As the events in Ferguson, MO have unfolded, I am reminded of the seminal act of community outrage that occurred in South Central Los Angeles during the summer of 1965. I was a third year medical student at UCLA at the time and drove almost every night from UCLA in Westwood to Harbor General Hospital in Carson, a route that took me straight through the South Central area. It was generally a quiet, peaceful area at the time and it never occurred to me that there was unrest that would eventually lead to such tragedy.
The event that ostensibly triggered the riot was the arrest of Marquette Frye, a young African American man, for reckless driving. The arrest occurred near Frye’s home and his mother arrived on the scene to scold him for his reckless behavior. Her wrath was also directed at the arresting officers who, consistent with LAPD behavior at the time, were disrespectful of her and others who were coming to the scene. The police chief at the time was a man named William Parker, who was the Bull Connor equivalent in Los Angeles and made no secret of his disdain for people of color. Parker described the rioters as “monkeys in the zoo.”
One might think that with a solidly established record as a racist, Parker’s legend would be lost in ignominy. But, in fact, when he died a year after the Watts Riots, the Police Building was renamed Parker Center, a name that would persist until the construction of new police headquarters some 40 years later.
Like so many acts of civil disobedience, the arrest of Frye was simply the spark that ignited the tinderbox. In the case of Watts, the main fuel for the tinderbox was the wide spread practice of racial discrimination in housing in California at the time and, specifically, Proposition 14.
Prop 14, sponsored by the California Realtors Association, was passed by the voters of California in 1964 to reverse the Rumford Fair Housing Act. Rumford made it illegal to refuse to sell real estate property to any individual based on race, ethnicity, marital status or handicap. Proposition 14 passed overwhelmingly and made it perfectly legal to discriminate against minorities in the sale or rental of property in California.
The Governor of California, Pat Brown, led the legal battle against Prop 14 and the California Supreme Court finally struck it down in 1966, based on the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. However, that legal victory ended up being the political death knell for Brown. Later that year, he was defeated for re-election by a candidate who openly praised the discriminatory aspects of Prop 14, infamously saying: “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or other in selling or renting his house, he has the right to do so.”
That candidate, who used overt racism to propel himself to the California Governorship, had just five years earlier proclaimed that “Medicare is just a step away from socialism.”