Justice  /  Antecedent

Understanding Today’s Uprisings Requires Understanding What Came Before Them

The media must make the long years of organizing as visible as the eruptions and uprisings.

Fifty-five years ago, five days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, police pulled over Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old Black man, for drunken driving. When officers began beating Frye and his mother, a crowd began throwing rocks and bottles — and Watts in Los Angeles erupted in five days of rebellion. By the end, 34 people were dead and more than 1,000 injured — most at the hands of law enforcement. The nation was “shocked” at Black anger.

This is the basic narrative of the 1965 Watts uprising taught in schools — typically the first introduction Americans get to the Black struggle outside the South. In this version of the story, Black Southern activists nobly pursue nonviolent protest, Northern White liberals are the good guys who help the Southern struggle and Northern Black communities are angry and don’t use the proper methods to pursue change. Former president Bill Clinton recently reiterated this framing at U.S. Rep. John Lewis’s funeral — distinguishing the “good trouble” Lewis caused from the unruly trouble Harlem-raised Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael promoted.

This distorted narrative has contemporary parallels to the ways the media is framing present-day uprisings from Seattle to Minneapolis to New York. The story largely turns on recent incidences of police abuse and uprising rather than the years of struggle in these very blue cities that political leaders and local residents — many of whom consider themselves open and progressive — pushed aside. To start the story earlier would mean holding accountable the public officials who treated activists as unreasonable and impatient or who bemoaned police brutality or school inequality but did not rise to action.

This historically inaccurate narrative also sidesteps the ways Northern Whites might have pushed for change in the South but, faced with movements in their own cities, stalled and refused. In the case of Watts, Black community activists challenged school and housing segregation and police brutality for decades but were dismissed by public officials and residents. Recognizing the movement before the Watts uprising thus means recognizing the failure of the White power structure to support it and the grounds that produced the uprising. “As the nation, Negro and white, trembled with outrage at police brutality in the South,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1965, “police misconduct in the North was rationalized, tolerated, and usually denied.”

A real understanding of Watts — and of where we are today — must begin with the movements that preceded it.

Local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality and the American Civil Liberties Union, along with the Nation of Islam, built movements to challenge Los Angeles’s pervasive school and housing segregation, job exclusion and police brutality in the decade before the uprising but got little change. White Los Angeles residents developed a variety of mechanisms to deflect growing Black protest. They diminished the problem and asked for proof, convened committee after committee to “study the issue” and demonized Black activists as “troublemakers.” They framed Black culture and crime as the problem holding Black people back, which thus also necessitated strong-arm policing. Seeing themselves as open and progressive, many White Californians pushed for change in the South but underplayed local injustice — California, as Gov. Pat Brown (D) termed it, was a “state without racial discrimination.”

In 1961, the NAACP brought a tabulation of incidences of police brutality to the Los Angeles Police Commission. Nothing was done. On April 27, 1962, an altercation ensued outside Muslim Temple 27. Los Angeles police killed Ronald Stokes, the 29-year-old unarmed secretary of the local Nation of Islam (NOI), paralyzed William Rogers and wounded five others. Malcolm X made an emergency trip to the city to join 3,000 people including NAACP leaders the Rev. Maurice Dawkins and African Blood Brotherhood founder Cyril Briggs at a packed meeting at Second Avenue Baptist Church. That growing united front movement continued, even after Elijah Muhammad pulled Malcolm X out of Los Angeles.

Even though none of the seven men was armed, the public inquest into Stokes’s death found the police shooting “justified” in “self-defense.” The city then went on to indict 14 members of the NOI on 40 counts of assault and resisting arrest. The NOI used the trial of its members to continue to shine a light on police brutality: filling the courtroom, leafleting about police brutality and writing articles on the trial for its newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. And yet 11 of the 14 men were found guilty by an all-White jury.

In June 1963, 76 community and political groups in the city formed the United Civil Rights Council (UCRC) to take on housing and school segregation, job discrimination and police brutality. National NAACP head Roy Wilkins cited the city’s “long reputation under Chief Parker for police brutality.” But Mayor Sam Yorty criticized the NAACP for “bringing about the very conditions [of aggressive policing] that they are complaining about.” He created a blue-ribbon committee to look into the issue, but nothing changed.

King made several trips to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to join with local activists — returning shortly after he got out of jail in Birmingham to address a 30,000-person rally at Wrigley Field (the home of the minor league Hollywood Stars) in May 1963: “You asked me what Los Angeles can do to help us in Birmingham. The most important thing that you can do is to set Los Angeles free, because you have segregation and discrimination here, and police brutality.” He returned a year later to join the campaign against Proposition 14, a cleverly worded ballot measure to overturn the recently passed, long-fought-for state fair-housing law. In November, 3 out of 4 White Californians “voted for ghettos,” as King put it, and the proposition passed.

When Watts erupted in August 1965, King came to Los Angeles and called for a Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee community complaints against the police. His suggestion was angrily shot down by Police Chief William Parker, while Yorty accused King of advocating Black “lawlessness.”

While the city’s premier newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, had covered these protests for years, it promptly forgot about them in the wake of Watts. Instead the paper echoed the shock and dismay of public officials: “What happened the other night may well have been symptomatic of more serious underlying conditions, which should and are being treated. …. The police are doing their job and doing it well.” Describing Los Angeles as a civilized city, the lesson the editors drew from the rebellion was to call for “an increase in the size of the police force.”

Even 50 years later, as the Los Angeles Times reflected on its coverage of the uprising (which had garnered it a Pulitzer Prize) and “unskeptical deference to public officials,” particularly the LAPD, it didn’t notice the most glaring omission within its coverage. It hadn’t called on public officials and the city at large to account for long-standing Black protests against segregation and police brutality for years before the rebellion that garnered almost no city action.

In similar fashion, journalists today covering widespread protests of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have not forced city and national leaders to account for years of protests against police brutality with little redress. Many media outlets have not examined their own pages for their lack of urgency around these issues.

Activists have worked for years (and some for decades) to bring about necessary changes in American policing. But their movements have been strung along or disparaged. For years, Black Lives Matter activists have been criticized for their tactics and told to “be more like Dr. King” — even though, as Rosa Parks reminded a journalist critiquing Black Power tactics in 1970, “Dr. King was criticized because he tried to bring about change through the nonviolent movement.”

Starting the story with the uprisings lets the public — state and federal officials, local residents and media organizations — off the hook. Recognizing this history of protest before the Watts uprising invites us to change course and insist on a different sort of accountability.