55 years ago, a summer celebrated for its record-setting economy led to prosperity for whites at the same time that it missed Black youth in Watts and South Los Angeles when then Mayor Yorty went rogue. In violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s “maximum feasible participation” clause, which sought to give local elected working-class community members an active role in community development programs, Mayor Yorty refused to create an official set of anti-poverty programs in areas such as Watts, South Central, or the Chicano Eastside of Los Angeles. At the same time, LAPD officers in 1965 virtually resembled the white Southern segregationists, and in fact many came from the South, as with the 77th street division of the LAPD. Officers in the “de facto” segregated South side of Los Angeles regularly roughhoused Black folks there into jail, fines, and even worse indignation.
In Set the Night on Fire, Mike Davis and Jon Wiener provide one anecdote of the latter, reporting the story of Beverly Tate, a 22 year old Black woman & mother who at some point during the morning of July 1st, 1965 was stopped in her car by police, ordered out of the passenger’s seat, taken to a discreet location, and subsequently raped by LAPD officer W.D. McCloud as another LAPD officer stood watch. Tate’s story was given a brief mention as a “rumor” on the Los Angeles Times on July 31st of that year, and was also reported in Jet magazine on August 12th, 1965.
While McCloud was fired from the LAPD the next day, he was never charged for a crime. Yet the Black community in Los Angeles at the time was well aware of the account as an example of the LAPD’s blatant disregard for Black life throughout the city. In October of 1965, Tate, who was five months pregnant, died mysteriously of “unknown causes,” to be survived by her two children.
Together, each of these factors and more converged when a group of 77th street officers decided to jail an entire Black family following an unnecessary traffic stop outside their home near the Watts area. When a crowd gathered in shock at the LAPD’s manhandling of the family members, the officers responded aggressively in an effort to intimidate the crowd back. But after a few women jeered at the police officers, the officers grabbed several of the women from the crowd in an attempt to drag them into their patrol cars on “battery” charges. That’s when the bystanders erupted, throwing soda cans at the LAPD and chasing them out of the vicinity.
What followed over the next six days was a bloodbath that treated Black Los Angeles like the Viet Cong guerilla force in South Vietnam. Along with M14-toting National Guard troops, the LAPD, armed with shotguns, shot to kill and jail Black citizens in Watts and along South Central in an effort to subdue the community’s outrage at the inequities of joblessness and over-policed Black bodies. In less than a week, LAPD and National Guard troops would kill 26 civilians, and injure and arrest thousands more, overwhelmingly Black bodies, but also Latino. All 26 civilian deaths would be deemed by the LAPD and subsequent commissions as justifiable homicides, while Mayor Yorty backed these findings, to the satisfaction of then police chief Parker.
For its part, the L.A. Times during this period would center and reinforce the narrative of white victimization in predominantly Black Watts, publishing headlines such as”‘Get Whitey,’ Scream Blood-Hungry Mobs’” and “Negro Unrest Laid to Negro Family Failure.” Such coverage, along with media reels of disorder in the community, only stoked further white resentment of Blacks all across Los Angeles. More than a few groups of white caravans from places such as the valley and other white strongholds would arrive to attack Blacks in Watts, to be turned away by the LAPD, but not arrested.
Fifty five years later, Watts is now 80% Latino, and less than 20% Black, but it remains one of the most impoverished areas in all of Los Angeles. More than a quarter of the population in the Watts area lives underneath the federal poverty line, while the vast majority of the conditions that fueled Black outrage in 1965 at inequities in their community, including joblessness and scant access to a college education, adequate health-care and home ownership, remain intransigently locked in. Or, as the Reverend Marcus Murchinson tells it:
“Multiple generations of the same families continue to live in public housing projects and only a small percentage get off government assistance and achieve the dream of owning a home.”
It has been said that change is the only constant. Yet in places like Watts, those are but words in contrast to a stark reality on the ground. To turn such conditions into conditions that support the quality of life in this part of Los Angeles will thus take more than activism, but a rain of support like the reign of fire that engulfed this community into generations of second-class citizenship fifty-five summers ago. Yorty, for his part, has been dead for more than two decades now, but the federal moneys he and his political allies held away from support of Black employment, education, and home ownership remain missing in action.