Forty years ago this month, the Watts riots transfixed the nation in an explosion of racial violence that, when it was over, left 36 dead, 900 reported injured, over 4,000 arrested and at least $200 million dollars of property damage. It was an orgy of burning and looting that left the area looking like a ravaged war zone. It all started with an arrest of a black man by the hated LAPD on charges of drunken driving.
Imagine 15,000 National Guard troops fanned out over a 50-square mile piece of Los Angeles real estate and you can get a picture of what the nation witnessd for the five days the riots raged. Newsweek titled its inside article: "After the Blood Bath"
In the war zone called Watts, whole blocks lay in rubble and ashes. Black men and women — the human debris of war-- queued up in bread lines at makeshift relief stations. Jeeploads of of heavily armed soldiers prowled the streets, an American army occupying part of America's third biggest city. And outside a pillaged store, a Negro teenager — himself a ruin before he ever reached manhood — surveyed the wreckage without a wisp of remorse. "You jus' take an' run," he said, "an' you burn when they ain't nothin' to take. You burn whitey, man. You burn his tail up so he know what it's all about."
Well, what was it all about? Clearly, if you were black and poor in 1965, there was plenty to be angry about — from unemployment to an unsympathetic police department. But did the looting and burning actually send the right message? Just this week, Joe R. Hicks, the former executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had this to say in the L.A. Times:
The riots, however, only made things worse. And since then the problems have metastasized — in large part because the city's black elite demanded massive government intervention, rather than shouldering responsibility for their community's future.
Turning to Newsweek's coverage in 1965, it's easy to see where the beginning of Hicks' complaint is being born. There are several references to aid packages to come from Washington. Even President Lyndon Johnson argued, "It is not enough to simply decry disorder. We must also strike at the unjust conditions from which disorder largely flows." Yet, at the same time, there are many themes in the magazine's coverage still being sounded today, specifically re-building black families as a way of strengthening communities.