Don't Know Much

Don’t Know Much About the “Negro Riots” in Watts

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The recent urban riots in London that spread to other parts of England beg an obvious question: Can it happen in America?

Of course, it has already happened in America, more than once. Most famously, perhaps, it happened nearly half a century ago on a hot summer night in the Los Angeles neighborhood known as Watts.

While the times and many circumstances are very different between England now and America then, the American experience with urban rioting –now seemingly forgotten– is worth remembering because many of the root causes seem to be the same.

It started with a “DWB”– “driving while black.” On August 11, 1965, an all-too-frequent stop of a young black man exploded into one of the worst urban riots in American history.

Where: Watts was a rundown district of shabby houses built near the highway approaching Los Angeles International Airport. Ninety-eight percent black, Watts was stewing in a California heat wave. In the stewpot were all the ingredients of black anger. Poverty. Overcrowding. High unemployment. Crime everywhere. Drugs widely available. The nearly all-white police force was seen as an occupation army.

When: On August 11, a policeman pulled over a young black man to check him for drunken driving. When the young man was arrested, a crowd gathered. Within a few hours the crowd had grown to a mob, and the frustration was no longer simmering in the August heat. It exploded.

What By nightfall of the next day, small, roving bands of young people throwing rocks and bottles had grown to a mob of thousands. Rocks and bottles were replaced by Molotov cocktails as the riot erupted into a full-blown street rebellion with widespread looting. Among the most popular looted items were weapons, and when police and firefighters responded to the violence and fires, they were met with a hail of bullets and gasoline bombs. When Dick Gregory, the well-known African American comedian and civil rights activist, tried to calm the crowds, he was shot in the leg.

The battle raged on for days as thousands of national guardsmen poured in to restore order. There was open fighting in the streets as guardsmen set up machine-gun emplacements. By the sixth day of rioting, Watts was rubble and ashes. The toll from six days of mayhem was thirty-four killed, including rioters and guardsmen; more than 1,000 injured; 4,000 arrested; and total property damage of more than $35 million.

Why: The aftermath of Watts was more than just a body count and insurance estimates. Watts signaled a sea change in the civil-rights movement. When Martin Luther King toured the neighborhood, he was heckled. Saddened by the death and destruction, he admonished a local man, who responded,

“We won because we made the whole world pay attention to us.”

Here is the original New York Times report on the “Negro Riots”

The Watts summer of 1965 was the first in a string of long, hot summers that left the cities of the North and Midwest smoldering. The worst came in 1967, particularly when Newark and Detroit were engulfed in rioting. In the wake of these rebellions, presidential commissions were appointed, studies made, and findings released. They all agreed that the problem was economic at its roots. As Martin Luther King had put it, “I worked to get these people the right to eat hamburgers, and now I’ve got to do something to help them get the money to buy them.”

One of these studies, conducted by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, was known as the Kerner Commission. In 1968, it warned that America was

“moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Here is a link to excerpts from the Kerner Commission Report:
How much has really changed?

On the 40th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report in 2008, Bill Moyers of PBS produced a show on the Commission and what has –or hasn’t — changed in four decades.

You can read more about Watts and the civil rights era in Don’t Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition.

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