The Midnight Hour: The Watts Uprising
An excerpt from Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener.
1965 will be the longest and hottest and bloodiest year of them all. It has to be, not because you want it to be, or I want it to be, or we want it to be, but because the conditions that created these explosions in 1963 are still here; the conditions that created explosions in ’64 are still here … Brothers and sisters, let me tell you, I spend my time out there in the street with people, all kind of people, listening to what they have to say. And they’re dissatisfied, they’re disillusioned, they’re fed up, they’re getting to the point of frustration where they are beginning to feel: What do they have to lose?1
Malcolm X gave this speech in Detroit on February 14, 1965, two weeks after a high-speed escape from would-be Nation of Islam assassins in Los Angeles, and a week before he was murdered in Harlem.2 He was often prescient, but what he was hearing on the streets could have been heard by almost anyone who bothered to listen anywhere in Black America—including on the streets of the South L.A. district of Watts.
Previous chapters have sketched the chain of events—the LAPD attack on the NOI in 1962, the defeat of the 1963 united civil rights campaign, the social ecology of overcrowded schools and homes, and the white backlash embodied in 1964’s Proposition 14—that pointed inexorably toward Malcolm X’s predicted explosion in 1965. But one factor, to use a fancy but appropriate verb, “overdetermined” all the others: the economic flytrap that snared the lives and hopes of Black youth, particularly in the older, poorer half of the ghetto, east of the Harbor Freeway. (West of Vermont, where the percentage of intact, home-owning Black families with employed bread earners was significantly higher, there were many fewer incidents during the August upheaval.) This area, including Watts, was a principal focus of an unprecedented study of hard-core unemployment and poverty published in December 1965 by two veteran researchers at UCLA’s Institute of Industrial Relations, Paul Bullock and Fred Schmidt, with former Freedom Rider Robert Singleton as their chief research assistant.3
The institute, staffed by visionary faculty such as Ben Aaron, Art Carstens, Irving Bernstein, and Fred Meyers, acted as a think tank for the Los Angeles labor movement, working closely with figures like Paul Schrade of the UAW and John T. Williams of the Teamsters.4 Its famed labor education program trained hundreds of shop stewards and lower-rank union officials. Bullock, a labor economist, was the institute ’s point man in South Central L.A. and a much respected figure—especially in Watts, where he spent more than a decade conducting interviews with youth in the projects and eventually published a unique book, Watts: The Aftermath—An Inside View of the Ghetto by the People of Watts, in which he acted as amanuensis for community voices.5 His commitment to the community was profound and, after the 1965 rebellion, particularly irksome to politicians and poverty bureaucrats making false claims about the success of job-training schemes in the Watts area.
The Hard-Core Unemployment report studied a spectrum of affected groups in an area that included the Eastside, South Central, Skid Row, and the concentration of elderly white poor, displaced by Bunker Hill renewal, around MacArthur Park. Some of the findings were predictable, for instance the overcrowding of male job-seekers, Black and brown, in a few available niches, particularly construction labor. Others were more surprising and counterintuitive, such as the fact that long-established ghetto residents with relatively high educational achievement (eleventh grade, versus ninth grade for the whole study area) were more likely to suffer joblessness than newer, less-educated arrivals from the South. Or the discovery that the Black poor got at least as much income support from extended families, fellow churchgoers, and neighbors as they did from county welfare and federal aid. The most striking finding, however, was the 60 percent unemployment rate among Black women needing to work outside the home: “The burden of long-term unemployment falls heavily upon Negro women, who suffer from a lack of available jobs and a necessity, in many cases, to support excessively large households.” The survey found that two-thirds of all long-term unemployed women were younger than forty, but that the age barrier was “particularly formidable for Negro women who have lived in the state for ten years or more.” Three-quarters of these older women were heads of households.6
In other studies Bullock used a “thick” ethnographic approach to analyze the situation of young, jobless males in Watts and elsewhere in the ghetto. His work highlighted the destructive roles of segregated education and the LAPD’s “stop and frisk” policies. Black arrivals from the South (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama, in order of numbers) bore all the scars of a wretched Jim Crow education, and some were completely unlettered. There was no public program to address their need for remedial instruction and vocational education. Neighborhood youth who had grown up in the LA school system, by contrast, were generally literate but dropped out of their underfunded high schools at rates ranging from 40 to 70 percent. In one paper, Bullock argued that many dropouts were actually “kick outs,” the victims of administrative policies that compelled students to transfer or leave school for offenses no more serious than learning problems, or, in one case, a single truancy.7
Meanwhile, the LAPD operated the nation’s most successful negative employment scheme. While giving low priority to white collar crimes, whatever their impact on society, the department fastened a relentless dragnet on poor Black and Chicano neighborhoods. Without the slightest pretense of probable cause, the cops stopped and searched people, particularly young men, in the hope of finding some weed or a stolen item. Those who verbally defended themselves, however innocent, would usually be offered a ride to jail. The result was an extraordinary accumulation of petty arrests (but not necessarily convictions) that made a majority of young men unemployable. Thus stigmatized, youth entered the street economy, where they sold drugs, practiced petty theft, and inevitably earned further, more serious arrest records. Even in a booming economy (in June 1965 manufacturing employment and wages broke all peacetime records), there was no route to employment for a large minority of young Black men, except through minimum-wage job schemes that paid far less than selling pot or fencing goods from the trunk of a car.
Paul Jacobs, a reporter-activist who went on to help found Mother Jones magazine, brilliantly illustrated Bullock’s vicious circle in an exchange with a staff member of the McCone Commission investigating the rebellion. He was asked, “What do you think is the most important bar to minority employment that could be eliminated quickly?” “The handicap that would be the easiest to wipe out is the arrest record,” Jacobs answered. “If arrest records weren’t held against people, you could probably change the employment situation overnight and put a hell of a lot of people to work.” The staffer, a former prosecutor, glared at Jacobs: “I don’t think a man who’s got an arrest record should be employed in most businesses. I wouldn’t hire anybody who had an arrest record for my family’s business.” The problem in a nutshell.8
Meanwhile, progress on the fair employment front was slight, to say the least. In July, Times labor reporter Harry Bernstein applauded gains by Blacks in the aerospace industry but acknowledged that smaller companies (those with 400 or fewer workers) “seem to have made no significant effort to end their ‘whites only’ hiring policies.” More- over, “the top-level managerial attitudes which now seem to oppose racial discrimination are often not reflected at the lower management level—which is where workers are actually hired.” Don Smith, the new head of CORE, scorned the pervasive game among employers of paying lip service to fair employment while continuing their old discriminatory hiring practices. “Five years ago, we would go to an employer who was discriminating and either he would agree to try and correct the situation, or he would chase us out. Today, almost nobody chases us out. But they make promises of reform which are never kept. I prefer open discrimination to this kind of hypocrisy.”9
Another major obstacle to addressing the unemployment problem was Mayor Yorty’s stubborn refusal to accept federal guidelines that would have released millions of dollars of anti-poverty funds for youth jobs. In April 1964, backed by the Unruh camp and the downtown establishment he once scorned, Yorty was reelected in a landslide over Congressman Jimmy Roosevelt, FDR’s war hero son and the candidate of Governor Brown and the California Democratic Clubs. It was a double victory since Roz Wyman, his bête noire on the city council, was also defeated.10
But perhaps the most profound consequence of the election was that it freed Yorty from dependence on Black voters and their concerns. His inner racist was now given full scope. The election effectively created a ruling triumvirate of white power in Los Angeles: Chief Parker, Mayor Yorty and Cardinal McIntrye. The War on Poverty’s new Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), headed by Sargent Shriver, had allocated millions for job programs in L.A., but it came with the stipulation (Title II) that the poor themselves, through open elections or town meetings, had to be represented on the required umbrella agency. Yorty, refusing to yield any power to Washington or local civil rights leaders, was unmovable in his insistence that he alone should have the power to appoint the members of such a board. Los Angeles thus became “the only major city in the United States,” Shriver declared in August 1965, that “has failed to organize effective local antipoverty programs … Everywhere else in America, almost without exception, elected officials have been extremely helpful.”11
As a result, a summer program that would have organized recreation for 20,000 LA teenagers was canceled, and several thousand youth jobs, the funding already budgeted by the OEO, were left in limbo.12 Summer 1965, as Robert Conot later wrote in his account of the August uprising, was “the worst ever: one of chaos, disunity and suspicion … As no jobs had materialized, [kids] lounged around getting high on cheap wine and marijuana, discussing among themselves which white motherfuckers and Uncle Toms were making a killing on the antipoverty program.”13
1 Malcolm X, “After the Bombing,” speech, February 14, 1965, Detroit, available at malcolm-x.org.
2 For the encounter in L.A., where Malcolm visited two of the plain- tiffs in a paternity suit against Elijah Muhammad, see Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 572–3.
3 UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations, Hard-Core Unemployment and Poverty in Los Angeles, report for the US Department of Commerce (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, December 14, 1964).
4 Carstens, whose daughter Betty was one of the forty-seven Freedom Summer volunteers from L.A., became the chairman of Californians for Liberal Representation, an offshoot of the Independent Progres- sive Party, and later was almost elected to Congress from the Valley as an anti-war candidate. Although nothing at UCLA commemorates his life, he left an indelible stamp on the institute and an entire gener- ation of LA trade union activists.
5 Paul Bullock, Watts: The Aftermath (New York: Grove, 1969).
6 UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations, Hard-Core Unemployment and Poverty, 111, 146.
7 Quoted in LAT, October 19, 1962.
8 Paul Jacobs, Prelude to Riot: A View of Urban America from the Bottom (New York: Random House, 1966), 237–8.
9 LAT, July 4, 1965.
10 John Constantinus Bollens and Grant B. Geyer, Yorty: Politics of a Constant Candidate (Pacific Palisades, CA: Palisades Publishers, 1973), 142–8. Roosevelt was denounced as an “Eastern outsider” and 682 Notes from Pages 207 to 211 “carpetbagger,” despite that fact that he had lived in L.A.—apart from time spent on Guadalcanal with Evans Carlson’s Rangers—since 1938.
11 New York Times, August 19, 1965. 12 LAT, July 7, 1965. 13 Robert E. Conot, Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness (New York: Bantam, 1967), 209.