46 Years later, Watts destroyed anew

by on August 11, 2011 · 9 comments

in California, Civil Rights, History, Popular

By Lyneva Mottley

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 46 years since August 11, 1965, the day the Watts uprising began.

I’ll never forget the fear that I felt watching the chaos unfold. I was shocked but not surprised: you could feel the anger and frustration building up during that hot summer.

The booming California economy was providing little opportunity for people of color. Public policy was benefiting the already fortunate and was leaving behind those who were already disadvantaged. In California, as in the rest of the country, African American and Latino families were reaching a boiling point that could not be contained any longer. Over the following two years there were a number of additional riots in Chicago, Newark, Detroit and elsewhere.

Today in Watts and across California people are feeling that familiar angry bubbling stirring up as the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider. During this time it is important that we recall the lessons from that turbulent period in our nation’s past.

Two years after the riots broke out, President Lyndon Johnson established The Kerner Commission to try to understand what happened and what could be done to prevent further occurrences.

The resulting document, known as the Kerner Report, recommended that people from all walks of life have more equal access in four major areas: jobs, education, housing and services. Unfortunately, the inequality of 46 years ago is all too familiar today.

To be sure, there have been areas of progress. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 outlawed discriminatory banking practices and redlining. This helped give millions of minority families like mine the opportunity to fulfill the American Dream through homeownership.

I knew something was wrong a decade ago when my mailbox began to get filled on a daily basis with offers that seemed too good to be true. The pamphlets were from realtors, brokers and lenders that were selling predatory loans. These subprime loans were designed to be more expensive products for high risk borrowers, but turned out to be a chance for loan sharks to make a buck by pushing them on my elderly and minority neighbors, whether they needed them or not. One Wells Fargo loan officer recently testified publicly to the widespread practice of steering subprime loans, cynically referred to as “ghetto loans,” to borrowers with good credit.[1]

Wall Street securitized these loans and packaged them as good investments until the market’s inevitable collapse. According to a recent report, “Homewreckers,”[2] the loss to homeowners, the property tax base, and local governments amounts to at least $650 billion. Meanwhile, bank CEOs continue to be absurdly compensated, with Chase’s Jamie Dimon earning $20.7 million and Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf earning $17.5 million in 2010.[3]

Of course, African American and Latino families have not fared nearly as well. A new report from the Pew Research Center finds that median household wealth in African American households declined 53% between 2005 and 2009 from $12,124 to $5,677. Wealth among Latinos fell even more dramatically during the period, from $18,359 to $6,325, a 66% decline.[4]

Many of us feel as frustrated today as we did in 1965. Yet, as was the case 46 years ago, there is an opportunity for elected officials and Wall Street to address the problems. Key among them is the growing number of mortgage holders who now owe more than their houses are worth. Today, 23% of homeowners are underwater, including as many as 35% of African American homeowners and 41% of Hispanic homeowners.[5]

It is a problem we can solve if we have the will to do so. We can actually fix the foreclosure crisis in California by writing down all underwater mortgages (2.1 million in the state) to market value. This would pump an annual $19.9 billion into the state economy and create 295,000 new jobs annually for 30 years. It would save Californians an average of $790 a month on mortgage payments and would dramatically reverse the loss of wealth in minority communities.

I still believe in the American Dream. That’s why Bank CEOs and elected officials owe a solution to devastated black and Latino families in Watts and everywhere who believe we all deserve a fair chance to pursue our dreams.

 Lyneva Mottley grew up in Watts and has lived there for over 50 years. A homeowner, she is retired from a career in factory work and home health care. She is the acting chair of the Watts chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). For more information about ACCE, visit www.calorganize.or


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/us/07baltimore.html?pagewanted=all

[2] http://www.calorganize.org/node/799

[3] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/bb5b697a-95a6-11e0-8f82-00144feab49a.html#axzz1UTYFKYfW

[4] http://pewsocialtrends.org/files/2011/07/SDT-Wealth-Report_7-26-11_FINAL.pdf

[5] http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1729/survey-acceptable-homeowners-stop-making-mortgage-payments

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

JEC August 11, 2011 at 9:05 pm

I’m not sure how this fits – I was a month shy of my 16th birthday working the concession stand near the merry-go-round in Griffith Park when the Watts riot happened. My boss was Charles, an urban black man earning his PhD at UCLA . In the midst of the riot, a large black man reached through the serving window, grabbed me and tried to pull me through the small window. No way would I fit. I was struggling. Charles jumped in, went outside, confronted the much larger man. I could tell Charles was empowered with moral superiority. I, the kid, watched through the window as the two men – adult black men – no more than five years difference in age – but a world apart in their education – these two men argued; debating why taking rage out on a white kid was wrong. Hate begats hate. I was amazed that anyone thought it was ok to beat up anyone else. Charles called him a racist and dismissed him. And the guy left. Racism is irrational and without reasoned moral support it cuts in all directions. But in 46 years have things change? Certainly – a lot. Obama is Presient; a conservative president. Go figure. The one continuity I can see is that race is a dodge, a means to keep us divided. Global wealth is spread across many races. Whites in fact are a minority. But class distinctions are growing.


Ernie McCray August 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Mass anger that goes unrelieved is a monster that can be conceived in the time it takes one second to segue into the other: Watts, 1965; London, 2011… Watts was frightening to me but I was a 27 year old athletic black man filled with testosterone that said “You best not mess with me.” Now, I’m a 73 year old pacifist hoping like hell that those people in DC will come to their senses and create something to bring relief to our collective anger or Lord, have mercy – and I ain’t even religious, you see. As one who lives in his imagination, I won’t even let myself go there as far as this mess our world is in is concerned. But I still hear the echoes of “Burn, baby, burn.”


Frank Gormlie August 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm

I recall sitting in a Denny’s type of restaurant in Watts 5 years after the riots. I was just about the only white person there. Friends I was with told me that before the riots Black people could not even get served there, much less work there.


Ernie McCray August 12, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Now those kind of conditions can start a melee in a heart beat.


Allen Lewis August 13, 2011 at 12:01 pm

I’m sorry to say but Racism has not gone away, it’s just under ground. If you think the people put a black man in office I feel your wrong, it’s called the electoral collage, your vote doesn’t count. What a better time for the powers that be to put in a black, no one can fix the mess that our government put is in, so know we can blame a black.


Allen Lewis August 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm

“The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”
— Thomas Jefferson


mr.rick August 13, 2011 at 1:01 pm

In ’67-’68 my Dad started a furniture shop in Berdoo.I moved up there for a while to get away from a bunch of drunks. Mom and stepdad. But was inbetween 10th and 11th grade.Summer of ’67 I stumbled across LSD at an Animals concert at the Swing Auditorium. Being totally “FLIPPED”, Orange Sunshine has a tendency to have that effect on people. But I went to the freeway and stuck out my thumb and after a couple of rides got let off somewhere in Watts. I’d heard about the place,so I was plenty paranoid. After a while a couple of older brothers walked by and let me know it was not some place for me to hang around. I feel a bit of gratitude to this day. A few years ago a young black fella knocked on my door selling some kind of spray cleaner. I invited him in and asked how he ended up in our town. I explained to him that Erwin Tn doesnt have or want Black People living in their town/county. He related his boss put him out to sell some product. These guys were from the D C area. I just had the kid eat some and drink some and when his boss drove by trying to find him’ I clued him to the situation. I just hope that youngster remembers that and help some one else out in the future. I’m sure he will. He was a right polite young man.Maybe we can straighten this sh@t out one person at a time.


john August 13, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Around 2000 I visited friends in Hollywood, it was a warm summer Sunday and I was not in a particular hurry to get back to San Diego. I was alone but I was driving “Clubdead” that beloved hearse I owned for 4 years, it usually scared people off or made them your friends so I wasn’t worried.
I travelled south from about Santa Monica and Olympic and just kept going, not noticing I’d passed the 10 and before you know it the street names were ringing a bell and I realized I was in South Central. However I just kept going, I got a few waves and smiles being my car was an old cadillac.
I drove all the way through to Compton, a good 15 miles. A few things struck me.
Not on house did you see without some form of iron fence, bars, or deadly impalement device on its top.
At no place anywhere was there anything not chained or bolted down. Nothing to steal even if you tried.
Not one single police car did I pass except for immediately leaving and entering this strange place. The few I saw seemed to stay on the perimeter.
And strange it was, there was no large stores, no shopping centers, things you would call enterprise or opportunity.
Maybe because it was sunday, the few folks out and about were all wearing their “sunday best” and children were well behaved, as if you knew momma was going to give them what for if they didn’t toe the line.
It was just depressing and when I got home I called my friends up north and told them about the “wrong turn” I’d made and was kind of surprised to hear after years of living in LA they’d never been through South Central.
It really stuck with me and I started paying more attention to this issue in the rare times it was raised, in particular I recalled how many times I had seen Congresswoman Maxine Waters on the news, with her often angry rhetoric fighting for her constituants.
Then I started to wonder, what has anger done to build shopping centers in South Central? What has rage done to make the police want to patrol those streets? What has the vinegar of Ms.Water’s public outcries done that sugar water would not have accomplished much better?
I drove through South Central that day because I felt no fear of people of any race threatening me. Had it been otherwise I’d have turned back. Maybe the 4 tons of steel with skulls on the roof had a bit to do with that, but I did see what appeared to be a community beaten down and enslaved- to itself. The riots of South Central had done that, it only harmed South Central.
Maybe this is too dumb to need saying, or maybe I’m saying it in a dumb way- but anger expressed only ends up getting more of what caused you to be angry in the first place- and I’m not sure Maxine Waters et al have figured that out yet. Some leaders of the black community seem to have made a career out of fanning the flames of racism. As if it tried to die, maybe they couldn’t let it? I grew up in the SF Bay Area, entering kindergarten in the CA public schools in ’67. Racism was actively frowned upon there but I know elsewhere it has barely improved since Emmitt Till’s brutal slaying in the 50’s.
(I was introduced to this story several years ago, if anyone isn’t familiar please visit:)
And still purportedly goes on today, driven by what?
Probably fear. Of a just and deserved rage, sure, but all the justification in the world doesn’t mean that in the end ass holes like Roy Milam and J W Bryant aren’t going to exist in this world, and use fear of the black man’s rage to commit these atrocities and gain quiet support from the equally cowardly in their midst.
Maybe the best thing you can say about Watts, or South Central, is that it’s not Mississippi, so that glass is half full. Better than half empty about to be knocked off the table.
(as I’m sure those familiar with Emmitt Till need no further depressing reading, here’s something a little more positive:
The Joe Louis/Max Schmeling fight, yet we find Schmeling was not the villain he was made out to be. It had a nice ending)


Allen Lewis August 13, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Billy the shoe shin guy in OB was one of my dads best friends, and a strong mentor of mine in the very early 60’s. For me he was just a very smart man. One thing my drunk beat dad (before hippy) taught me was all people are created equal, it’s fear that divides. After I got older I spent my time down on Imperial Av. where all the great jazz was being played in San Diego. On breaks I would find my self out back smoking a joint with the guys in the band. In 66 and 67 I found my self making trips to the Height in SF to pick up stuff for OB, and after I did my thing I would head to the Fillmore. I don’t dived, never have and never will. People are just that “people”. If you want to feel what it’s like to be a minority go to Hawaii, and not just as a truest, Better find your self a kind big Samoan to watch your back before you talk shit, I did.


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