Forty-Five Years After the "Watts Riot", King Hospital Remains Crucial to Healing the Lingering Wounds

Forty-five years ago this week, an explosion of violence set Los Angeles aflame, in a rebellion against centuries of racism that would be burned into American history as the "Watts Riot." I know this because I witnessed it as a ten-year old boy growing up in South Los Angeles.

In the riot's aftermath, government officials scrambled to repair not only the physical destruction of the riot, but to also repair the damage done to society to by the color-coded poverty that had been embedded long before urban conflict broke out. The County of Los Angeles committed to heal those wounds in the heart of the riot zone, by building the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, now a operated as a specialty ambulatory care center.

The hospital was the direct response to then-Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, Sr.'s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, more commonly known as the McCone Commission, whose report directed that "immediate and favorable consideration should be given to a new, comprehensively-equipped hospital in this area" after pointing out "there are 106 physicians for some 252,000 people, whereas the county ratio is three times higher. The hospitals readily accessible to the citizens in southeastern Los Angeles are also grossly inadequate in quality and in numbers of beds. Of the eight proprietary hospitals, which have a total capacity of 454 beds, only two meet minimum standards of professional quality."

The Watts Riot began on August 11, 1965 following a relatively minor traffic stop involving a few white police officers and a small group of black residents. The violence ended six days later when an estimated 10,000 rioters returned to their homes; order finally having been restored after the declaration of martial law and deployment of the National Guard. The McCone Commission found the destruction-related statistics "staggering"-- 34 killed, 1,032 injured, including 90 Los Angeles police officers, 136 firemen, 10 national guardsmen, 23 persons from other governmental agencies, and 773 civilians), 118 of the injuries resulted from gunshot wounds, 3,438 adults arrested and property losses in excess of $40 million (in 1965 dollars, equivalent to $277 million today).

The Report focused on what it called "the Negro problem," but acknowledged that the challenges facing the dispossessed extended to others. The rioting, according to the McCone Commission report, "is part of an American problem which involves Negroes but which equally concerns other disadvantaged groups....our major conclusions and recommendations regarding the Negro problem in Los Angeles apply with equal force to the Mexican-Americans, a community which is almost equal in size to the Negro community and whose circumstances are similarly disadvantageous and demand equally urgent treatment."

The McCone Commission Report would initiate a debate that continues to this day in one form or another about the underlying causes of urban violence. Whether chronic poverty can ever be overcome, the conditions that existed on the eve of the outbreak are shockingly similar to the circumstances today of many residents of the South Los Angeles "curfew area" -the broad martial law zone of the time that is entirely in the district I now represent. The Commission called the conditions a "spiral of failure." It documented the educational, employment, housing, health and welfare deficits which afflicted the roughly 400,000 African American residents living in the curfew area.

Unwinding that spiral of failure would take a massive effort, the report stated. Los Angeles officials began that effort ambitiously by building a new medical center. Time has shown that solutions to the crisis of urban poverty remain elusive.

In 1972, MLK Hospital opened to ovations and celebrations from the political and business community which hailed it like a Phoenix which rose from the ashes of the Watts Riot. It was not just a local success but a national victory. But as great as the celebration was when the ribbons were cut and the first patients walked into the gleaming new hospital for medical services, the demise of the hospital only three decades later during the tenure of a County Supervisor who had served on the McCone Commission staff was beyond anyone's worst predictions.

Through poor management, planning, and oversight, MLK hospital collapsed. Not only did it fail, but it did so with some of the most dreadful examples of substandard governance and patient care ever seen by a hospital in the state of California. Patients literally died on the floors and in the hallways of a facility dedicated to providing care for that very same community.

On the day of the closure of King Hospital, a distraught constituent was heard shouting "It's like Dr. King was shot and killed again."

Now, Los Angeles County is making slow but steady progress in efforts to open Martin Luther King, Jr. hospital anew. This week's announcement by the County Board of Supervisors and the University of California of a new and independent governing hospital Board marks another step in the journey toward providing competent leadership and quality patient care. Moreover, efforts by the County to develop a master plan for development of its 38 acre site and surrounding neighborhood suggests a far more holistic approach that is designed to view health care delivery as an employment magnet. The facility's access by two fixed rail lines and a freeway make it an asset for the entire region.

No more should Watts/Willowbrook be defined singularly by it deficits of high impoverishment, below par educational attainment, renters as fifty percent of population and disproportionately high numbers of single family households. Instead, these communities must be viewed as an asset to Los Angeles County, beginning with a new hospital.

When we open the doors of the new MLK Hospital, America will witness more than a new edifice bearing the name of the "Drum Major for Justice;" the nation will see how a community continues to draw on lessons from its painful past to heed Dr. King's call for hope rather than despair.

As a society, we must not tolerate another 45 years of inconsistent progress and spotty success. A new King Hospital will advance a new attempt to heal the wounds of racism - let's pray this time it leads us to a cure for the disease.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on which represents the Watts/Willowbrook community among other areas.