I was out in Watts during the riots. One young man said to me-and Andy Young, Bayard Rustin, and Bernard Lee, who were with me-“We won!” I said, “What do you mean, ‘we won’? Thirty-some people deadall but two are Negroes. You’ve destroyed your own. What do you mean, ‘we won’ ?” And he said, “We made them pay attention to us.”
When people are voiceless, they will have temper tantrums like a little child who has not been paid attention to. And riots are massive temper tantrums from a neglected and voiceless people.
There was joy among the rioters of Watts, not shame. They were completely oblivious to the destruction of property in their wake. They were destroying a physical and emotional jail; they had asserted themselves against a system which was quietly crushing them into oblivion and now they were “somebody.” As one young man put it,
“We know that a riot is not the answer, but we’ve been down here suffering for a long time and nobody cared. Now at least they know we’re here. A riot may not be the way, but it is a way.” This was the new nationalist mood gripping a good many ghetto inhabitants, It rejected the alliance with white liberals as a means of social change. It affirms the fact that black men act alone in their own interest only because nobody really cares.
But let no one think that this is a defense of riots. The wake of destruction of property where many Negroes were employed and where many more were served consumer goods was one of the most tragic sights I ever witnessed. It was second only to the thought of thirty-seven persons dying needlessly in an uncontrolled tantrum of devastation and death. This was more human loss than had been suffered in ten years of nonviolent direct action, which produced the revolutionary social changes in the South.
Violence only serves to harden the resistance of the white reactionary and relieve the white liberal of guilt, which might motivate him to action and thereby leaves the condition unchanged and embittered. The backlash of violence is felt far beyond the borders of the community where it takes place. Whites are arming themselves in Selma and across Alabama in the expectation that rioting would spread South. In this kind of atmosphere a single drunken disorderly Negro could set off the panic button that might result in the killing of many innocent Negroes.
However, a mere condemnation of violence is empty without understanding the daily violence that our society inflicts upon many of its members. The violence of poverty and humiliation hurts as intensely as the violence of the club. This is a situation that calls for statesmanship and creative leadership, of which I did not see evidence in Los Angeles. What we did find was a blind intransigence and ignorance of the tremendous social forces that were at work there. And so long as this stubborn attitude was maintained by responsible authorities, I could only see the situation worsening.
Los Angeles could have expected the holocaust when its officials tied up federal aid in political manipulation, when the rate of Negro unemployment soared above depression levels of the twenties, and when the population density of Watts became the worst in the nation. Yet even these tormenting physical conditions are less than the full sign. California in 1964 repealed its law forbidding racial discrimination in housing. It was the first major state in the country to take away gains Negroes had won at a time when progress was visible and substantial elsewhere, and especially in the South. California by that callous act voted for ghettos. The atrociousness of some deeds may be concealed by legal ritual, but the destructiveness is felt with bitter force by its victims. When all is finally entered into the annals of sociology; when philosophers, politicians, and preachers have all had their say, we must return to the fact that a person participates in this society primarily as an economic entity. At rock bottom we are neither poets, athletes, nor artists; our existence is centered in the fact that we are consumers, because we first must eat and have shelter to live. This is a difficult confession for a preacher to make, and it is a phenomenon against which I will continue to rebel, but it remains a fact that “consumption” of goods and services is the raison d’etre of the vast majority of Americans. When persons are for some reason or other excluded from the consumer circle, there is discontent and unrest.