Watts 40 Years Later

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The young National Guard officer curtly and sternly ordered my high school buddies and me to keep moving down the street. He waved his bayoneted rifle menacingly at us as he barked out his orders. Behind him, a small army of white helmeted LAPD officers and battle fatigued dressed National Guardsman stood tensely with their rifles poised. I kept a wary eye on them as we nervously walked past the three deep barricades that ringed the streets around my house.
My friends and I were on our way home from summer school classes that hot August day forty years ago. The smoke from burning stores a few blocks away choked our eyes, and seared our lungs. In the distance we could hear the crackle of gunfire. The streets were strewn with empty liquor and cigarette cartons that had been hastily discarded by the horde of looters that for nearly four days roamed the streets near my house.

As a resident of the Watts curfew area that fateful summer, I remember not only the fires and the gunfire, but also the blind rage and desperation that drove the rioters as they pillaged stores and shouted, "burn baby burn" (taken from a slogan made popular by a local black DJ). Many considered this a payback for the century of racism and violence against blacks. When Dr. Martin Luther King visited Watts in an effort to stop the violence, young toughs shouted him down.
The orgy of violence and destruction marked the end of an era for the non-violent civil rights struggle. To many poor blacks, non-violent marches and demonstrations seemed a worthless antidote to the cycle of poverty, violence and neglect. In the next few years Detroit, Newark, Washington D.C. and dozens of other cities erupted into violence and destruction. Many blacks embraced the call by black militants Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims for black power, armed confrontation and separatism.

The violence in Watts also made many whites recognize that America's ghettoes were powder kegs that could explode at any moment. The suburbs suddenly seemed less safe and secure. White fears forced politicians to scramble to find solutions to the racial crisis. The McCone Commission appointed by Governor Edmund Brown called for modest police reform and increased spending on jobs and social programs. That established an all too familiar pattern. When cities erupted in racial violence, hand-wringing city officials would quickly appoint a commission, or blue-ribbon panel, issue a voluminous report on the causes of the riots, cobble together a few job programs, and toss out a few more dollars for social service programs.

To many Americans that sounded like a reward for criminal behavior, and they weren't having any of that. They blamed the violence on liberal permissiveness, and outside agitators and demanded more police, heavy weaponry, and tougher prison sentences. With the exception of the Martin Luther King Hospital, which was the one tangible thing that came out of the riots, the McCone Commission's recommendations were mostly ignored. The few piecemeal, badly mismanaged poverty programs, slapped together to cool out the ghetto, did little to relieve the misery of the black poor.

When Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, politicians and the public became even more reluctant to spend more on domestic programs. The black poor, lacking competitive skills and training, were shoved even further to the outer economic fringe. Their anger quickly turned to cynicism and despair. Many turned to guns, gangs and drugs to survive.
Civil rights leaders and organizations did not help. They defined the "Black Agenda" in increasingly narrow terms. Affirmative action, economic parity, professional advancement and bussing replaced poverty, unemployment, quality education, police abuse and political empowerment as the goals that all African-Americans should fight for. Young, upwardly mobile black business and professionals fled the inner cities in droves. This further drained talent, skills and leadership, and positive role models from poor communities. Economic shrinkage, government budget cuts, and the elimination of job and social programs dumped more and more blacks into the ranks of the underclass.

This pointed up a phenomenon about race and class in America that has been ignored, downplayed, or denied. There are no longer two Americas, black and white, and seemingly at permanent odds with each other. There are now three Americas, one black, one white, and the other, black and black. In by-gone years, the iron curtain of segregation had blurred, but had not obliterated, the class divisions between the black well-to-do and the black poor. When the Jim Crow signs came down, and the ghetto walls tumbled, more blacks than ever marched into the corporations, onto universities, and into Congress and statehouses. This gave the false and misleading impression that economic deprivation was a thing of the past for all but a few unlucky blacks. That was a pipedream, and America soon found it out.

Black Star columnist, author and political analyst Hutchinson can be reached at 323-296-6331 or

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