Just about every other African American on my block in South L.A. during that chaotic second week in August 1965 knew the name Marquette Frye.
His name would be emblazoned in history as the 21-year-old black motorist whose stop and arrest for drunk driving ignited what then was the largest mass civil disturbance in the nation’s history.
I would repeatedly hear his name shouted with curses, jeers and white hot anger in the riotous days on the corner a few blocks from my house where I stood on that August day. I watched the flames leap from building to building in the stores while looters dashed in and out packing their ill-gotten stashes.
In taking a hard look at what has changed in s Watts in the half century since the riots, Frye’s name has been replaced by these names: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford and Sandra Bland. They have one thing in common with Frye. They were young, black, and like Frye, became the national poster names for police victimization of blacks.
The clock on this chronic national plague has seemingly stood still. However, this is only one benchmark of how much or how little progress has been made since the Watts riots on confronting racial ills and poverty in America.
Certainly, many blacks have long since escaped from the corner in South L.A. like the one I stood on amidst the flames and chaos a half century ago. Their flight was made possible by the avalanche of civil rights and voting rights laws, state and local bars against discrimination and affirmative action programs that crumbled the nation’s historic racial barriers.
The parade of top black appointed and elected officials, including one president, the legions of black mega millionaire CEOs, athletes, entertainers and the household names of blacks from Oprah to Bob Johnson is unarguable further proof of that.
However, there’s the other hard reality that more blacks still languish on corners like the one I stood on in August 1965. For them, there has been no escape. A comparative look at conditions in black America in 1965 and today tells their tale.
In 1965, black adult joblessness stood at 10.98 percent, for teens it was 29 percent; in 2015 for black adults it stands at 12.6 percent, for teens 41 percent.
In 1965, 76 percent of black students attended segregated schools; in 2015 the figure is 74 percent. In 1965, 20 percent of blacks were in single parent households; in 2015 the figure is 70 percent. In 1965, the wealth gap between black and white was a shade under $20,000; in 2015 it has leaped to more than $27,000. The black–white gap in homeownership has nearly doubled between 1965 and 2015.
Then there‘s the issue that still remains the major flash point in racial relations in America. That’s the criminal justice system.
In 1965, an estimated 35,000 blacks were in America’s state and federal jails; in 2015, the number has soared to more than half a million.
When Watts exploded in August 1965, a year had passed since then President Lyndon Johnson, with much fanfare in his State of the Union speech, announced his war on poverty. He and others told how poverty had divided the country into two Americas, one wealthy, prosperous and in total control of the nation’s wealth and resources and the other America, poor, desperate and disproportionately minority.
Fifty years later, Johnson could make the same call in a State of the Union Address and be on the mark. Nearly half of black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. Overall, nearly one-third of blacks live in poverty; that’s a figure nearly triple that of non-Hispanic whites.
In August 1965, at the height of the riots, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Watts. He was jeered by a few blacks when he tried to calm the situation. But King did not just deliver a message of peace and non-violence; he also deplored police abuse and the poverty in Watts.
Fifty years later, he would almost certainly have the same message if he came to South L.A. or any of the other community like Watts in America.
President Barack Obama has publicly bristled at the notion that the civil rights movement is outdated, or worse, that his historic presidency somehow supplants the ongoing work of civil rights leaders. He has repeatedly praised past civil rights leaders for their heroic battle against racial injustice.
But that battle can’t be placed in the past tense. What I saw in Watts in 1965, and what I see in the Watts of America 50 years later, stand as stark and troubling proof of that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM Radio 1460 AM, Fridays at 9 a.m. and on KPFK Radio 90.7 FM, Saturdays at 9 a.m.