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Chapter 27: Watts

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

As soon as we began to see our way clear in the South, the shock and horror of Northern riots exploded before our eyes and we saw that the problems of the Negro go far beyond mere racial segregation. The catastrophe in Los Angeles was a result of seething and rumbling tensions throughout our nation and, indeed, the world.

  • August 11-15, – 1965 Widespread racial violence in Los Angeles results in more than 30 deaths
  • August 17 – King arrives in Los Angeles at the invitation of local groups

As we entered the Watts area of Los Angeles, all seemed quiet, but there could still be sensed raging hostility which had erupted in volcanic force in the days previous. What had been an inferno of flame and smoke a few nights before was now an occupied territory. National Guardsmen in groups of three and four stood posted on each street corner. People, black and white, meandered through the charred remains of the Watts business district. 

I had been warned not to visit. We were told that the people were in no mood to hear talk of nonviolence. There had been wild threats hurled at all Negro leaders and many were afraid to venture into the area. But I had visited Watts on many occasions and received the most generous of acclamations. One of the most responsive and enthusiastic gatherings I ever saw was our meeting in Warm during the "Get-Out-the-Vote" tour in 1964. So, despite the warnings I was determined to hear firsthand from the people involved, just what the riot was all about. 

Let me say first of all that I profoundly deplore the events that have occurred in Los Angeles in these last few tragic days. I believe and have said on many occasions that violence is not the answer to social conflict whether it is engaged in by white people in Alabama or by Negroes in Los Angeles. Violence is all the more regrettable in this period in light of the tremendous nonviolent sacrifices that both Negro and white people together have endured to bring justice to all men. 

But it is equally clear, as President Johnson pointed out yesterday, at it is the job of all Americans "to right the wrong from which such violence and disorder spring." The criminal responses which led to the tragic outbreaks of violence in Los Angeles are environmental and not racial. The economic deprivation, racial isolation, inadequate housing, and general despair of thousands of Negroes teaming in Northern and Western ghettoes are the ready seeds which gave birth to tragic expressions of violence. By acts of commission and omission none of us in this great country has done enough to remove injustice. I therefore humbly suggest that all of us accept our share of responsibility for these past days of anguish.

Stirring of a deprived people

After visiting Watts and talking with hundreds of persons of all walks of life, it was my opinion that the riots grew out of the depths of despair which afflict a people who see no way out of their economic dilemma. 

There were serious doubts that the white community was in any way concerned. There also was a growing disillusionment and resentment toward the Negro middle class and the leadership which it had produced. This ever-widening breach was a serious factor which led to a feeling on the part of ghetto-imprisoned Negroes that they were alone in their struggle and had to resort to any method to gain attention to their plight. 

The nonviolent movement of the South meant little to them since we had been fighting for rights which theoretically were already theirs; therefore, I believed what happened in Los Angeles was of grave national significance. What we witnessed in the Watts area was the beginning of a stirring of a deprived people in a society who had been by-passed by the progress of the previous decade. I would minimize the racial significance and point to the fact that these were the rumblings of discontent from the "have nots" within the midst of an affluent society. 

The issue of police brutality loomed as one of major significance. The slightest discourtesy on the part of an officer of the law was a deprivation of the dignity that most of the residents of Watts came west seeking. Whether it was true or not, the Negro of the ghetto was convinced that his dealings with the police denied him the dignity and respect to which he was entitled as a citizen and a human being. This produced a sullen, hostile attitude, which resulted in a spiral of hatred on the part of both the officer and the Negro. This whole reaction complex was often coupled with fear on the part of both parties. Every encounter between a Negro and the police in the hovering hostility of the ghetto was a potential outburst. 

A misguided fire truck, a conflict in arrest, a sharp word between a store owner and customer-the slightest incident can trigger a riot in a community, but events converge in such a cataclysmic manner that often the situation seems to be the result of a planned organized attempt at insurrection. This was the term used by Mayor Sam Yorty-an insurrection staged by a group of organized criminals. 

I am afraid that this was too superficial an explanation. Two separate and distinct forces were operating in Los Angeles. One was a hardened criminal element incapable of restraint by appeals to reason or discipline. This was a small number in contrast to the large number involved. The larger group of participants were not criminal elements. I was certain that the majority of the more than four thousand persons arrested in Los Angeles were being arrested for the first time. They were the disorganized, the frustrated, and the oppressed. Their looting was a form of social protest. Forgotten by society, taunted by the affluence around them, but effectively barred from its reach, they were acting out hostilities as a method of relief and to focus attention. 

The objective of the people with whom I talked was consistently work and dignity. It was as though the speeches had been rehearsed, but on every corner the theme was the same. Unless some work could be found for the unemployed and underemployed, we would continually face the possibility of this kind of outbreak at every encounter with police authority. At a time when the Negro's aspirations were at a peak, his actual conditions of employment, education, and housing were worsening. The paramount problem is one of economic stability for this sector of our society. All other advances in education, family life, and the moral climate of the community were dependent upon the ability of the masses of Negroes to earn a living in this wealthy society of ours. 

In the South there is something of shared poverty, Negro and white. In the North, white existence, only steps away, glares with conspicuous consumption. Even television becomes incendiary, when it beams pictures of affluent homes and multitudinous consumer products at the aching poor, living in wretched homes. In these terms, Los Angeles could have expected riots because it is the luminous symbol of luxurious living for whites. Watts is closer to it, and yet farther from it, than any other Negro community in the country. The looting in Watts was a form of social protest very common through the ages as a dramatic and destructive gesture of the poor toward symbols of their needs.

Encounter in Watts

I was out in Watts during the riots. One young man said to me-and Andy Young, Bayard Rustin, and Bernard Lee, who were with me - "We won!" I said, "What do you mean, 'we won'? Thirty-some people dead, all but two are Negroes. You've destroyed your own. What do you mean, 'we won'? And he said, "We made them pay attention to us." 

When people are voiceless, they will have temper tantrums like a little child who has not been paid attention to. And riots are massive temper tantrums from a neglected and voiceless people.

July 1967

There was joy among the rioters of Watts, not shame. They were completely oblivious to the destruction of property in their wake. They were destroying a physical and emotional jail; they had asserted themselves against a system which was quietly crushing them into oblivion and now they were "somebody." As one young man put it, 

"We know that a riot is not the answer, but we've been down here suffering for a long time and nobody cared. Now at least they know we're here. A riot may not be the way, but it is a way." This was the new nationalist mood gripping a good many ghetto inhabitants, It rejected the alliance with white liberals as a means of social change. It affirms the fact that black men act alone in their own interest only because nobody really cares. 

Amazingly enough, and in spite of the inflammatory assertions to the contrary, these were not murderous mobs. They were destructive of property, but with all of the reports of thousands of violent people on the loose, very few people were killed, and almost all of them by the police. Certainly, had the intention of the mob been to murder, many more lives would have been lost. 

What I emphasized is that, in spite of all of the hostility that some Negroes felt, and as violent and destructive as the mood temporarily became, it was not yet a blind and irredeemable condition. The people of Watts were hostile to nonviolence, but when we actually went to them and emphasized the dangers of hatred and violence, the same people cheered. Only minutes before the air had been thick with tension, but when they were reminded of the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, the martyrs of the Selma campaign, they cheered the thought that white people can and do cooperate with us in our search for jobs and dignity. 

But let no one think that this is a defense of riots. The wake of destruction of property where many Negroes were employed and where many more were served consumer goods was one of the most tragic sights I ever witnessed. It was second only to the thought of thirty-seven persons dying needlessly in an uncontrolled tantrum of devastation and death. This was more human loss than had been suffered in ten years of nonviolent direct action, which produced the revolutionary social changes in the South. 

Violence only serves to harden the resistance of the white reactionary and relieve the white liberal of guilt, which might motivate him to action and thereby leaves the condition unchanged and embittered. The backlash of violence is felt far beyond the borders of the community where it takes place. Whites are arming themselves in Selma and across Alabama in the expectation that rioting would spread South. In this kind of atmosphere a single drunken disorderly Negro could set off the panic button that might result in the killing of many innocent Negroes. 

However, a mere condemnation of violence is empty without understanding the daily violence that our society inflicts upon many of its members. The violence of poverty and humiliation hurts as intensely as the violence of the club. This is a situation that calls for statesmanship and creative leadership, of which I did not see evidence in Los Angeles. What we did find was a blind intransigence and ignorance of the tremendous social forces that were at work there. And so long as this stubborn attitude was maintained by responsible authorities, I could only see the situation worsening.

A crisis for the nonviolent movement

Los Angeles could have expected the holocaust when its officials tied up federal aid in political manipulation, when the rate of Negro unemployment soared above depression levels of the twenties, and when the population density of Watts became the worst in the nation. Yet even these tormenting physical conditions are less than the full sign. California in 1964 repealed its law forbidding racial discrimination in housing. It was the first major state in the country to take away gains Negroes had won at a time when progress was visible and substantial elsewhere, and especially in the South. California by that callous act voted for ghettos. The atrociousness of some deeds may be concealed by legal ritual, but the destructiveness is felt with bitter force by its victims. When all is finally entered into the annals of sociology; when philosophers, politicians, and preachers have all had their say, we must return to the fact that a person participates in this society primarily as an economic entity. At rock bottom we are neither poets, athletes, nor artists; our existence is centered in the fact that we are consumers, because we first must eat and have shelter to live. This is a difficult confession for a preacher to make, and it is a phenomenon against which I will continue to rebel, but it remains a fact that "consumption" of goods and services is the raison d'etre of the vast majority of Americans. When persons are for some reason or other excluded from the consumer circle, there is discontent and unrest. 

Watts was not only a crisis for Los Angeles and the Northern cities of our nation: It was a crisis for the nonviolent movement. I tried desperately to maintain a nonviolent atmosphere in which our nation could undergo the tremendous period of social change which confronts us, but this was mainly dependent on the obtaining of tangible progress and victories, if those of us who counsel reason and love were to maintain our leadership. However, the cause was not lost. In spite of pockets of hostility in ghetto areas such as WAtts, there was still overwhelming acceptance of the ideal of nonviolence.

I was in touch with the White House on the matter and asked that the President do everything in his power to break the deadlock which had prevented the poverty program from entering Los Angeles. I also asked that the government's efforts be vastly increased toward obtaining full employment for both the Negro and white poor in our country. The President was sensitive to this problem and was prepared to give us the kind of leadership and vision which we needed in those turbulent times.

All in all, my visit to Watts was a tremendous help to me personally. I prayed that somehow leadership and statesmanship would emerge in the places of public office, the press, the business communities, and among the Negro leadership and people of Watts, to avoid further conflict. Such a conflict would bring only bloodshed and shame to our entire nation's image abroad.

NEXT: Chapter 28: Chicago Campaign