The episode began in familiar circumstances: A white police officer stopped a black man. Whether it was called the Watts Riot or the Watts Rebellion, what followed the arrest of 21-year-old Marquette Frye for drunk driving in the summer of 1965 was six days of violence in Los Angeles, the death of 34 people — and the death of Lyndon Johnson’s dream.
By the time the Watts episode was over, 1,000 people had been injured and nearly four times that many arrested. The toll in property damage was $319 million in today’s dollars. The toll in the nation’s psyche could not be measured. Within three years, Richard Nixon — employing a “Southern Strategy” that quietly gave reassurance to opponents of segregation along with a “law-and-order” platform that hardened white American views about blacks — would win the presidency.
But before he did, Johnson offered comments at a White House Conference on Equal Employment Opportunities. His remarks, now 55 years old and tucked away over five pages in a forbidding volume of a series called the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, bear reviewing at this difficult moment in the American story.
If there is one thing I think we have learned from the civil rights struggle, it is that the problem of bringing the Negro American into an equal role in our society is more complex, and is more urgent, and is much more critical than any of us have ever known.
This passage reflects the fact that the Voting Rights Act to which Johnson was so dedicated was signed on Aug. 6, 14 days before this speech. “That was the great moment of history Johnson wanted,” the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who worked for LBJ and later wrote a biography of him, said in an interview. “And then these riots happened. He used this speech to try to get the country back on track to where he wanted it to go.”
The bitter years that preceded the riots, the death of hope where hope existed, their sense of failure to change the conditions of life — these things no doubt led to these riots. But they did not justify them.
This is a familiar presidential incantation, a statement that black Americans live with a degree of racism that white Americans don’t understand, followed by a condemnation of violence; George H.W. Bush said much the same thing after the Rodney King verdict, also in Los Angeles, produced protests and violence 27 years later.
“This riot was a threat to his efforts to build the broad coalition he needed for his Great Society, one that he believed had to be inclusive of all Americans,” said John Savagian, a historian at Milwaukee’s Alverno College. “He also affirms here that he is president of all Americans, which I think is a healthy message for those wishing to serve in government.”
It is our duty — and it is our desire — to open our hearts to humanity’s cry for help. It is our obligation to seek to understand what could lie beneath the flames that scarred that great city. So let us equip the poor and the oppressed — let us equip them for the long march to dignity and to wellbeing. But let us never confuse the need for decent work and fair treatment with an excuse to destroy and to uproot.
Here Johnson combines his condemnation of violence with his commitment to eliminate the conditions that produced black hopelessness. This passage reflects the individual White House conversations he had as the violence was underway with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders, including James Farmer, the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality; Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP; and Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a predominantly black union.
“Johnson is not trying to divide and create chaos,” said Douglas Brinkley, the Rice University historian. “He was trying to heal the country. By embracing this notion — by saying, as he did before, that ‘we shall overcome’ — he pulled America together. We could use a speech like this today to heal the open wounds of the country.”
The brave story of the Negro American is related to the struggle of men on every continent for their rights as sons of God. It is a compound of brilliant promises and stunning reverses.
“By 1965, we were far enough into the civil rights era that people would not take this kind of police abuse lying down anymore,” said David A. Harris, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor regarded as the nation’s leading authority on police violence. “It had been going on forever — and finally they reached a point where they would not take it anymore. While we have made many changes, police misconduct sadly is still with us, and it’s unfortunate that it’s more often directed at people of color than whites. Until that stops, we shouldn’t expect the reaction to be different.”
Yet beneath the discord we hear another theme. That theme speaks of a day when Americans of every color, and every creed, and every religion, and every region, and every sex can be trained for decent employment, can find it, can secure it, can have it preserved, and can support their families in an enriching and a rewarding environment.
“He sounds like a radical today,” said Larry Davis, former dean of the School of Social Work and founder of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh. “He understood some things that have been lost, that black Americans had been held back and that it made no sense to take them to the starting line and say they are equal.”
Now, America is at a starting line once again, beginning a new process of evaluation and healing.
The evaluation will come with the fall election and with reflections in every American home. “The only way to see ourselves in a true light,” as former President George W. Bush said last week, “is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving.” The healing can come only when we, as Johnson put it more than a half-century ago in describing the agony of Los Angeles, “seek to understand what could lie beneath the flames that scarred that great city” — and that have scarred our own cities, and our own time.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.