Dr. Gerald Horne of the University of Houston and Makani Themba, executive director of the Praxis Project, discuss the history and continuing impact of the 1965 Watts rebellion.


Story Transcript

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. Fifty years ago today August 11, 1965 the Watts uprising began, resulting from massive inequality and police brutality. Today August 11, 2015 protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri and around the world in response to massive inequality and police brutality. To reflect on the impact of Watts and the continuity of problems as they are focused in Ferguson, we have two esteemed guests. Longtime activist, author of numerous studies on race, class, and media, and executive director of the Praxis Project in Washington, DC, Makani Themba, and Dr. Gerald Horne, the prolific John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African-American Studies at the University of Houston. Thank you both for joining us, and welcome again to the Real News Network. MAKANI THEMBA, EXEC. DIRECTOR, THE PRAXIS PROJECT: Thank you so much for having us. BALL: So Dr. Horne if we can, let me start with you and just ask you to quickly summarize for us the history and significance of the Watts uprising, and what you see has been the lessons learned or not learned as we enter another year of uprisings and response to police brutality? DR. GERALD HORNE, UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON: Well, approximately August 11 to August 18, 1965 there was a major conflagration in a 46 and one-half square mile area in Los Angeles County, larger than the island of Manhattan or San Francisco. Almost three dozen people were killed, there were tens of millions of dollars of property damage. But perhaps more significant was the ideological consequences rising out of the ashes. Watts was the community alert patrol, which in many ways was a precursor to the Black Panther party. Also arising were certain cultural nationalist trends as reflected in the US organization. But also arising was a counterrevolution, a so-called white backlash. Recall that before the explosion in Watts, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the crown jewel of what was referred to as the civil rights movement, was signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. In the aftermath of Watts, the budding GOP politician Ronald Wilson Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966 on the platform of preventing another kind of explosion like Watts 1965 on his watch. He was elected, which catapulted him to the presidency in 1980. And therein you begin to see a counterrevolution, a so-called white backlash, against the idea of equality. A counterrevolution that arguably we have yet to escape. BALL: Makani Themba, let me ask you basically the same question. And I might add to your part of it, particularly given your emphasis and focus on media and media coverage of these kind of issues, what have we learned, or what has changed or not changed in the way the Watts rebellion has been discussed in popular media, and perhaps the way uprisings in Ferguson and elsewhere in the country and the world have been covered? THEMBA: Well, I think that’s a great question. I think one of the things that we’ve noticed about the way so-called–well, we call them uprisings and unrest and they’re often called riots, right? In the so-called mainstream media. And part of that challenge is sort of the idea that whenever black people primarily, people of color to some extent, but black people really, come together, act, that the issues of violence are overplayed. The fear–and that fear and those frames actually date further back than Watts. They date back to the rising, the uprisings of enslaved Africans and how that was framed as unreasonable and crazy, and that this is who we are as a people. That we are just people who burn things down for no apparent reason. That the context gets pulled out. And sadly we’re watching that same narrative, essentially a 200-year-old story, be told over and over again. I think what’s different today of course is the capacity for us to tell our own stories, to develop a counternarrative, and to really engage around this negative narrative around–and tell it differently. And even though we can’t counter every single negative story that comes out, we’re doing a much better job of telling our story not only to the so-called mainstream world, but to each other. Because there was a way in which we weren’t even able to or had the capacity to, because of the technology, the limits in technology, to even talk to each other about what was going on. So I think that’s important. And I think the only other thing I would add, just really quickly, is that this also marked a real shift in liberal support for civil rights work, and the work of what essentially is black power. And so we can see some of that, those legacy struggles around representative politics and all of that, today. BALL: To the point about how issues are framed and covered, we see a lot of the coverage of what’s happening in Ferguson and elsewhere in the country, a lot of the media focus is I think intentionally shifted to a discussion of the potential for violence among the protesters as opposed to the reasons for the protesters being there in the first place. Is this something you, Makani Themba, have noticed in your assessment of the situation? THEMBA: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that context is woefully missing from the work. And in fact most of the time when it comes up, it comes up in the context of activists challenging the coverage, either in interviews or otherwise, that say, well, well, why aren’t you talking about why we’re here? To me it’s very interesting even from a psychological perspective. My friend Dr. Cheryl Grills, who heads up the Association of Black Psychologists, talks about what black folks have to witness in terms of the murder of folks that look like them, of their family members, et cetera, as not just trauma but torture. And you think about what does that mean in terms of people, their wellbeing? I mean, aside from whatever you want to understand about policing, just if you care about the folks in the frame as human beings, to have some empathy. And that empathy is sorely lacking in the coverage in addition to the sort of nuts and bolts of the policy and politics, and the historic context. BALL: Gerald Horne, I would like you to follow up on, respond to anything you’ve heard from Makani Themba there. But also this point that she raised of the impact of the Watts uprising on the relationship to the black struggle held by white liberals and so-called progressives. And is there anything we could maybe glean from that and the potential for their involvement and support of the current iteration of the black struggle here in this country? HORNE: Well as already noted, there was a so-called white backlash, I would prefer to call it a counterrevolution, against the idea of equality and [inaud.]. What we need to realize is that the white right remains rather potent, and sadly and unfortunately it’s oftentimes underestimated in terms of its strength. I’m afraid to say that this underestimation is nothing new. It stretches back to the founding of America in 1776 and still exists to this very day. And until we get a bead upon the actual potency and strength of this powerful counterrevolutionary force which not only manifests itself in our neighborhoods but manifests itself around the globe, I daresay that we will always be in jeopardy. BALL: I believe I heard, I think it was Congressman Meeks but I should be checked on that, who said earlier today he was making the comparison on a popular news channel of this time to the past, saying that what we see happening in the year since Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri is that we’ve moved, as he put it, from what was the equivalent of 1955 a year ago in Ferguson to what is the equivalent today of 1965. He equated the so-called advance in the year since Michael Brown’s killing to the ten-year period between ’55 and ’65, which I thought was a curious but potentially fortuitous comparison or analogy. Makani, I’m wondering if in fact a year after Michael Brown’s killing we are in the equivalent of 1965 here in 2015, what that might mean in terms of this also being the anniversary of the Watts rebellion and many other significant points of history, facts of history, from that year and that time. THEMBA: Well you know, it’s interesting because when people talk about this difference between ’55 and ’65, that’s complicated, right. One, it’s not linear in many ways. And some people talk about it in terms of the level of unity, the character of the work, and they’re almost nostalgic for before 1965, because ’65 for many folks is a turning point they may say in terms of the so-called unity and cohesiveness of the movement, per se. ’65 is also a point of increased, I think in the black power movement, more resistance that was known. Because of course, black resistance per-dates 1965, per-dates 1955, so I think it’s important to hold that marker. And I think too that yes, there has been some progress in Ferguson because of the relentless struggle of the folks on the ground. The policing reforms that have been passed. The constitution of the commission. There has been hard-fought victories that are not everything, but they are important. And people have literally put their blood and sweat on the line. So that’s important to acknowledge. So I want to say yes, of course there’s been progress, because people have worked so hard. There’s a lot more work to be done. And I wonder about the comparisons, because they are so complicated. But there is definitely resistance, and there’s definitely a pushback, and there’s definitely generational challenges that people are working to overcome. And there’s just so much to learn, not only from Ferguson but all the places where folks are taking a stand on the ground. And we’re really in a rich period of organizing and folks challenging Afro-phobia directly, like that specific anti-black racism and hatred. And also we’re watching, as Dr. Horne talks about, an even stronger–not even stronger, but a stronger push from the white right, which is not just a fringe group but really in many ways mainstream in terms of their occupation of power not only in places like Ferguson but even New York City. I shouldn’t say even New York City. New York City and all over the country. BALL: Prof. Horne, a similar question in terms of this comparison. If this is the 1965 moment, what then does that say about what we have or have not learned since the initial Watts uprising? HORNE: Well, keep in mind that in 1955 you had the Bandung meeting of mostly colonized African and Asian nations. And to the extent that our fate historically has been connected to the fate of colonialism itself, that anti-colonial moment was very important in terms of watching what came to be referred to as a civil rights movement. Keep in mind as well that in September 1965, a few scant weeks after the Watts revolt of August 1965, you have the overflow of a nationalist government in Indonesia, with the blood-soaked remains of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians lining the streets. And then a few months after that you have the overflow of the Kwame Nkrumah government in Accra, Ghana, which had been very close to the black movement in the United States. And interestingly enough the U.S. ambassador in Ghana at that particular moment of February 1966 was a former NAACP official, Franklin Williams. Which speaks of course, the splitting of our movement and the turning to the U.S. ruling elite by a certain section of our movement. And I dare say that we have yet to recover from those perilous moments of 1965 which I think leads to your very perceptive question. BALL: Dr. Horne, Makani Themba, thank you very much for joining us here at the Real News and helping us deal with this history, and put some of these important points together in an important and helpful way. Thank you very much for joining us both here at the Real News. THEMBA: Thank you. Thanks so much to the Real News for all you do. You guys are all that. BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. And for all involved, again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. And as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. Peace, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


Jared Ball

Jared A. Ball is a father and husband. After that he is a multimedia host, producer, journalist and educator. Ball is also a founder of "mixtape radio" and "mixtape journalism" about which he wrote I MiX What I Like: A MiXtape Manifesto (AK Press, 2011) and is co-editor of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable's Malcolm X (Black Classic Press, 2012). Ball is an associate professor of communication studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland and can be found online at IMIXWHATILIKE.ORG.

Gerald Horne

Dr. Gerald Horne holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. His research has addressed issues of racism in a variety of relations involving labor, politics, civil rights, international relations and war. Dr. Horne has also written extensively about the film industry. His latest book is The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. Dr. Horne received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. from Princeton University.