Zoot suits against the world

RJ SMITH, a senior editor at Los Angeles Magazine, is the author of "The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African American Renaissance."

LAST YEAR, warfare broke out between African Americans and Latinos at Jefferson High School. Earlier this month, black-brown strife led to a gang shooting in Venice.

And the ongoing controversy about immigration has only made things worse. Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles increasingly see themselves as rivals competing for everything from jobs and control of neighborhoods to political power.

But it hasn’t always been this way, nor does it always have to be. A little-known chapter of L.A. history suggests that there was a time when the two groups saw themselves, at least briefly, as allies instead of competitors.

By 1943, Los Angeles was flooded with strangers. Blacks were arriving, by one estimate, at a rate of 3,500 to 5,000 a month from the South and Southwest. Whites as well were streaming in, to work in the defense plants and as soldiers on leave with time on their hands.

Strangers clashed on beaches, in ballrooms and streetcars and all across the city. L.A. was stretched thin as a thread -- and thread would be its undoing. The zoot suit, with its pegged trousers and long, wide-lapeled coat, was the outfit of choice for a rebellious, interracial youth culture in the 1940s, and it forced one to pick sides. Though its origins are obscure, by the early 1940s it was most closely associated in Los Angeles with pachucos -- young Mexican American street kids fashioning a mask of indolence.


To white Angelenos, particularly the sailors and soldiers stationed or on leave in Los Angeles, zoot-suiters were unpatriotic, hostile slackers. Then, in June, months of sidewalk jostling gave way to open warfare after a group of servicemen on leave claimed they had been attacked by a gang of pachucos.

In the days that followed, the tabloid press cheered on a wave of attacks on Latinos. These were the so-called zoot suit riots, though as later scholarship shows, victims weren’t just those unlucky enough to be caught wearing a “drape shape” but virtually anyone unlucky enough to be the wrong color.

Local radio stations helpfully broadcast tips about where the night’s fighting between whites and Latinos was likely to occur. Taxi drivers offered free rides to the action.

Under the poker-faced gaze of members of the Sheriff’s Department, military police and the Los Angeles Police Department, the riots raged for four nights in early June.

The mayhem might have gone on longer if blacks hadn’t entered the fray. They’d already been attacked in scattered actions from downtown to Watts. But on June 7, word spread that white sailors were expanding the battle and planned to mount that night’s assault on Central Avenue, in the heart of black Los Angeles.

Loren Miller was a pioneering black lawyer and journalist writing for the Los Angeles Sentinel in 1943 when he heard that blacks were massing along the busy intersection of 12th Street and Central. He called City Hall to warn Mayor Fletcher Bowron of what was coming.

“We were going to raise hell and see that anybody that came over in the Negro community looking around for any trouble was going to find plenty of trouble,” Miller said in an interview. "[I] told them that if anybody came up to 12th and Central, somebody was going to get killed, and I didn’t think it was going to be Negroes.”

But blacks, it turned out, didn’t have to fight alone. As word spread, at least 500 Latinos came into the neighborhood -- including members of the Jug Town, Adams, Clanton, Watts, 38th Street and Jardine gangs -- to fight on behalf of the black community against a common enemy. With their arrival, the battle of 12th Street was on.

Almena Lomax, editor and publisher of the black newspaper the Los Angeles Tribune, heard the call and headed for 12th Street, digging in at a soda fountain near the intersection. “The little Mexican girls were ferocious,” she said in an interview years later. “They had much more, they were much more tigers than Negro girls.”

Participant Rudy Leyvas described the scene later to a Los Angeles Times reporter: “All day we were just transferring guys from the neighborhoods into the city. The black people loaned us their cars to use,” he said. “Toward evening, we started hiding in alleys. Then we sent about 20 guys right out into the middle of the street as decoys. Then they came up in U.S. Navy trucks. There were many civilians too. There was at least as many of them as us. They started coming after the decoys, then we came out. They were surprised. It was the first time anybody was organized to fight back.”

The servicemen were in retreat when the Mexican Americans tried a rear-guard action to block their escape route. At that moment busloads of police arrived. Only the dark-skinned combatants were rounded up.

It was after the battle of 12th Street that military officials declared all of Los Angeles off-limits and confined servicemen to their bases. Perhaps this was a delayed reaction to days of violence. Or perhaps 12th Street, where black and brown working-class kids came together at malt stands and in alleys to defend common interests, sent a message the authorities couldn’t afford to ignore. Suddenly, putting people in their place became a little harder than it had been a week before.