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Watts Riots: “Burn, Baby, Burn”

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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.


Los Angeles:  Why?
August 30, 1965

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.

The Watts riots also exposed divisions within the black community.  Martin Luther King came to town and realized within minutes that the chasm that separated white America from the black ghetto also divided him from angry blacks.  ("Black", by the way, is a new word.  In Newsweek, the preferred word is "Negro" and is used extensively.)

Inside a faded, second-story meeting hall, King was quickly ringed by 300 angry Negroes.  "The people don’t feel bad about what happened," one soliloquized.  "They had nothing to lose.  They don’t have jobs, decent homes.  What else could they do?"  "Burn, baby, burn," someone whooped, to a chorus of laughing applause… King finally got the crowd under control, but he wound up canceling other stops in the riot zone for "security reasons."  Watts, clearly, was a battleground lost.

Of course, it was all repeated in May of 1992 after the verdict in the Rodney King trial.  That year 58 people died, the National Guard went back on patrol, and many of the same complaints and arguments heard at Watts were heard again.

This 1965 Newsweek marks one of the first national appearances of the 60s phrase "Burn, Baby, Burn."  Made infamous by the riots, it was first used by a disc jockey known as Magnificent Montague when he was working in New York and Chicago in ’63 and ’64.  He’s shout it any time a piece of soul music got him excited, and he brought it with him to Los Angeles where his listeners appropriated it for the arson that marked the riots.  During those terrible days, his station manager and even Mayor Yorty asked Magnficent Montague to give up his slogan.  He did, at least while the fires were hot, changing to:  "Have Mercy, Los Angeles!"


Instant_history_oj1 Instant History is all about the "first draft" of history.  For over seven decades, both Time and Newsweek have provided a weekly snapshot of our lives — sometimes profoundly insightful and other times woefully inadequate but, in all cases, before conventional wisdom has time to set in.  Like today’s blogs…

Bryce Zabel is a working screenwriter/producer whose current credits include The Poseidon Adventure and Blackbeard.   He was chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences from 2001-2003.  He maintains two other blogs:  his flagship News! — Views! — & Schmooze! as well as his film criticism blog Movies-Squared.


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  • Nice write-up, thanks for the report

  • wenstar107

    If whites hadn’t keep their foot on the necks of the black community we could have prospered just fine. Blacks were doing much better than poor whites after reconstruction then came the KKK and all their supporters, Jim Crow etc. why can’t you people take the blame for your part in this. You give the Jews the Arabs land, we send them billions every year to run their apartied state. How much reparations have the Jews been paid by Germany? Aren’t they still paying? I think so. America is the biggest hypocrite of all.