Remembering Watts: 50 Years After the Riots That Shook the Nation, What Lessons Must Still Be Learned

FILE - In this Aug. 12, 1965 file photo, demonstrators push against a police car after rioting erupted in the Watts district
FILE - In this Aug. 12, 1965 file photo, demonstrators push against a police car after rioting erupted in the Watts district of Los Angeles. It began with a routine traffic stop 50 years ago this month, blossomed into a protest with the help of a rumor and escalated into the deadliest and most destructive riot Los Angeles had seen. The Watts riot broke out Aug. 11, 1965 and raged for most of a week. When the smoke cleared, 34 people were dead, more than a 1,000 were injured and some 600 buildings were damaged.(AP Photo, File)

On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act opening the democratic process to blacks who had been denied it. Five days later, on Aug. 11, the city of Los Angeles erupted in a riot that marked the start of a three year period of violence that caused many to think an all-out race war had begun.

The violence in the Watts area of LA left 34 people dead, and more than 1,000 wounded. Arson and looting damaged more than 600 buildings. One-third of those were totally destroyed by fire.

The Watts riot shocked Americans who had believed that race relations were improving in the North, and evoked a new mood in the ghettoes around the country. Over the next three summers, riots erupted in dozens of cities, mostly in the north. U.S. Army troops were called in to respond to the worst upheavals in Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago. In Washington, D.C., soldiers set up machine guns at the White House and the U.S. Capitol to keep rioters away.

Fifty years later, Americans of all races and all incomes must look back at the period of upheaval that started in Watts with new eyes. We can celebrate a certain amount of progress, including enactment of local, state and national fair housing laws that have been upheld by the courts. But we must also face up to the warnings all around us that our progress has not been sufficient, and that we are slipping backwards into racial division and distrust that could once again lead to hatred and violence.

The riot in the Watts area of LA was a brutal counterpoint to the progress southern blacks made in gaining voting rights. It revealed the depth of despair in northern and western cities where southern blacks had moved in search of opportunity but found intense racial segregation, economic exploitation, and terrible housing conditions.

California's black population had a particularly good reason to be outraged.

On September 20, 1963, the California legislature passed a law outlawing discrimination in housing. The state's real estate industry used the petition process to put a proposition to repeal the law on the ballot for a vote.

On Nov. 3, 1964, Proposition 14 passed by a margin of over two million votes. The people of California had amended the California Constitution to provide for a legal right to discriminate in the sale or rental of housing.

It was against that background that, and fueled by resentment over the heavy-handed tactics LA police were known for, that the riot started nine months later. But California's black population was not alone in feeling frustrated and angry. The civil rights struggle did not end when blacks won voting rights in the South. It simply moved north, where it focused on housing and communities instead of voting and access to public facilities. And when it arrived, it was met with a level of hatred and violence that shocked even Martin Luther King, Jr.

Northerners liked to think of themselves as more tolerant than southerners. They generally supported the idea that blacks should be able to vote. But it was another thing entirely to say blacks should be allowed to live in the same neighborhoods as whites. Most northern communities were rigidly segregated, and the more black citizens arrived from the south seeking jobs in northern cities, the harder whites worked to keep them from entering white towns and neighborhoods.

As cities faced increasing social and financial challenges, middle class white households packed up their cars and moving vans and left for new suburban communities, the places that were made accessible by billions of dollars in federal spending on highway construction and mortgage loan guarantees. Suburbs were almost entirely white, and newly constructed tracts of suburban housing were for whites only.

Today, the racial divide continues to exist and grow, and it is still firmly rooted in the question of where minority families are able to find housing. In the 60s, whites fled the cities for the suburbs and worked aggressively to keep out people of color through explicit racial discrimination. Now, those same suburbs try to maintain their exclusivity by preventing construction of affordable housing.

There is a dire shortage of affordable housing in America. It hurts all people who have meager resources, but considering that people of color have lower median incomes than whites, it affects them the most.

The shortage of affordable housing in communities of opportunity - those with good schools, low crime rates, and access to jobs - is not an accident, or a product of the free market, but a deliberate result of government policy decisions. It is today's form of housing segregation. It takes the form of exclusionary land use policies, such as zoning that only allows single-family homes on large lots.

But it also erupts in a more acute form when any developer proposes construction of government subsidized affordable housing. The efforts of government agencies to persuade local governments to allow such construction are generally met with strong opposition, and the developers of such projects frequently decline to pursue them because of the uncertainty such opposition creates.

The visionaries of the '60s recognized that decent housing and healthy neighborhoods affordable and open to people of all incomes and races are the most effective foundation for reducing inequality and helping people advance their own fortunes. But now, the number of minority kids growing up in areas of concentrated poverty is increasing again. As any reader of the news knows, racial tensions are also growing at an alarming rate.

Over the coming months, as the 50th anniversary of each of the riots arrives, we must not take the easy route and pretend that they did not happen. Acknowledging what occurred and how we reacted is vitally important to understanding the racial and social issues we face today - and for deciding where we go from here.

The process of electing a new president and Congress makes such discussion even more crucial. Powerful political forces are mobilizing to terminate spending on housing and urban programs and to roll back federal and state efforts to enforce fair housing laws. If they are empowered in the coming election, there may be no way to avoid continued conflict and division.

In the 1960s, for a brief time, we were inspired to seek a better society - a single society that was not divided along racial and economic lines - with opportunity for all. That vision of America has been under attack in many ways for many years. It's critical to all of us to get back on the path toward that shared ideal of what our nation can be.

Andre Shashaty is an award-winning writer, editor and publisher who has spent 35 years writing about housing and urban issues. He is president of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities (PSC), a national nonprofit educational organization based in the San Francisco area. He is author of two books, "Rebuilding a Dream," and "Masters of Inequality." For information, go to www.p4sc.org/MOI