Newspaper Editorializes about the ‘Injury of Innocents’ in the Watts Riots
The following editorial by a Texas newspaper presents a conservative view of the bloody, destructive riots then raging in Watts, the predominantly African-American area of Los Angeles, California, in August 1965. The editorial takes a strong stand—yet in its seemingly clear position and the arguments it musters to support its point of view, it reflects the underlying uncertainty and complexity that makes it difficult to understand something as terrifying and complicated as a race riot.
It begins by glossing over the situation faced by most residents of Watts in the summer of 1965, making the claim that “California has perhaps as little racial discrimination as any state in the Union,” and stating that there are no “racial bars” to jobs. However, the year before the riots began California voters, by an overwhelming 65% majority vote, approved California Proposition 14—a state constitutional amendment that nullified the 1963 Rumford Fair Housing Act. This act was designed to end racial discrimination by landlords and property owners against “colored” customers who wanted to rent or buy their property. African-Americans and other minorities in California were upset at having their housing protections taken away (Proposition 14 was later declared unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court in 1966, a ruling upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967).
A copyrighted Associated Press article printed by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) on Aug. 14, 1965, gave these facts to better understand why there was so much tension and simmering rage in Watts:
Segregation: 98% of Watts is Negro.
Crowding: Watts has 27.3 persons per acre, compared with a county average of 7.4.
Unemployment: Each month 1,000 Negroes come to Los Angeles, most to Watts, the city’s largest pocket of Negro population. Many are jobless.
Civic blight: Most of the buildings in Watts date to past decades when the area was still white. Many stores stand empty.
Hatred of police: From the 77th Street police station the city of Los Angeles enforces the laws in Watts with 205 men—five of them Negroes. Civil rights workers have compared the station to the headquarters of “an occupying power.”
These points contradict the Texas editorial’s contention that “There was no justification or even reason for such behavior.” Certainly, there is no justification for the rioters’ violence and destruction, but to say there is no reason for their angry rampage is to ignore the existing conditions in Watts. And yet, the editorial does make some thoughtful comments about ending “de facto” segregation, and points out the importance of individuals taking responsibility for their actions.
This copyrighted editorial was printed by the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) on Aug. 14, 1965, the fourth day of the Watts Riots:
The Injury of Innocents
The tragedy of the senseless riots in a Negro section of Los Angeles is that they will hurt innocent people who had nothing to do with the violence.
California has perhaps as little racial discrimination as any state in the Union. If anything, the law and courts lean in the other direction. Public accommodations are integrated; there are no racial bars to voting or jobs.
Yet thousands of Negroes have gathered in the Watts area of Los Angeles recently to stage deliberate race riots. They have run wild, burning cars, beating up motorists, looting stores. There was no justification or even reason for such behavior. It was, as a police spokesman said, “rebellion against authority…any authority.”
But the greatest damage inflicted by the mobs is to the hundreds of thousands of decent, law-abiding Negroes who live in Los Angeles. Lawless behavior of this sort, by focusing anger and fear on the Negro race, helps to perpetuate what civil rights groups call de facto segregation.
De facto segregation, unlike segregation by law, is the result of decision by individuals. It cannot be eliminated by marches, sit-ins or bloc voting. It occurs when Negro families move into a neighborhood and the white families move out. Antisocial behavior of the type displayed in Los Angeles is a big factor in causing whites to make the decision.
Obviously this situation is unfair to Negroes who are as responsible citizens as their new neighbors. Decent Negroes are no more to blame for the Negro mobs than are decent whites for the riots staged by white punks. But the situation does exist and attempts of some civil rights leaders to excuse lawlessness by mobs or by individuals or to blame it on history or society do not improve matters.
Most whites still believe that the individual is responsible for his actions, that if a man takes to the streets to commit arson and assault he, and not society, is to blame. This belief is logical.
Unfortunately many hold the less-logical belief that the man’s race is also somehow to blame, if he is of a different minority. Illogical or not, the belief is widely held and it is today one of the chief obstructions to real integration.
This being the case, it would seem that those who hope to end de facto segregation might help their cause best by working to prevent antisocial actions within their own race instead of seeking scapegoats in government or “power structures.” Such actions are doing far greater injury to their cause than anything done by white supremacy groups.
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