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The Watts Riots, Burned Into Memory

By Roger Wilkins
Tuesday, August 23, 2005

John McWhorter is right to say that we ought to pause and remember the Watts riots of 40 years ago and ponder their implication for America's present and future ["Burned, Baby, Burned: Watts and the Tragedy of Black America," Outlook, Aug. 14]. I take strong issue, however, with the conclusions he draws from his review of the events in Watts and South Central Los Angeles in 1965.

I think the difference between McWhorter and me arises in large measure from our profoundly different perspectives on the event. He writes that he was born two months after the riots occurred and that his conclusions are based on his research on the subject. Mine are based largely on what I learned when President Lyndon B. Johnson sent me to Watts 40 years ago this month as a part of two federal teams -- one headed by former Florida governor LeRoy Collins and the next by then-deputy attorney general Ramsey Clark -- both charged with helping to end the violence and figuring out what had caused it.

McWhorter dismisses the conventional wisdom that the riots occurred because of the miserable conditions in the bleakest ghettos of what was then America's most glamorous city, and he notes that "the National Urban League had rated Los Angeles the best city in the nation for blacks to live in." That might have been true of Crenshaw or other upscale black neighborhoods, but not of South Central and Watts. In one community meeting I arranged for Collins and two others I set up for Clark, the bitterness and anguish laced through the testimony of poor neighborhood residents were heart-rending and, when they spoke of the city's neglect, just cause for indignation.

The police were brutal; there were no jobs anywhere near the neighborhoods; public transportation was unreliable and inadequate; the schools were atrocious; housing was deteriorating; health care facilities were far away, limited and hard to get to. And worst of all, nobody cared enough to come and listen to their complaints.

One of the worst things about our visit to the city was the fact that important Angelenos, who should have known about the conditions in Watts, were seeking interviews with us about conditions in their own town. One of them was the handsome, muscular Otis Chandler, then publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who seemed helpless as he interviewed us in his richly appointed conference room about the "real conditions" people "down there" faced. Another was John Buggs, the black executive director of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, who, while driving me to Watts, confessed that he had not visited the community in five years.

McWhorter wonders why Los Angeles exploded and not Birmingham, where racism was raw. Blacks in Los Angeles and Birmingham had different experiences. In Birmingham they could have expected a quick and intentionally lethal response by law enforcement authorities and their Klan-connected allies to any such uprising. People in Los Angeles might reasonably have expected billy-club brutality from the police, but not officially sanctioned administration of the death penalty in the streets for rioting and looting. By and large, I think both judgments were right, although Los Angeles turned out to be more lethal than anyone could have imagined.

Where I think McWhorter really goes off the tracks is in his analysis of what caused the riots in the first place. For him it was an unholy stew of white radicals and black masters of agitprop who rejected the "polite sleeve-tugging and forms of nonviolent protest" for the pose of rebellious authenticity. (As an aside from one who grew up in the NAACP connected by blood, respect and affection to such giants as Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Mitchell and Joe Rauh, I find the phrase "polite sleeve-tugging" to be wrong, supercilious and offensive.)

What McWhorter misses is that the racial upheavals in this country in the '60s came loaded with a heavy history. Many of the participants had lived through it; others had absorbed knowledge carried by their parents and grandparents of the soul-shriveling cruelty of the post-bellum rural South, of the northward migration during World War II when defense jobs opened up, of the physical brutality and guile southerners used to keep their labor force submissive and cheap. They remembered the promised cities full of good jobs, and how many of them just missed out as America passed its industrial peak. Finally, they surely understood the grim and fetid realities of the northern ghettos to which they were consigned.

Their consciousness of themselves could not just have responded to white radical opponents of the Vietnam War or to the drama of Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. A 25-year-old in 1965 would have memories of Jackie Robinson, the Brown decision and the violent southern opposition to it, the Montgomery bus boycott, the murders of civil rights workers and young innocents. And he or she would surely have heard at least some of the words of Malcolm X.

From all of that they could have gotten the sense that through effort and sacrifice, things were on the move in almost every place -- except where they lived.

I agree with McWhorter that the legacy of Watts is a sad one, but I come to a different conclusion. He thinks the energy from that explosion was appropriated by radical reformers lobbying for changes in welfare that ultimately destroyed the moral fiber of poor people and led to the inner-city desolation we experience today.

I believe that while there were both decent, "fed up" people and opportunistic thugs and criminals involved in the rioting, the most important outcome of Watts was that it frightened the wits out of millions of middle-class whites. They fled the cities and city schools and essentially doomed prospects for large-scale urban school integration, while ensuring the erosion of municipal tax bases for a generation. And Watts and the explosions that followed helped fuel a conservative backlash that undermined the massive effort needed to address the problems it exposed.

The Watts legacy is not about tinkering with welfare policy. As the Kerner Commission warned us 2 1/2 years after the riots (a warning soon to be all but forgotten), the problem comes from a place deep inside the American soul. The profound damage done to unlucky blacks trapped in poverty and to whites trapped in indifference or bigotry will still require an enormous amount of sustained American will and decency to correct. That is the real legacy of Watts.

The writer is a professor of history at George Mason University. He was director of the U.S. Community Relations Service from 1966 to 1969.

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