It was career day at Markham Junior High School in Watts. I was one of 95 speakers invited to give the students a pep talk about preparing for careers. Some of the speakers were surprised to see almost as many Latino and Asian students as black students in Watts, a community long synonymous with urban black poverty and rage. Watts is now nearly 50% Latino, with a growing Asian population. The students were orderly, respectful and asked many questions. They seemed filled with enthusiasm and hope for their future.
Thirty years ago, it was different. Then, Watts, a 10-square-mile corner of unincorporated county territory near the Harbor Freeway, was almost exclusively a poor black community. It erupted on Aug. 11, 1965, and the conflagration spread across South Los Angeles for six days before it was contained.
I lived in the curfew area, and I remember the fires and the gunfire. I recall the desperation of the rioters as they pillaged stores and shouted "Burn baby burn!" Many considered it a "payback" for a century of racism and violence against blacks. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Watts in an effort to stop the violence, he was shouted down by young toughs.
The Watts riots marked the beginning of the end of the era of black and white cooperation. The civil rights moderates had lost control. To many poor blacks, nonviolent marches and demonstrations seemed a worthless antidote to the cycle of poverty, violence and neglect. Many embraced the call by black militants Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims for black power, armed confrontation and separatism. In the next few years, Detroit, Newark, Washington and dozens of other cities erupted into violence and destruction.
Watts also made many whites skeptical about the civil rights movement; they saw that the crisis of the ghetto was a powder keg that could reach their neighborhoods. These fears forced politicians to scramble to find solutions to the racial crisis. In California, the McCone Commission appointed by Gov. Edmund (Pat) Brown called for modest police reform and increased spending on job and social programs. Across the country, after each riot, hastily formed commissions and blue-ribbon panels issued reports that came to the same conclusion as McCone: Racial peace could be bought with more money, more jobs and more social services.
This sounded like a reward for criminal behavior to many whites. They believed that blacks had gone too far and it was time to pull in the reins. The McCone Commission's recommendations were mostly ignored. The few piecemeal, badly mismanaged poverty programs, slapped together to cool off the ghetto, did little to relieve the misery of the black poor.
When Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, politicians and the public became even more reluctant to escalate the war on poverty and spend more on domestic programs. The black poor, lacking competitive skills and training, were shoved even further to the outer economic fringe. Their anger turned to cynicism and despair. Many turned to welfare, guns, gangs and drugs to survive.
Civil rights leaders and organizations did not help. They defined the "black agenda" in increasingly narrow terms. Affirmative action, economic parity, professional advancement and busing replaced poverty, unemployment, quality education, police abuse and political empowerment as the goals that all African Americans should fight for. Upwardly mobile blacks, boosted by affirmative action, began their own flight from the inner city, further draining talent, skills and leadership. Economic shrinkage, government budget cuts and the elimination of job and social programs dumped more and more blacks into the ranks of the underclass.
Urban areas like Watts are still routinely depicted by the media as vast wastelands of violence and despair. Republicans, many Democrats and much of the public regard any spending on social programs for the poor as wasteful and ineffective. While some programs are, the federal funds and private dollars that have been spent in Watts during the past 30 years have not been squandered. Watts can now boast of two shopping centers, a Metro Blue Line transit station, a state-of-the-art county library branch under construction and an Enterprise Zone. The Watts Health Foundation operates a comprehensive health care center. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee provides job and skills training, renter subsidies and transportation services. The Watts Towers attracts thousands of visitors annually. Black and Latino residents culturally interact in their annual Cinco de Mayo parade and Black History Month celebration. Habitat for Humanity, founded by former President Jimmy Carter, recently built nearly two dozen new single-family homes in Watts.
Residents have formed neighborhood watches and community councils to combat drugs and gang violence and to demand more funding for jobs, skills training, recreation facilities, housing development and improved services. That spirit of cooperation was evident during the 1992 riots. In addition to 57 fatalities, people in Los Angeles, Compton and Long Beach suffered millions in property damage and hundreds of injuries. The damage in Watts was minimal.
Watts has not found its nirvana. It is still plagued by the familiar urban ills of poverty, violence, gangs, crime and drugs. But the image of Watts as the national symbol of destruction and despair should be buried. The students at Markham Junior High School proved that to me.