In the wake of the Watts riots, Budd Schulberg helped to found the Watts Writers Workshop, mentoring African American writers such as Coleman, Quincy Troupe, Eric Priestley and the performance poetry group the Watts Prophets. In the wake of Watts, the city catalyzed around a variety of elements, not least the iconography of the fires, of L.A. turning inward to devour itself. "The city burning," Joan Didion wrote in her 1967 essay "Los Angeles Notebook," tracing the line of a more extensive history, "is Los Angeles's deepest image of itself: Nathanael West perceived that, in 'The Day of the Locust'; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end."
No equivalent sense of history emerges when we think about 1992. Instead, we are left with fragments, snapshots, the loose tiles of what former Mayor Tom Bradley liked to call "the glorious mosaic," which the riots revealed to be a lie. That's true even of King's memoir "The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption" (HarperOne: 245 pp., $25.99), which seeks to capitalize on the 20th anniversary of the riots but never offers a coherent point of view. It's unfair, perhaps, to expect this of King, who was thrust, or thrust himself, into a situation beyond his control. Nonetheless, it's also emblematic of the vagaries, the displacement, the lack of a collective vision, our inability even now to take a broad, inclusive perspective on the riots and what they mean.