 more arrived. Soon their number reached 13,000, and on the seventh day the rioting ended. Thirty-four people had died, most of them from the community. More than 1,000 had been injured. Around 200 buildings had been totally destroyed and an estimated 400 had been severely damaged.
Nothing had been accomplished but the venting of emotion. Photos remained of scared police aggressively attacking people. Governor (Pat) Brown, with an entourage, walked the streets of Watts, and someone shouted to him, calling him "whitey" and saying, "We don't need you no more."
Brown V. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy, by James T. Patterson, 2001
The Fifties, by David Halberstam, 1993
Malcolm X, Wikipedia
Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, by Malcolm X, 1965
Copyright © 2000-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.