Structured Unrest: The Rumford Act, Proposition 14, and the Systematic Inequality that Created the Watts Riots

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If “you keep telling people that they are unfairly treated and teach them disrespect for the law,” Chief William Parker told reporters in the aftermath of the Watts Riots, then violence is inevitable. Parker’s commentary, an attempt to deflect his own department’s culpability for the civil unrest veered into increasingly racist territory. In Parker’s worldview, trouble only started “when one person threw a rock, and like monkeys in a zoo, others started throwing rocks.” Calls by assemblyman Mervyn Dymally for a civilian police review board were little more than a “vicious canard,” argued the imperious police chief.[1]

The legacy of the riots, fifty years old next year, has reverberated throughout Los Angeles and Southern California history and its echoes can still be heard today. Undoubtedly, the riots accelerated white flight from communities like Compton, where ironically, black, white, and Latino residents had repelled looters. While discrimination persisted in Compton, at the time, African Americans had begun to make inroads into the suburb’s downtown business district and materially, its black citizens remained better off then many of their peers in Watts and neighboring Willowbrook. “When the Watts situation happened, it was something that we didn’t suffer as much discrimination,” remembered Maxcy Filer, who had moved to the suburb in the early 1950s. [2]

While many people are aware of the immediate cause of the Watts Riots—racially tinged police brutality—fewer realize that the Watts Riot, unfolded just as African Americans had begun to secure political and economic strength. In 1958, due in large part to advocacy by black civil rights leaders, Governor Pat Brown signed into law a Fair Employment Practices Commission. Five years later, Gilbert Lindsay became Los Angeles’s first black officeholder; very soon after Tom Bradley in the city’s Tenth District and Billy Mills in the Eighth joined him on the city council. In Compton, Douglass Dollarhide ascended to the once “staunchly” white city council, becoming its first African American officeholder.[3] The same year, Assemblyman W. Byron Rumford of Berkeley authored and facilitated the passage of the Rumford Act, a civil rights law that banned discrimination in housing.[4]

In 1963, for African Americans and other minorities, Los Angeles seemed agonizingly close to making real strides in civil rights. However, the following year, the passage of the controversial Prop 14 referendum stuck down Rumford, an outcome that disillusioned many an Angeleno and for some contributed directly to the eruption in Watts. “The two-to-one victory of the amendment struck minority Californians like a smashing blow to the teeth,” civil rights leader and activist Edward Howden told the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots in 1965.[5] In fact, the debate around the passage of Prop 14, fifty years old this year, illustrates the complexity of 1960s California civil rights movements, the rise of a new Republicanism that Ronald Reagan took national years later, and the long trajectory of systematic inequality in American housing markets.

1963 – Promise on the Horizon

Indeed, in the two decades that followed WWII, African Americans had made advances in Los Angeles. “Despite the bitter persistence of segregation … by 1960 blacks performed a wide range of jobs, lived in a variety of neighborhoods, participated in electoral politics and inhabited public space to a degree virtually unimaginable before the war,” notes L.A. historian Josh Sides. However, far from true equality, African Americans had moved from “a position of restricted marginality to one of tempered inclusion.”[6] Promising, perhaps, some African American observers might admit, but far from adequate.

Undoubtedly, however, a clear disconnect between Los Angeles’s white and African American communities existed. White leaders like Mayor Sam Yorty proclaimed L.A.’s race relations “the best …. of any large city in the United States. ” The McCone Commission, organized by Governor Brown to analyze the root causes of the riot, drew upon a racial relativism, meaning compared to other parts of the nation, in Southern California things were not so bad: “A Negro in Los Angles has long been able to sit where he wants in a bus or a movie house, to shop where he wishes, to vote, and to use public facilities without discrimination. The opportunity to succeed is probably unequaled in any American city.” Yet, black leaders asserted a distinctly different opinion. L.A might be better than Shreveport, LA, but that’s not how people evaluate their lives. “I think when the Los Angeles Negro compares his living and decides his way of life … is unfortunate, he compares it with Los Angeles, not with Harlem, not with Philadelphia, not with Kansas City,” professed California Superior Court Justice Loren Miller.[7]

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Byron Rumford, FEP, and the Rumford Act

In 1948, with the support of the burgeoning East Bay Democratic Club (EBDC), pharmacist and South Berkeley resident Byron Rumford won election for the seventeenth district in the California State Assembly. Behind the leadership of D.G. Gibson, who historian Robert Self credits as the “architect of postwar political strategy in the East Bay,” Rumford and the EBDC crafted a coalition of African Americans, CIO labor, AFL progressives, and Berkeley’s middle class liberals to represent working class interests in the state assembly. As a result, the seventeenth district would serve as an “enduring lever of East Bay Power” for decades.[8]

From 1950 to 1959, Rumford would work with Los Angeles’ Augustus F. Hawkins, then a state assemblymen and future Congressional representative (21st and 29th Congressional districts) to pass the Fair Employment Practices (FEP) bill that created the state commission on the same name.[9] Los Angeles liberals Vernon Kilpatrick and Ed Roybal, the first Mexican American elected to the L.A. city council, also joined in support, forming the Jewish Labor committee along with representatives from the CIO, and the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) with support from the NAACP. The passage of the FEP in 1959 proved no small feat; a 1946 referendum, known as Proposition 11, had soundly failed.

Even with the successful passage of the new law, Rumford, Hawkins, and their allies had to beat back Proposition 18 in 1958, a referendum that sought to ban the union shop in California, thereby threatening to undermine the labor movement in the state and handcuff FEP legislation.[10] Proponents of Prop 18 attempted to portray the law as a civil rights bill that would free African Americans from racist union practices. Though unions had and would continue to discriminate against African Americans, Prop 18 hardly ensured African Americans better employment opportunities. Bay Area African American leader Ron Dellums argued that discriminatory union laws could be dealt with through FEP legislation rather than the slash and burn tactics of Prop 18. African American voters apparently agreed, voting six to one to reject the initiative in the 1958 election.[11]

Having doggedly and successfully pursued fair employment legislation, Rumford and Hawkins turned to one of the most obvious realities facing minorities, particularly African Americans: housing discrimination. Much as with the FEP, which had been consistently voted down until 1959, the two men persistently sponsored a bill aimed at prohibiting racial discrimination in housing for rent or for sale larger than four units even as their fellow assembly members rejected such overtures. Finally, in 1963, encouraged—or as more than one historian argues, prodded—by civil rights advances, the state assembly passed what had become known as the Rumford Act. Predictably, it faced an immediate onslaught from the California Real Estate Association (CREA) and numerous conservative groups.[12]

The backlash to the Rumford Act, encapsulated by Proposition 14, clearly demonstrates how differently Americans can view issues regarding homeownership. CREA and its supporters argued the Rumford Act imposed on American freedoms, particularly property rights. “I want to talk about the preservation of this real American,” one CREA representative asserted, “an individual who, at least up until now, has been endowed with personal freedom as to choice.” The California Real Estate Magazine argued the act, “granted special privilege to those who want to buy, rent or lease.”[13] When the L.A. branch of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) picketed CREA’s offices, its president denounced the activists as hypocrites. “’[I]ronic … than an organization that uses the word ‘equality’ in its name should be picketing us,” he told anyone who would listen. CREA, he dubiously argued, wanted to “restore equality for all citizens of California in the sales and rentals of residential property.”[14]

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Clearly, some Prop 14 proponents appropriated the language of the civil rights and black liberation movements; CREA represented only one example. One white state senator argued that “when the government tells the people what to do and what to think, we have a dictatorship.” The president of the National Real Estate Board proclaimed the Rumford Act, “a new so-called right for individuals of a minority group.”[15] “A property owner has an inherent right to rent or sell – or to refuse to rent of sell – to whomever he sees fit,” announced one Oakland City Councilmember in 1964.[16] While most religious groups opposed Prop 14, some expressed full-throated support. The American Council of Christian Churches of California, an organization consisting of 15 fundamentalist Christian denominations, drew on the Bible for justification. “The right of private property is a human right required by the commandment, ‘Thou shall not steal,’ and is absolutely fundamental to all other rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights,” the organization declared.[17]

Upon review, CREA’s protestations ring with self-interest. First, CREA controlled most local real estate boards and established the standards and rules for segregation prior to New Deal regulations that later institutionalized systematic housing discrimination. Before 1948, the organization enforced racial covenants to prevent homes from ending up in the hands of minorities. After 1948, CREA embraced “’corporation contract agreements’” which simply circumvented the 1948 Supreme Court ruling banning covenants, Shelley v. Kraemer. This is to say nothing of CREA’s powerful lobbying interest in the state capital. Second, the Rumford Act only affected about one third of the 3,779,000 homes in California. “Even with the Rumford Act, then,” University of California Professor Mark Brilliant points out, “the bulk of California home and apartment owners remained free to discriminate on the basis of race when selling or leasing.”[18]

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By the late 1960s CREA’s political reach appeared undeniable. The California Committee for Fair Practices suggested that no other profit-making organization rivaled CREA “in power and prestige.” [19] In the minds of CREA leaders, Rumford threatened the organization’s interests not in a tangential way, but directly. CREA came to see “the promotion, preservation, and manipulation of racial segregation as central – rather than incidental or residual – components of their profit generating strategies,” asserts Self.[20]

Opponents of Prop 14 organized a broad coalition to defeat the initiative that one post 1964 election report described as “’strongly endorsed, relatively well financed, and backed by a hard working army of volunteers.’” Governor Brown described the proposition as “legalized bigotry” and labeled it “the segregation initiative.” The group dedicated to “No on 14”, Californians Against Proposition 14, gathered together much the same grassroots forces of churches, labor union, and civil rights organizations that had successfully repelled Prop 18 in 1958.[21] In Los Angeles, the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), joined the NAACP in opposition to Prop 14, recognizing that housing discrimination hounded Asian and Latino communities as well, if not as severely as black counterparts.[22]

Demonstration_Against_Proposition_14_

Even moderate Republicans opposed Prop 14. GOP leaders like Caspar Weinberger joined the two hundred strong Republicans in Opposition to Proposition 14. “The passage of this initiative,” the organization declared, “would be a severe blow to the efforts of responsible leaders who are attempting to solve our racial problems through voluntary action or in our legislative halls and our courts.” California Senator and Republican Thomas Kuchel kept it simple by arguing that passage of the initiative “would ‘mock the American Constitution and American conscience.’”[23]

The support marshaled by anti-Prop 14 forces masked a deep complexity. First, though both the Los Angeles JACL and MAPA expressed support for an anti-Prop 14 vote, the opinions of rank and file members differed. True, JACL leaders formed an anti-Prop 14 committee in July 1964, but they expressed doubts about the support of the larger Japanese American public. Many JACL members, the organization’s leaders feared, resented “our campaigning for something which they claim does not involve them.” The late Mexican American journalist and Chicano activist Ruben Salazar acknowledged the same regarding the interests of Latinos. Salazar labeled the political alliance between Latinos and African Americans a “shaky trial marriage” based largely on political expediency. “You help us defeat the initiative to repel the Rumford Housing Act,’ the Negroes ask of the Mexican Americans,” Salazar pointed out, “’Yes’, they answer, ‘if you help us elect Mexican American to the state assembly.” A survey conducted by UCLA researchers in August 1964 confirmed Salazar’s statement. Prop 14 simply was not on the radar of most Mexican Americans. According to the report, roughly 75 percent of Mexican Americans “had no knowledge of Proposition 14.” [24] As Mark Brilliant and others have demonstrated, Asian and Latino Americans, though discriminated against, did not suffer the same depth of housing segregation as their African American counterparts.

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Likewise, though union leaders embraced the Rumford Act, rank and file members did not. When Governor Brown painted Prop 14 proponents as unmitigated racists, and no doubt many were, he alienated those homeowners who argued against Rumford on principle alone. “I firmly believe that minority groups … are entitled to every right of every other citizen in the United States,” one such individual wrote, “[h]owever, with regards to any law which denies a person the right to personally dispose, or make available, his personal property as he sees fit, I am unalterably opposed. It is my belief that free people cannot be denied a free choice in such a personal area, and yet be deserving of all that is contained in the word ‘free.’”[25] While Senator Kuchel might have opposed Prop 14, more radical Republicans like Ronald Reagan embraced it: “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, he has the right to do so.”[26]

Prop 14 supporters had successfully appealed to not only working class whites competing with minorities for jobs and housing, but also middle and upper class Anglos who believed in the mantra of property rights. “[T]hey employed the language of rights – such as the right of private property – as the language of their campaign,” points out Emily Straus, “framing it as a decision between ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘forced housing.’” Such logic Straus and other have noted made white residents the ones subject to discrimination.[27] Whites of all classes viewed “property rights as sacrosanct expressions of their personal freedom,” concurs Self. “Drop the cloak of minority civil rights … and there stands the police state in the name of social justice, with a dagger poised directly at the heart of freedom,” CREA literature, argued.[28]

Playing both to racial fears and to concerns about property rights, the initiative passed overwhelmingly and illustrated the divide between how white Californians viewed housing markets and their fellow African American citizens. The state electorate approved Prop 14 by 65%; almost 70% of Los Angeles County voters supported the measure. Unsurprisingly, minority voters widely rejected the referendum. In Compton, black and Latino voters combined to vote the proposition down and its city council unanimously opposed the legislation, arguing its passage would legalize segregation. Likewise, the most heavily African American neighborhoods in Oakland also easily defeated the ballot initiative. The presence of a large Mexican American community and active UAW presence in Union City and Milpitas (Santa Clara County) kept the vote on Prop 14 close, though the initiative still won out.[29]

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Paradoxically, Californians voted by wide margins to elect Lyndon Baines Johnson to the presidency. Johnson won Alameda County by a margin of two to one. Roughly 80 percent of San Leandro voted for Prop 14 while electing LBJ by similar margins as Alameda County. In Los Angeles County, voters cast 58 percent of votes for Johnson the same president who would ferry into law the most important federal civil rights legislation of the 20th century including the 1968 Fair Housing Act which though it lacked adequate machinery for enforcement at least recalibrated ideas regarding housing discrimination.

Byron Rumford recognized what had happened. “[Proposition 14] was built on fear and discrimination and racism,” he despaired. Liberals had been convinced that they needed the referendum “in order to protect their homes.”[30] Though a 1967 California Supreme Court ruling declared Prop 14 unconstitutional, the damage had been done. Later fair housing efforts in Chicago and elsewhere would founder even with the leadership of civil rights icons like Martin Luther King.

In a recent editorial for the Washington Post, Southern California native and future Columbia Professor Merlin Chowkwanyun pointed out that calls to improve the plight of Watts in the aftermath of riots went largely for naught as political will and funding quickly dissipated. While policing undoubtedly sparked the Ferguson riots and those of Watts, larger structural issues lay at heart of these tragedies: “A majority-black suburb of St. Louis where nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty, reminds us of what happens when mounting racial inequality and economic deprivation are allowed to fester with few checks.” While some observers may ask how blacks and other minorities can be so unhappy when an African American sits in the White House and national demographics reflect an increasingly diverse nation, the reality is that larger structural inequalities keep us apart.

Both Watts and Ferguson witnessed acts of police brutality that sparked larger conflict, but in each case the unrest that followed, whatever one thinks of it, was a reaction to longer histories of systematic discrimination. The Rumford Act and Prop 14 remind us that Watts and Ferguson might be separated by nearly 50 years but they remain stubbornly tied together by the same fundamental issues.

[Editor’s note: Thanks to “Jesse’s Blog” for its posting on Prop 14, several of the images here were posted there originally.]

[1] Danny Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 93; John Buntin, L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 310.

[2] Emily Straus, Death of a Suburban Dream: Race and Schools in Compton, CA, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 108 – 109.

[3] Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 157

[4] Kevin Starr, California: A History, (New York: The Modern Library, 2007), 308.

[5] Mark Brilliant, The Color of America has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941 – 1978, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 207.

[6] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 172.

[7] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 169, 172.

[8] Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 79-81.

[9] Ibid, 84-85.

[10] Ibid, 87.

[11] Ibid, 91.

[12] Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, 229.

[13] Brilliant, The Color of American Has Changed, 194

[14] Brilliant, The Color of American Has Changed, 194.

[15] Self, American Babylon, 261.

[16] Self, American Babylon, 167.

[17] Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed, 195.

[18] Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed, 192. In all it would have opened up 950,000 homes to African Americans and other non-whites.

[19] Self, American Babylon, 167.

[20] Ibid, 265.

[21] Ibid, 264.

[22] Vijay Prishad, Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 119.

[23] Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed, 196.

[24] Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed, 203, 208.

[25] Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed, 205.

[26] Mona Tawatao, “California’s Prop 8 challenge compared to anti-race discrimination battle,” Race Equity Project, February 25, 2009, accessed August 23, 2014, http://equity.lsnc.net/2009/02/californias-prop-8-challenge-compared-to-anti-race-discrimination-battle/.

[27] Straus, Death of a Suburban Dream, 102 – 103.

[28] Self, American Babylon, 167, 168, 263.

[29] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 168; Self, American Babylon, 168, 262-263; Straus, Death of a Suburban Dream, 102-103

[30] Ibid, 263.

Comments

  1. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    The recent events in Ferguson has inspired Tropics of Meta to publish a post by Ryan Reft on the legal and political roots of the Watts riots fifty years ago. While the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand may have triggered the first World War, but it was not the root cause of the war. The civil unrest in Watts and Ferguson are similar because they were triggered by specific events, but they were caused long term and lingering problems.

  2. Reblogged this on Homie Williams..

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  1. […] a moment not unlike the powderkeg of urban America in 1965 or 1967, when neighborhoods such as Watts erupted in rage over poverty and policy brutality, or 2014, when black people and their allies […]

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