Watts: The day the mirror cracked


Late last month, a University of Cincinnati police officer was indicted for murder for the unprovoked killing of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed African-American motorist, the most recent in a spate of high-profile deadly encounters between police and African-Americans across the country. As Los Angeles prepares this week to mark 50 years since the Watts Rebellion — which broke out in the aftermath of a traffic stop of an African-American man, Marquette Frye, by California Highway Patrol Officer Lee Minikus — it’s easy to fear that little has changed in the United States.  

In some ways, that concern is well placed. The same issues that burned into America’s consciousness in 1965 shape our nation today. The contemporary American political world was born on that August day. At the same time, much has happened since then that provides reason for hope. Some of the changes over the past five decades, at least in Los Angeles, can be attributed to the movement surrounding the late Mayor Tom Bradley, whose life and times are explored in an important new documentary, “Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race.” (I served as an academic adviser to the filmmakers.)

It will be 50 years ago on Aug. 11 that Americans confronted in Los Angeles the beating heart of racial conflict. Only five days before, on Aug. 6, the heroic drama of the civil rights movement had reached a profoundly satisfying outcome, as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. With the signing of the Civil Rights Act just a year prior, the nation had seemingly completed the work of a movement that pitted self-evidently heroic African-Americans and their allies against the blistering, open racism of the white South. The good guys had beaten the bad guys. What seemed like an ending to a feel-good movie, however, turned out to be a prequel to a long, painful struggle.

A traffic stop in South Central Los Angeles set off the Watts Rebellion — days of rage, burning and looting that shocked America. The simple, if often volatile and dangerous, drama of good vs. evil in the American South suddenly hit closer to home. The oft-hidden lives of African-Americans and their unique experiences exploded into the open.  

Can you imagine the shock to the political system when the comforting sense during the civil rights movement of a peaceful protest, of people refusing to sit at the back of the bus, building national sympathy and legislative change, was replaced by images of angry young Black men raging against the system, even against those white leaders who had supported the civil rights movement? To this day, the American political system has not recovered from this challenge, which fundamentally changed the American landscape. The mirror cracked, and the cracks spread from the South to the rest of the nation, from local politics to the state and national levels.  And now we have a whole new political system for which race is often the fulcrum.

For African-Americans, Watts brought about a new conversation in which winning the support of sympathetic whites became, for a time, less important than stating the root causes of the violence. The Black Power movement emerged, a philosophy manifested by Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton in their book of the same name. The role of police became the flash point.  In an age before cellphone cameras, it was difficult to convincingly illustrate the Black experience with law enforcement to a wider audience. When I studied Bradley’s career, I found there had been almost no mainstream local media coverage of police misbehavior toward minority communities prior to 1965, in contrast to the plethora of material on the topic in local community newspapers.  

Many whites reacted strongly and negatively to the emergence of a new Black Power movement, and that friction began to redefine American politics. Democrats began to pay the political price. White liberal mayors (there were no big-city African-American mayors until 1967) found themselves caught between insurgent African-Americans and the resistance of many white voters. This rage was particularly hard for Jews. After all, Jews were among the closest allies of African-Americans, and had taken the civil rights movement deeply to heart. Some lost their lives in the South at the hands of enraged segregationists.  But few Jews had directly encountered this kind of anger.

The white backlash was felt most immediately in Los Angeles, where Mayor Sam Yorty (who had recently won re-election over James Roosevelt, a liberal supported by many Jews), grabbed the role of defender of public order, embracing the authoritarian Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker. Gov. Pat Brown, a strong advocate of civil rights, became caught in the middle of this racial dynamic. Strongly disapproving of the violence, he soon found himself alienated both from the African-American street and his Democratic base among white voters. Sensing vulnerability, Yorty challenged Brown in the 1966 Democratic primary and did him immense damage, softening him up for Brown’s general election defeat by Ronald Reagan.  

Democrats suffered major congressional losses nationally in 1966, and in 1968, Richard Nixon followed the path hewn by Yorty and Reagan right into the White House. Playing on white fear and resistance became the defining electoral strategy of Republicans, a plan that was highly successful for many years and continues to this day. However, this approach has now limited the ability of Republicans to appeal to nonwhite voters, including Latinos and Asian-Americans. Using white identity as an organizing principle leaves Republicans struggling to persuade their most intense supporters to be open-minded toward immigrant-origin communities of color, let alone to win support from African-Americans.

Watts had another important impact, and that was the development of a highly successful movement for Black electoral empowerment, a push that in Los Angeles eventually centered on Bradley. A former police officer, Bradley was first elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1963, where he quickly became Parker’s  most vocal and effective critic. Bradley had warned that civil unrest was in the air, but he was ignored. Bradley had a deep base in his own African-American community, but he also was particularly close to the Jewish community, which had strongly supported his 1963 City Council campaign against a white conservative. Jews also were the only white group to vote against Proposition 14, the 1964 ballot measure to permit racial discrimination in housing. Bradley’s biracial coalition overcame what had seemed impossible in the wake of Watts and other civil disorders, continuing the tradition of bringing together African-Americans and liberal whites, especially Jews.


A traffic stop in South Central Los Angeles set off the Watts Rebellion — days of rage, burning and looting that shocked America.

Watts and Bradley are inextricably linked. Bradley’s leadership abilities and calm demeanor would have been appealing in any era, but in the context of the rebellion in Watts, these qualities took on a special meaning for whites who were still generally supportive of civil rights, but in the face of the violence were now walking in unfamiliar territory. Once the genie of rage was out of the bottle, local politics became about police and other issues that divided the city. As an African-American who was both passionately determined to bring about change and an active pursuer of bridges to other communities, Bradley was able to speak across blocked lines of race and to make steady, if at times frustratingly slow, progress. Protest morphed into the politics of change and made for more productive efforts than the dead end path of guilt.

Bradley had to balance the expectations among African-Americans that their concerns about local issues would be honestly confronted and resolved, with the hope of other groups that he would be fair to all. Yorty knew how to play on white fears and resentments, and in the mayoral race of 1969, portrayed Bradley as a Black militant who would make life impossible for whites. Yorty’s fear mongering was enough to beat Bradley, but in 1973, Bradley was able to put together a winning coalition of Blacks, Jews, white liberals and Latinos to beat Yorty, kicking off a run of five consecutive terms. While his strongest early coalition was with Jews (as well as many Asian-Americans), Bradley ultimately forged extremely close relations with the emerging Latino community. By the end of his term, with the alliance between African-Americans and Jews on its last legs, Latino voters were among his strongest supporters.

Bradley’s historical contribution was quite different from the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. His accomplishments came from his ability to cross bridges in a big city with racial divides very different from those in the segregated South. Instead of desegregating lunch counters, Bradley’s mandate was to improve police practices and to open up City Hall to the city’s diversity and, if possible, to advance economic equality for the inner city. And in today’s Los Angeles, the task is to forge alliances not just between African-Americans and whites, but also among all the city’s communities, with special reference to Latinos and Asian-Americans. 

Bradley’s story resonates strongly today, in the era of the first African-American presidency. Bradley faced many of the same choppy waters that President Barack Obama has been navigating since his inauguration in 2009. And while Obama has probably done more than any political leader to bring the inner dialogues among African-Americans into wider conversations, change has been very slow in coming. We are still trying to come to a greater understanding of one another, to cross the racial divide, with the possibility of a backlash not far behind in the rearview mirror.

Mayor Tom Bradley brought about changes in the wake of racial strife.

Unlike the civil rights movement, the story of race relations in today’s America has no single narrative or clear, comforting ending. (Notably, even the successes of the civil rights movement have receded significantly with the Supreme Court’s obliteration of the heart of the Voting Rights Act and restrictions on voting nationwide.) But what offers hope is the possibility of mutual understanding.

Bradley’s greatest achievement was civilian oversight of the LAPD, which may be reflected in the availability of information essential to such understanding.  Following the videotaped police beating of African-American motorist Rodney King, Bradley created the Christopher Commission, which bluntly demonstrated the need for fundamental change. Proposition F, which removed the police chief’s civil service protection and strengthened civilian review, was placed on the ballot, and only six weeks after the 1992 violence that broke out after the police accused of beating King were acquitted, that measure won a strong majority with the combined backing of African-Americans, Jews and Latinos. One wonders if the presence of “information” in the form of the King videotape and the illuminating Christopher Commission report made it possible to convey the issue to a wider range of voters than the largely unseen arrest of Marquette Frye in 1965.  

When it comes to bridges across racial lines, information is still the most important currency, and it is hard earned. And information now goes in both and all directions. In 1965, it was about African-Americans getting a hearing for the first time about a reality that had been obscured to a wider community; now it is about that information going back and forth. As Obama nears the end of his eventful presidency, he has become more forthright in stating realities and keeping lines open for receiving information as well. But the divide is not going to disappear anytime soon. This will be, in John F. Kennedy’s words, a “long twilight struggle, year in and year out.”