While many people this month are focused on the controversy surrounding the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I have another civil-rights-related 40th anniversary on my mind. On Aug. 11, 1965, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles broke out in flames on the nation's television screens. Many cherish the memory as the moment when the militant became mainstream in a "fed-up" black America, replacing the nonviolent, gradualist efforts of old-guard civil rights leaders. The Watts riot indeed shaped modern black American history more decisively than the Voting Rights Act. The question is whether it was in a good way.
In comparison with the polite sleeve-tugging and forms of nonviolent protest typical of the earlier civil rights generation, the sea change in 1965 may seem at first glance to have been an overdue response to the injustice that black America had endured for so long. But after researching the riot and the policies established in its aftermath, I have come to a different conclusion. In teaching poor blacks that picturesque battle poses were an "authentic" substitute for constructive intentions, the "Burn, Baby, Burn" ethos ultimately did more harm than good to a people who had already been through more than enough.
The eternal question about the riots has been: Why did they happen just then? Leaders like Martin Luther King were baffled about this at the time, and the question is still relevant to assessing the black condition. In 1965, black Americans had been dealing with the short end of the stick for almost 400 years. If black American history from the early 1600s to 2005 could be condensed to 24 hours, then these riots took place at 10 p.m. Why not before?
The Watts riot began when white police officers stopped an intoxicated black driver in South Central Los Angeles. He resisted arrest and was forcibly subdued. A rumor quickly spread that the officers had beaten a pregnant black woman, and a growing mob started throwing rocks and bottles at the cops. The incident snowballed into a five-day conflagration, with blacks destroying a thousand businesses. Thirty-four people died, more than 1,000 were hospitalized and nearly 4,000 were arrested.
This was the first episode in a series of "long hot summers" in the late '60s, when blacks went on to riot and loot in one city after another. The Detroit rendition two years later was especially horrific, with 43 deaths, more than 7,200 arrests, and about 2,500 stores trashed.
The conventional wisdom at the time was that blacks were rebelling against the conditions they were forced to live in. I was born two months after Watts, but growing up, this was the justification I heard time and again. The Watts rioters lived in an America where about one in three black families lived below the poverty line while just a little more than one in 10 white families did. Twice as many black as white men were unemployed. Redlining policies barring blacks from white neighborhoods were in force until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 -- and under the table, even afterward.
But even so, there were a few too many things about the Watts riot and the later ones that did not quite make sense if they were to be seen as the outcome of injustice.
For one thing, these were the first urban race riots driven by blacks instead of whites. Before this, race riots in American cities involved white bigots storming into black neighborhoods and terrorizing residents, often because of rumors that a black man had "assaulted" a white woman, as was the case when whites torched the prosperous black quarter of Tulsa in 1921. For struggling blacks, burning down their own neighborhoods only became a part of the protest vocabulary in the mid-'60s -- just as the Great Society was getting into gear. Moreover, black rioters in Watts ruined black-owned businesses as lustily as white ones, even when stores had "Soul Brother" signs in the window. How was this a rebellion against racism?
Another strange thing: The worst riots happened in places where conditions for blacks were best. If one had to predict in August 1965 where black-led riots might be most likely, the obvious choice would have been the deep South. And yet, very few of the riots in the late '60s took place in the most bigoted region in America: There was no memorable race riot in Atlanta or Birmingham. As for Watts, just the year before the riots, the National Urban League had rated Los Angeles the best city in the nation for blacks to live in. Several studies have shown no correlation between the destructiveness of the black-led riots in a given city and conditions for blacks there.
Some suppose that the Civil Rights Act had dangled before blacks a promise of improvement that seemed to bear no fruit. But the Watts riot happened just one year after the Civil Rights Act came into effect. It is an insult to say that blacks would burn their own neighborhoods down in fury because America was not a brand-new place just months after passage of this legislation, as if change ever occurs that fast. And there had been smaller black-led riots in a few places such as Harlem and Rochester in July of 1964 -- just after the Civil Rights Act was signed.
In general, black America had been "fed up" for centuries before 1965. A useful black history must identify a different factor that sparked the events in Watts and across the land. This factor was a new mood. Only in the 1960s did a significant number of blacks start treating rebellion for its own sake -- rebellion as performance, with no plan of action behind it -- as political activism.
This did not come from nowhere, to be sure -- and where it came from was whites. In the '60s, it became a hallmark of moral sophistication among whites to reject establishment mores, culminating in the counterculture movement. The movement was based initially on laudable intentions: Few today could condemn young, informed whites for rising up against political censorship, racism and later the Vietnam War, or a newly concerned white ruling class for turning its attention to poverty and its disproportionate impact on black people.
But political rebellion always leaves in its wake people who are moved more by the sheer theatrics of acting up than by the actual goals of the protest. At the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, for example, the Free Speech Movement rose up against indefensible suppression of students' speaking truth to power. But on the same campus the following year, a new bunch started the "Filthy Speech Movement," based on emblazoning curse words on placards and watching the suits squirm. It was rebellion for rebellion's sake.
That kind of unintentional by-product of genuine activism hit black America between the eyes. Seasoned black civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph -- who had made real, if gradual, progress in the struggle -- watched as younger sorts shunned their brass-tacks lobbying and rhetorical persuasion in favor of high-profile altercations, preferably involving getting arrested on television. In 1963, Rustin told the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that "the ability to go to jail should not be substituted for an overall social reform program." But Rustin's speech didn't go over too well with SNCC that night, and three years later, the group edged out undramatic but proactive John Lewis as its leader in favor of rabble-rousing polemicist Stokely Carmichael. Acting out was now the main point.
The idea that rebellion for its own sake was the soul of black authenticity began with some charismatic figures like Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, but soon imprinted a new generation of black artists and intellectuals. The new mood was seductive in its visceral impact, especially to a people whose history had given them so little else to base an identity upon.
Certainly not all blacks fell for it. But enough did that some hotheads surrounding some police cars in Watts one night could spark a vast rebellion instead of being shouted down and ignored.Why not just embrace August 1965 as the time when black America, for whatever reason, started "speaking up?" Because to settle for this is to ignore the destruction of black communities that the new mood left in its wake.
This was not only the physical destruction still on view in the black sections of cities like Detroit, or in less renowned cities like Indianapolis, where solid businesses never returned after the 1967 riot, leaving once-fabled Indiana Avenue hard to imagine as anything but the downmarket stretch that it has since been. There is the deeper destruction that was ultimately wrought. The hopeless plight of today's black inner city is often blamed on the flight of low-skilled factory jobs and the rise of drugs in poor urban neighborhoods. These factors surely contributed to inner-city misery, but my research leads me to conclude that they were hardly the leading causes of the psychic deterioration that soon overtook poor black America. That, instead, was the urban welfare state that was in large part the product of the model of high-pitched, menacing protest that had now been established.
That model was quickly taken up by the National Welfare Rights Organization the year after Watts. As has been documented in many studies, Columbia University professors Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven declared to the press and beyond that poor blacks would be better off seeking welfare payments than working in low-level jobs. They explicitly predicted that if they brought enough people onto the welfare rolls, it would force the government to give a guaranteed income to all poor people. They taught a squadron of activists, many of them black women, to stage rallies across the country and disrupt public meetings calling for welfare to be easier to get, more generous and easier to stay on.
Rarely has radical idealism had such a destructive effect on so many lives. Before the '60s, welfare payments had been intended for widows and women whose children's fathers were nowhere to be found. But in the wake of the new agitation, municipal governments relaxed the old requirements bit by bit.
The new politics of protest was a potent weapon. The riots loomed always as a threat (partly because the Black Panthers loomed menacingly at many of the rallies), and many politicians knuckled under. From 1966 to 1970, the number of people on welfare nationwide doubled from under 500,000 to almost a million. This was not part of Washington's Great Society agenda, which focused on job creation and training. It was a radical side effort, with grievous consequences.
The change was most profound in black communities -- because blacks had been the main target of the recruitment efforts. In Indiana from 1964 to 1972, welfare recipiency tripled in only 11 of 92 counties. Of those 11, only one did not have a heavy black population -- in a state where about 75 counties were almost all white and poverty widespread in about 30 of them.
Over the next 30 years, multigenerational families lived on government money, fathers had no incentive to take care of the children they made, and poor black communities devolved from shabby but stable slums into hopeless, violent deathscapes. This lasted for so long that the precarious stability of old-time black communities was all but forgotten. But while communities changed, black attitude and political protest as performance has come to seem normal. The models for leadership are not Shirley Chisholms, but talkers like Al Sharpton. And when a spark falls, like the Rodney King verdict in 1992, the same impulses and often the same type of violence travel through black communities as did in Watts.
These are the sad examples of what happened when agitprop went mainstream in black activism. The Watts riots were useful in helping push racial injustice further into the national conversation. But the kind of protest model Watts exemplified would best have been left on the margins, as it had always been.
The new mood that the Watts riots inaugurated was a tragedy for black America, dragging poor blacks into depths of malaise they might never have known otherwise. This is why the Voting Rights Act is not the only reason that 1965 is the year that black America must never forget.