IT WAS EXACTLY 40 years ago today that I, a WASPy, Southern-bred Newsweek reporter in a Brooks Brothers suit and a crew cut, was attacked and almost beaten to death by angry blacks in a melee on a smoggy street in South-Central Los Angeles.
I’d been in Watts all that day, reporting on protests over the fatal shooting by a white L.A. cop of a 25-year-old black man speeding to the hospital with his pregnant wife. The man, Leonard Deadwyler, had been slain at the wheel of his car several days earlier, but anger was growing; that morning, a Los Angeles Times headline read: “Bitter Negroes Mourn Man Killed by Policeman’s Bullet.” It was nine months after the Watts riots.
Earlier in the day, a march on the 77th Street Precinct station had been turned back by cops on the roof pointing guns. Seething frustration finally ignited into violence when somebody heaved a brick through the window of a white-owned liquor store at 84th and Manchester. That’s when I ran back to my car to put away my camera, which was always a lightning rod in these situations.
Suddenly, it was lights out for me. A blow to the back of my head knocked me unconscious. A crowd gathered around, I was later told, using their fists and feet in an apparent attempt to stomp me to death.
Coming to on the hot pavement, with blood running down my arm from my split-open head, I saw a bloody chunk of a 4-by-4 wooden post beside me and angry black faces above me, voices growling and cursing at me. An ambulance finally got through, and some men pulled me out of there and took me to Daniel Freeman Hospital, where I was treated for two broken jaws, a fractured skull and many bruises and cuts.
The physical damage was pretty serious, but it was the psychic shock that stayed with me the longest. I had spent the previous five years in the South, reporting on the major flashpoints of the civil rights struggle. There, black people had been my friends and my sometimes protectors, and it was always white people angered by the black struggle who I’d had to fear. I had been threatened and tailed, had my phone tapped and been beaten and even shot at while working as a reporter.
I’d seen whites do things to black people that filled me with shame and rage -- in the South and out of it -- including overt acts of racism and violence by Los Angeles Police Department cops just as raw as what I’d seen in Alabama and Mississippi. I also knew about the lack of jobs, poor education, broken homes and lack of healthcare that young black men experienced in South-Central.
But I’d never expected to be the target of violence committed by blacks.
So my feelings were confused. And when the media came to interview me in the hospital (a white reporter beaten by blacks was big news), I gave them an answer I am sure surprised them; it even surprised me a bit. I said that knowing what I did about what black kids growing up in Watts went through, I might, were I one of them, feel like hitting some anonymous white guy in the head too.
What else could I say? How could I, who had carried so much anger myself against my fellow whites, be angry at young blacks whose anger at whites I so well understood? On the other hand, I had loathed violence and the misuse of power since being bullied growing up in an all-white North Carolina orphanage. Growing up tough, I had been taught that it was cowardly not to fight back physically if attacked. But I had learned a new meaning of courage from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom I had watched walk toward beatings, jail and possible death in peace and forgiveness.
Forty years later, much has changed racially for the better, not only in my native South but in black Los Angeles as well. Though pernicious problems persist, especially among young black males, a huge black middle class has emerged. Recently I visited the long-since rebuilt 77th Street Precinct station, once a fortress-like symbol of white police oppression. A black cop and a Latino cop greeted me with smiles at the front desk. Children’s art decorated the walls; off to the side in a community room, an Explorer Scout troop was having a buffet fundraiser.
I have changed too. I no longer think often about the handful of people who attacked me, nor do I feel very angry toward the many whites I saw attack blacks. What I feel most is pure admiration toward the 100 or so brave young people, led by King in the mid-1960s, who literally changed this country.
What they did, completely without violence, led to the passage of the federal Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts and to the founding of the antiwar movement, the women’s movement and the gay rights movement. Because of what they did, more people in this country have more rights. That’s what I remember.