The Watts riots: What the editorial board thought then

Los Angeles police officers stand guard as debris from  a day of violence is cleared from the intersection of Avalon Boulevard and Imperial Highway. Staff file photo from 1965 Watts riots.
(Los Angeles Times)

On the early evening of Aug. 11, 1965, what should have been a routine DUI arrest by a California Highway Patrol motorcycle cop turned into one of the nation’s worst urban riots with 34 people killed, more than 1,000 reported injured, at least 200 buildings destroyed by fire and more than 400 structures damaged by looters and arsonists. It wasn’t the first riot during those fractious times -- Harlem and Philadelphia erupted the previous year -- nor the deadliest -- Detroit would take that honor two years later -- but its scope and brutality jarred the nation. 

The Times editorial board, naturally, weighed in on the events, and reading those editorials a half-century later gives one the sense of a board both caught by surprise at the depth of frustration among the city’s African Americans and oblivious to the role the Los Angeles Police Department played in feeding it. The first editorial didn’t seem to recognize race as a key ingredient in the fast-growing unrest, though the board caught up by the second editorial.

The board at the time was deeply supportive of the city police department and stood firmly with Chief William Parker in his overwhelmed efforts to quell the violence -- something that took the National Guard and five days of violent venting to achieve. Soon, commissions spotlighted the underlying problems and frustrations that culminated in such a communal expression of rage.

The board is different now of course, as are the times. But I’ve been wondering how today’s board would have responded were we transported back to 1965. My guess is we’d offer more nuanced support for the police, recognizing the central role the department plays in maintaining public safety, but also cognizant of its shortcomings and failures. And while recognizing the persistent underlying problems of segregation and inequality, we likely would have condemned a community resorting to violence. But who knows for sure -- and it’s a series of editorials I hope we never have to write.


Here are those days of rage as viewed by the board then, trailed out in chronological order beginning 50 years ago today:


A Summer Carnival of Riot (Aug. 13)

A hot night, an area of simmering tension, a routine police arrest of a drunk driving suspect -- and suddenly Los Angeles is faced with a full-scale riot and boastful threats of more to come. 


Was what happened in south Los Angeles during the sultry evening and early morning hours Wednesday and Thursday only the first act of an explosive drama?

Civil, welfare, and law enforcement authorities moved Thursday with commendable speed, in a variety of ways, to try to damp down this danger. How successful they were is, at this writing, not known. But if self-proclaimed “spokesmen” in the south Los Angeles area can be taken at their word, the job of those seeking to prevent further disorders won’t be easy.

The facts of what occurred the other evening are simple enough. Police attempting to do their duty were interfered with, a mob quickly formed, rioting erupted. The area where all this took place has a predominantly Negro population. But there is no reason to believe that the outbreak was, in any sense, a race riot.

The mob that ran wild did not attack only whites, or even police. Indiscriminately, bystanders were assaulted and injured. Indiscriminately, vehicles were stoned. Newsmen were attacked, stores were looted, at least one auto was burned. Of the 34 arrests made, seven were on charges of assault with a deadly weapon.


Explanations for the orgy of lawlessness are not hard to find. It took place in an atmosphere where the potential for violence is high, in weather conducive to such outbreaks. The members of the largely-youthful mob were undoubtedly filled with a variety of discontents and grievances of long standing. The events of the evening provided the opportunity to give their discontents irrational expression.

Uniformed police, representing authority and the society from which the youths no doubt feel estranged, were the first targets. But in short order anyone came to serve as a victim. As always happens in such carnivals of hell-raising, the innocent, particularly the residents of the area, quickly became sufferers.

What happened the other night may well have been symptomatic of more serious underlying conditions, which should and are being treated. But the immediate concern remains adequate law-enforcement, to make the streets safe, day and night. The police are doing their job, and doing it well. They need -- must have -- the support of all citizens if they are truly to succeed. 



Anarchy Must End (Aug. 14)

Race rioting has brought anarchy to a crowded area of south Los Angeles. Terrorism is spreading.

Whatever its root causes, the chaos which has gripped the city for three days and three nights must be halted forthwith.

If the National Guardsmen belatedly sent to the relief of Chief Parker’s outnumbered police, sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrolmen are not enough, additional hundreds must be provided at once.


Now that kid-glove measures have failed, the sternest possible steps must be taken to quell the madness before mob violence becomes mass murder. During this all-out effort, citizens are requested to stay out of the riot area. If they live in the vicinity, they are strongly urged to remain in their homes.

Only after sanity is restored can there be any meaningful talk about long-range cures of the basic problems involved.


A Time for Prayer (Aug. 15)


There are no words to express the shock, the sick horror, that a civilized city feels at a moment like this.

It could not happen in Los Angeles. But it did. And the shameless, senseless, bloody rioting continues unabated after the four ugliest days in our history.

Decent citizens everywhere, regardless of color, can only pray that this anarchy will soon end.

Meanwhile the community, watching, waiting, praying, becomes aware each moment of the debt owed its heroic law enforcement and fire fighting personnel. These men deserve the highest praise for their splendid efforts under unbelievably difficult conditions.


Those people living in the riot areas who have been helping to care for the wounded and injured also deserve the gratitude of the city.

Fortunately the law enforcement personnel have been joined by major units of the National Guard. Now, as on Wednesday night, the first grim order of business is to put down what amounts to civil insurrection, using every method available.

After that we can count the cost, salve our wounds, and seek some way to prevent forever the recurrence of another such appalling act.



[NOTE: There was no editorial on the rioting on Aug. 16, but the board made up for it with two the next day, one looking outward at the recently signed Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- wrapped together in the editorial with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- and the other assessing, again, the damage to the city, what it meant, and suggesting a path forward. 


Who Will Now Share the Load (Aug. 17)

One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the American Negro, most classically underprivileged of all U.S. minorities, has won his battle for civil rights and lawful freedoms.


His victory came through the selfless efforts of a heavy congressional majority which passed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964-65.

It appeared, this summer, that the moment had arrived for consolidation of these overdue gains, for application in fact of these legal principles.

Meanwhile responsible leaders of the general public, headed by President Johnson, and of the national Negro community urged that Negroes proceed in orderly fashion to secure still other advantages so long denied them: better education, better jobs, better housing.

With ironic prophecy, in a column written on the eve of Los Angeles’ racial holocaust, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP wondered: “Will Negro citizens now pitch in for the unglamorous work, out of the spotlight, that will prepare and send the individual Negro through the doors that have been opened?”


He concluded: “The sober majority in the Negro community and in its leadership will distinguish itself in the degree that it adapts to the new era.”

Now that a precarious peace has been established in the ravaged area, certain basic truths should be recognized:

- What happened here was not the doing of the Negro majority in Los Angeles. Far from it. Innocent Negroes were among the saddest victims of the burning and looting.

- It would be wrong to allow the riots to impede steady progress on the legitimate civil rights front.


Nevertheless, in the white heat of emotions generated in recent days, there will be a tendency for some to lash out against the Negro community in general, against the “situation” that let all this develop.

A terrible responsibility rests upon white and Negro alike, to chart both the immediate and long-range courses that must be followed if we are to emerge from the present crisis without precipitating another.

To a sobering degree, this burden falls upon the spokesmen for the Negro community, whose voices have not always contributed to the understanding so badly needed today.  

Even by inference, none should condone the criminals terrorism, or dismiss it as the inevitable result of economic and sociological pressures.


President Johnson said it well on Sunday: “There is no greater wrong, in our democracy, than violent, willful disregard of law. If men live decently it is because obedience to legal process saved their lives and allowed them to enlarge those lives.”

In his speech June 4 at Howard University, a predominantly Negro institution, Mr. Johnson looked ahead to “the next great battle in the civil rights movement” – “to shatter forever, not only the barriers of law and public practice, but the walls which bound the conditions of man by the color of his skin.”

That effort, tragically, may have been set back to an incalculable degree.

It need not necessarily be so. But only the genuine, whole-souled effort of all concerned, whatever their ethnic origin, will determine whether we can abandon narrow racial politics in favor of an enlightened area-wide approach to this crushing problem.



A City Demands the Answers (Aug. 17)

Los Angeles’ long ordeal of bloodshed and destruction finally appears to be ending. And in its wake a stunned city demands to know how it could happen here -- and how another such nightmare can be prevented.

A large section of South Los Angeles lies gutted and pillaged. Tens of thousands of persons face hunger and privation as the result of the senseless rioting.


Somehow they must be fed. Somehow the stores and businesses upon which they depended must be rebuilt. But how?

The official leadership not always evident during the height of the crisis must now be exerted forcefully to assure the safety of all citizens and to help the riot’s direct and indirect victims.

Gov. Brown should move without delay to appoint a citizens’ commission of the highest quality to conduct a thorough independent inquiry into the causes and circumstances of the riot.

The commission must determine why National Guard troops were not more quickly dispatched to the riot area once it became obvious local law enforcement officers were over-extended. Whether the delay was the result of some official’s hesitation or inadequate presence of soldiers in sizeable numbers probably could have had a material effect upon the course of the rioting.


The commission should be cautious of irresponsible criticism of the Los Angeles Police Department and its chief, William H. Parker, which only detracts from the courage and effectiveness of the city’s police and fire personnel under incredibly difficult circumstances. Nonetheless, the commission should concern itself with the possible need of better communications between law enforcement and the Negro community, so that doubts and suspicions can no longer be inflamed into bloody defiance of all law and order.

It seems clear that the re-establishment of peace and order in the riot area and the continued protection of the rest of the city will require an increase in the size of the police department.

Finally, immediate and long-range action must be taken to restore South Los Angeles. The owners of businesses destroyed by rioters must not only be helped to rebuild but also given guarantees that they will be protected and that some means be found to indemnify them against future disorders.

The effects of the South Los Angeles riots will not be easily erased. But out of the rubble must come positive plans and action which will assure that these days and nights of terror will not return.


Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.