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Watts Riots

Watts Riots

by William H. Benson

August 11, 2016

     Daniel Moynihan sbumitted his report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, in March of 1965, and five months later, on August 11, 1965, the Watts riots broke out. In 1965, Moynihan was a young assistant secretary of Labor working in the Johnson administration. Eleven years later, in 1976, he would win the election to the Senate from the state of New York and serve as the distinguished Senator there for three terms.

     Like many Americans of Irish heritage, Moynihan spoke his mind, and it showed in his report. He warned the nation of the rising illegitimacy rates, and the “tangle of pathology” that threatened the stability of African-American families. He said,

     “But there is one truly great discontinuity in family structure in the United States at the present time; that is between the white world in general and that of the Negro American. The white family has achieved a high degree of stability and is maintaining that stability.

     “By contrast, the family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching a complete breakdown. Nearly a quarter of Negro women living in cities, who have ever married, are divorced, separated, or are living apart from their husbands.”

    Today urban scholars look back at the Moynihan report and say that Daniel “cast a black crisis as one of national import[ance] that demanded a national response.” And yet, the national response was far less than overwhelming.

     On August 11, 1965, a Los Angeles policeman named Lee Minikus pulled over a 21-year-old black man named Marquette Frye for drunk driving near the corner of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street, just north of the U. S. Highway 105 in Watts, a dozen miles south of downtown Los Angeles. Frye’s mother came to the scene of the arrest, and she assaulted Officer Minikus.

     A crowd gathered, and people began throwing rocks. The altercation escalated into a riot. For the next six days the LAPD, the California Highway Patrol, and the National Guard worked to restore order, as some 30,000 people rioted, looted buildings, and burnt properties. In its wake, thirty-four people lay dead, 1032 were injured, and 3438 were arrested.

     Sergeant Ben Dunn said, “The streets of Watts resembled an all-out war zone in some far-off foreign country. It bore no resemblance to the United States of America.”

     Commentators later pinned the blame for the riot’s fierce intensity upon inadequate housing. For decades, the African-American people of Los Angeles endured the most blatant form of racial discrimination. They could not purchase or rent a home outside their segregated area, because realtors and landlords would block the sale or the lease. The people felt stuck, excluded from the suburbs, and restricted to the Watts and Compton areas, a dozen miles south of downtown Los Angeles.

     In 1963, California’s Congress recognized the problem and passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act in order to end residential segregation based upon racial discrimination, but then the following year, California’s voters put on the ballot Proposition 14, an amendment to California’s constitution that repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act and legalized discrimination.

     The African-American people were outraged. The black activist, Bayard Rustin, published his Watts Manifesto in March of 1966, and said, “The whole point of the outbreak in Watts was that it marked the first major rebellion of Negroes against their own masochism and was carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life.”

     One young black man who called Watts his home was Stan Sanders. He had graduated from Jordan High School, less than two miles from where Marquette Frye was arrested. He received a scholarship to attend Whittier College, won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, and was enrolled at Yale Law School when Watts exploded. He had refused to “quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life.”

     Tom Brokaw first met Stan Sanders in the summer of 1966. In 2007, Brokaw published his book, Boom! Voices of the Sixties, and in it he asked Sanders about his memories of the Watts riots.

     “I blame the way we reacted to the Watts riots,” Sanders said. “If low educational levels were a primary cause of poverty, why didn’t we pour in massive amounts of educational aid? When I went there, Jordan High was a decent school. I visited recently, and now it’s just a joke. There’s no real teaching. Kids can’t read. We kind of gave up.”

     Brokaw commented, “The combination of the dissolution of the black family structure in too many neighborhoods, the loss of parental involvement in the education of too many black children, and the indifference of the majority community adds up to warehousing, not educating.”

     Two final points: Proposition 14 remained in effect until voters repealed it in 1974, and Daniel Moynihan’s father, John Henry Moynihan, deserted the family when Daniel was ten years old. He knew firsthand the devastating consequences of an unstable home life.