In 1965, as Watts erupted in violent unrest, Tony Welton and his teenage friends walked by a market on Avalon Boulevard and Imperial Highway. They cursed it for the way it sold spoiled meat and rotten fruit to customers without the money or means to shop elsewhere.
The thought crossed their minds that they should burn it down.
They didn’t have to light a match. The market was one of the first businesses destroyed as bands of rioters took control of the streets, attacking white motorists and torching buildings while snipers shot at firefighters who tried to tamp down the flames.
As he sat pushing knights and pawns across a chessboard two weeks ago at the Lancaster Senior Center, Welton, 68, reflected on how the events 50 years ago this week shifted and failed to shift the racial power equation in America.
After the riots, he said, he felt a sense of hope that things would change quickly because, at last, whites had seen the reality of how blacks lived.
Now, like many, he points to recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore as reason to question how far the country has really come.
“I thought we would have elevated ourselves into more . . . unity,” he said.
A measure of support followed the riots. “You had more people in the general community who became sensitized to the plight of African Americans,” says former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, who served on the staff of the McCone Commission, which studied the root causes of the upheaval.
The complexity of those causes made solutions daunting.
Great waves of black migrants had arrived from Texas and Louisiana during World War II to claim jobs in the defense industries. The Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts housing projects in Watts were built to house those workers.
Between 1940 and 1965, the black population in Los Angeles County jumped from 75,000 to 650,000, with two-thirds in the South Los Angeles area.
The frustration that black people endured all over the country intensified in Los Angeles, as bleak reality dashed the Southern migrants’ high expectations.
Public transportation from South Los Angeles to the Hughes Aircraft plant in Culver City or the General Motors facility in Panorama City was nearly impossible. And in peacetime, those jobs slowly evaporated. Many men idled as their wives trudged off to work as housekeepers in the white neighborhoods surrounding them.
Feeling under siege from an overwhelmingly white police force, black residents rioted in part, historians have noted, against powerlessness.
Burke says that greater political power did come in the years after the riots as coalitions between the black community and other liberal constituencies, including Hollywood, pushed black leaders into elective office.
But by the late 1980s, stagnant economic conditions and gang warfare were pushing many African Americans out of Los Angeles and back to Texas, Louisiana and Atlanta, or to scattered exurbs such as San Bernardino, the Moreno Valley and the Antelope Valley, diffusing the budding power base.
Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates argues that continued racial tension between police and African Americans actually stems, in part, from the battles on Los Angeles streets in 1965.
“Watts,” he says, “brought the economic nature of oppression . . . to the nation’s attention [and marked] the beginning of the end of the civil rights movement and the birth of a more subtle and nuanced and complex kind of analysis.”
And, Gates says, it also brought about a more militarized form of policing, as LAPD Chief William Parker and his successors’ tactics for stamping out future riots were adopted by police agencies nationwide.
The tension between police and African Americans, combined with poverty and racism that helped set off Watts, is still smoldering says Patrisse Cullors, a native Angeleno and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.
She says: “Fifty years ago, there were young black people trying to fix that crisis and put it on America’s radar. There is still a crisis in the black community.”
Farajii Muhammad, 36, an activist and radio host in Baltimore, also draws connections between this moment of #BlackLivesMatter protest and the time when people shouted “Burn, baby, burn.”
Yes, he acknowledges, black people have made tremendous strides, rising into professions and positions of leadership. But he adds that any visitor to Baltimore today “would see Watts . . . because of the same economic conditions, the same employment conditions, the lack of educational opportunities and just the overall culture of violence and hopelessness.”