The yelp that burned L.A.

Montague! My name is Thomas Smith and I go to Jefferson High! Burn, baby! BURN!”

That’s what the kids of the Negro area, as South Central was known, would call up and say in 1965 on KGFJ, the black-oriented radio station where I worked. It was what I’d shouted in New York and Chicago in ’63 and ’64 -- what I’d shout any time a piece of soul music -- Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder -- captured my enthusiasm. A compliment.

And then, on a Wednesday, Aug. 11, Watts exploded in violence after a questionable police stop, and I found myself being asked -- no, ordered -- to stop yelling my slogan.

First, the station manager told me to stop. I told him no. I was furious. The slogan, this delightful thing, belonged to my listeners. It was theirs! A part of them. How was I going to take that away from them? Then the mayor, Sam Yorty, calls up. “You know,” he says in his Midwestern twang, “there’s a riot going on and you’re very popular among the Negroes. And we’d like to ask you if you can stop using that term, because it tends to incite them.”

“I beg your pardon,” I said. “What incites them is their problems over there. What incites them is what you white people have been doing....Don’t waste your time on me.”

That Friday night was the worst of the rioting, the night when it seemed like it would go on forever. I could not sleep when I got home in Brentwood. The television set was making it look like this was unprecedented, that it happened out of nowhere, that it made no sense, that the Negroes were crazy, mindless savages.


Unbeknownst to my listeners, I had been collecting black historical memorabilia -- thousands of pieces -- since 1956, and I knew something that TV would never tell: Race riots went as far back in this country as black folks themselves.

As far back as 1663, when the Negro slaves rebelled in Gloucester, Va. And in 1712, when a slave revolt in New York killed nine whites and resulted in the execution of 21 slaves. And in the British colony of New York in 1741, when white hysteria broke out over fears that slaves might betray Britain in its war against Spain.

Back to 1906, when Negro soldiers raided Brownsville, Texas, in protest against racial insults. And in East St. Louis. And Houston. All the way up to what had happened the previous summer after I left the air in New York: riots in Harlem, Rochester -- even my hometown of Elizabeth, N.J. I was supposed to go back to work Monday; what was I going to say about this?

First, though, came Sunday: My cover was blown. On the front page of the Los Angeles Times was the headline: “ ‘Burn Baby, Burn’ Slogan Used as Firebugs Put Area to Torch.”

Above the headline was this phrase: “Password Gains Safe Passage.”

It’s either funny or tragic: The Times had no Negro reporters, and the white ones were getting the hell beaten out of them, so they found a young black ad salesman, sent him out to the ghetto, had him phone in his observations to a white rewrite man, and his first paragraph reported: Negro arsonists raced autos through otherwise deserted Los Angeles streets, flinging Molotov cocktails into store after store and shouting a hep slogan borrowed from a radio disc jockey: “Burn, baby, burn.”

And now came Monday. Like a drunk awaking, Los Angeles looked at itself and shook its head and winced. Police seemed to occupy every inch of the Negro area.

My wife, Rose, reminded me to respect my listeners. “Voice your opinion with discretion,” she said over the weekend. “Maybe you can come up with something else to say to keep your show rolling without anybody thinking you’re some Uncle Tom -- that you got backed off.”

And right there I knew what I was going to do. That morning I signed on a new way. “HAVE MERCY, LOS ANGELES!” I shouted, and I told my listeners that “Have Mercy” was now the word. We would “burn” no more.

They started calling in. Montague, they asked, how do you feel about what we’re doing? I tried to be fair. Segregation is not new, I told them. Discrimination is not new. The problems of the Negro community are not new. Riots ain’t never been new. Do what you gotta do. Now, that is a phrase blacks understand. I don’t have to explain any more. “Do what you gotta do.” That was the only role I had.

All day long, I shouted my new slogan, like a prayer: “Have mercy Los Angeles!” Have mercy on me for the way I love the record I’m playing. Have mercy on all of us, may we walk through this fire into better times. Be grateful, white folks, that we had mercy, that we stopped when we did.

It was very hard for me. I did not want to stop using “Burn, baby! Burn!” any more than Merlin would have wanted to stop using magic. But it was a white-owned station, managed by whites, under pressure from the government, under pressure from the FCC. They would have put me off the air -- I knew it.

I wanted to control my destiny. I wanted to respect my dignity and my listeners’, and in the end I respected both.

Nobody else was giving my audience a voice -- not the NAACP, not the preachers. The black church was telling them it was wrong to burn. I wouldn’t do that. I knew what they were feeling. They felt weak. I knew the rioting made them feel powerful for once in their lives -- rebellion, against weakness. Maybe they didn’t know what they wanted. Maybe they only knew what they didn’t want. It was a start.

Two days later, on Wednesday, a week after that drunk-driving arrest threw a match on everything, Martin Luther King Jr. came to town. Mayor Yorty refused to let him visit the jail where many looting and rioting suspects were being held, saying he was afraid that King would set off another riot.

On to Watts King went, to tour. Several hundred folks surrounded him. It was very tense. There were a lot of jeers. King had publicly called for law enforcement to suppress the rioting, and now Negroes were confronting him: What else could our people do, with no jobs, with no prospects? they asked.

King began to speak in that marvelous voice, demanding massive government programs to help the Negro, to make sure riots did not occur again.

“We must join hands!” he said.

“And burn!” someone shouted from the crowd, which laughed.

There would be a better day, King told them. Somebody shouted a tough question at him: “When?” Others began to scream the watchword again: “Burn, baby! Burn!”

The tour could not continue. King left Watts. That week the governor announced he was forming a commission to study the problem. At one of the public meetings in Watts, one of the governor’s appointees, a rich Republican businessman, showed up at 103rd and Grape streets -- in a chauffeur-driven limousine.

Excerpted from “ ‘Burn, Baby! BURN!’: The Autobiography of Magnificent Montague,” by MAGNIFICENT MONTAGUE with BOB BAKER, published by University of Illinois Press, 2003.