Reflections on the 1965 Watts Riots: State Convention, Independent Order of Odd Fellows

August 18, 1965


Spring Valley, New York

I want to speak to you tonight about some of the events of the last week: about the dead and the orphans of the rioting in Los Angeles; about the sick and the distressed of all our urban ghettos; about the hatred and the fear and the brutality we saw in Los angeles; and about what we can and must do if this cancer is not to spread beyond control.

For it is clear that the riots of the last weekend were no isolated phenomenon, no unlucky chance. They began with a random argument between a drunken driver and a policeman’ they could as easily have begun with a fight in a dance hall, as did the riots in Rochester; or with a policeman shooting a boy armed with a knife, as did the riots in New York; or with a fire engine knocking over a lamppost and killing a pedestrian, as did the riots in Chicago.

All of these places—Harlem, Watts, South Side—are riots waiting to happen. To look at them is to know the reason why.

First, they are places of poverty. We know that the rate of Negro unemployment is twice the white race…But do we realize also—can we comprehend—that in many census tracts in the core of our cities the unemployment rate may be 25 or 30 or even 40 percent? In the Watts area of Los Angeles, the rate was 34 percent. And in Watts—as in the other areas of this kind—unemployment if young Negroes may go as high as 75 percent.

Our society—all our values, our views of each other, and our own self-esteem; the contribution we can make to ourselves, our families, and the community around us; all these things are built on the work we do. But too many of the inhabitants of these areas are without the purpose, the satisfaction, or the dignity that we find in our work. And lack of work means lack of money—and living in overcrowded rat-infested housing, or even renting cars for a night to have a place to sleep, as many people do in the Watts area.

More important, these are places of blighted hopes and disappointment. Their inhabitants came north, in the words of one of them, feeling “as the Pilgrims must have felt when they were coming to America.” But someone had neglected to tell the fold down home about one of the most important aspects of the promised land: It was a slum ghetto. There was a tremendous difference in the way life was lived up north. There were too many people full of hate and bitterness crowded into a dirty, stinky, uncared for, closet-size section of a great city.

The children of these disillusioned colored pioneers inherited the total lot of their parents; the disappointments, the anger. To add to their misery, they had little hope of deliverance. For where does one run to when he’s already in the promised land?

Their disappointment is all the keener because of the prosperity and the affluence all around them…

Disappointment and disillusionment have come also from our actions and our promises. We say to the young, for example, “Stay in school, learn and study and sacrifice, and you will be rewarded the rest of your life.” But a Negro youth who finishes high school is more likely to be unemployed than a white youth who drops out of school—and is more likely to find only menial work at lower pay…

After all, we are very proud of the fact that we had a revolution and overthrew a government because we were taxed without representation. I think there is no doubt that if Washington or Jefferson or Adams were Negroes in a northern city today, they would be in the forefront of the effort to change the conditions under which Negroes live in our society.

But we have been strangely insensitive to the problems of the northern Negro. During the Birmingham crisis in 1963, I met with many northern leaders: businessmen, newspaper publishers, civic officials. I told them that they would soon face problems even more difficult in their own communities. To a man, they denied that any such problem would arise in the North.

And now—even after the crisis has come—we continue to be surprised by how difficult the problems are to solve. In the last four years, the Negro has made great progress, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are rightfully regarded as achievements of which we can all be proud. But as we are learning now, it is one thing to assure a man a legal right to eat in a restaurant; it is another thing to assure that he can earn the money to eat there…

The southern civil rights movement is different from northern problems in more serious ways. In the south, the movement has been strongly led and relatively disciplined. Many of the leaders=men like Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy, the Reverend Shuttleworth—have been ministers. All have preached and practiced nonviolence.

But unfortunately—and dangerously—northern problems are the problems of everyday living, in jobs and housing and education. They affect too many people, too directly, for involvement to be restricted to those with the patience, the discipline, and the inclination to practice nonviolence. The army of the resentful and desperate is larger in the North than in the South, but it is an army without generals, without captains, almost without sergeants. Civil rights leaders cannot, with sit-ins, change the fact that adults are illiterate. Marches do not create jobs for their children. So demagogues have often usurped the positions of leadership, each striving to outdo the other in promise or threat, offering un real hopes and dangerous hate.

The result is that during and after every riot, city and police officials have pleaded for leaders, for representatives of the Negroes who could negotiate an end to the violence and establish a channel of communication to the rioters. Each time, Negro civil rights leaders have frankly acknowledged their inability to lead the mobs or the neighborhoods from which the mobs have come.

Partly, of course, the absence of leaders capable of stopping violence is due to the fact that many of the rioters are simply hoodlums, with nothing more in mind than booty and the thrill of defying the law…There is no question that hoodlums should be treated as such.

The time to consider the causes of hoodlumism is before or after—not during—a riot. Poverty and education programs do not stop bullets from killing or fire from burning. Any riot should and must be put down with the use of sufficient force to stop it quickly with a minimum of damage to lives and property.

At the same time, we must realize that force by itself is no solution…

And one harsh fact with which we must learn to live is that just saying “obey the law” is not going to work. The law to us is a friend, which preserves our property and our personal safety. But for the Negro, law means something different. Law for the Negro in the South has meant beatings and degradation and official discrimination; law has been his oppressor and his enemy. The Negro who has moved north with this heritage has not found in law the same oppression it meant in the South. But neither has he found a friend and protector. We have a long way to go before law means the same thing to Negroes as it does to us. The laws do not protect them from paying too much money for inferior goods, from having their furniture illegally repossessed. The law does not protect them from having to keep lights on the feet of their children at night, to keep them from being gnawed by rats. The law does not fully protect their lives—their dignity—or encourage their hope and trust for the future…

The first step is to move beyond thinking about this as a “Negro problem.” The difficulties these people face are far greater because of the color of their skin; but the problems themselves are as various as ours are. The problems of a Negro mother without a husband are not the same problems faced by an unemployed Negro teenager. The difficulties of a youth addicted to narcotics are related to, but are not the same as, the problems this youth creates for the Negro family trying to build a decent life in the slum…

All of these people are handicapped; all need our help if we are to right what President Johnson called “the American failure, the one huge wrong of [our] nation.” But if our help is to be meaningful, it must be directed at them as people—not as a single class labeled Negro.

The second broad step we must take is to bring these problems into the political process—to make them the subject of public action…Only when these problems are being dealt with in the political process can we expect to channel people’s frustration and resentment and insecurity into constructive action programs. The drive for Negro voting in the South has been peaceful in large part because peaceful protest found in the federal government an audience and an authority capable of taking action and willing to do so. High unemployment among Negroes in the North has resulted in more riots than peaceful protests in large part because government has not had the tools to directly affect the wide margins between Negro and white unemployment rates..

A way must be found to stop this waste of human resources and the resulting financial drain on the rest of the community. We cannot afford to continue, year after year, the increases in welfare costs which result when a substantial segment of the population becomes permanently unemployable. We cannot afford the loss of the tax revenue we would receive if these people were jobholders. We cannot afford the extra police costs that slums bring. Our slums are too expensive; we cannot afford them.

There will be much to be done at the state and local level as well, especially in giving to the poor a voice in the decisions which affect their daily lives. It is only by affording them suc a voice that we offer them an alternative to the streets. It is only by inviting their active participation that we can help them develop leaders who make the difference between a political force—with which we can deal—and a headless mob—with which no one wants to deal.

And more leadership will have to come from the Negroes themselves. Admitting all the difficulties of dealing with northern problems, it is still disappointing and dangerous that Negro leaders of stature have devoted their major efforts to the South—which is important but is only one part of a larger problem. And too many Negroes who have succeeded in climbing the ladder of education and well-being have failed to extend their hand and help to their fellows on the rungs below. We will demand much of ourselves in the years ahead. We should demand as much from the many Negores who already share our advantages.

There should be no illusions, however, that any or all of these steps will usher in the millennium. Poor people and Negro leaders will make mistakes; there will be graft and waste. We will be tempted to run these programs ourselves for their benefit, until we recall the wisdom of Winston Churchill, who said that democracy is the worst form of government ever invented—except for all the others that have ever been tried before.