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L.A. Riots Revive Old Arguments

Officials wonder how to improve the lot of inner-city blacks without `rewarding the rioters'. LOS ANGELES AFTERMATH

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 11, 1992


HARRY McPHERSON remembers all too well the sense of devastation that gripped the Johnson White House back in 1965 after the Watts riots of Los Angeles.

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Just five days before Watts exploded, the Voting Rights Act had been signed into law, clearing away barriers for blacks to vote and putting in place the latest foundation piece of civil rights reform.

Watts abruptly soured the mood. The rioting, recalls Mr. McPherson, who was then special counsel at the White House, returned the focus to the daunting challenge ahead: eliminating poverty in the nation's black ghettos.

The recent Los Angeles riots have summoned historical comparisons with Watts and the state of society at the time. In many ways, the context of Watts was completely different: Society was infused with a sense of hope about improving the lot of blacks. A Democratic president was turning a strong commitment to civil rights into action, having initiated and signed the Economic Opportunity Act - a major step in his "war on poverty" - in 1964.

The American economy was healthy, and the industrial sector, which offered work to low-skilled laborers, was growing.

Yet civil rights advocates of that time, both from inside and outside the Johnson administration, report a sense of d vu as they consider the L.A. riots of 1992. Many of the concerns are elemental:

That the sight of blacks destroying their own community will extinguish white desire to help them; that whites will throw their political support more toward politicians promising "law and order" rather than to those advocating programs to address the underlying problems; and that any responses to the rioting not be seen as "rewarding" the rioters.

In the White House debates after Watts, says McPherson, now a Washington lawyer, "the most common question was, are we rewarding the rioters?" But in his memoir, "A Political Education," from which he quotes liberally in an interview, McPherson calls that concern a "hollow issue."

"In the first place," he writes, "we will help to feed, heal, and house everyone who needs it, regardless of his moral position during the riots; in the second place, we don't have enough money to 'reward' anybody, if 'reward' means the massive rebuilding of slum areas. We didn't have it before the riots and we don't now."

For those already committed to the "war on poverty," Watts only heightened resolve. Roger Wilkins, who was assistant director of the US Community Relations Service in 1965, was sent by President Johnson to Watts after the riots to assess the situation.

"I suppose we learned some things" about how to carry out Johnson's Great Society plan, recalls Mr. Wilkins, now a history professor at George Mason University. "The poverty program was just fledgling when the riots started and people were walking around with community-action how-to booklets, but nobody knew how to put it together."

Even though there had been a cycle of riots in 1964, it was Watts that shocked the nation, Wilkins says. "The popular recollection was that Watts was first, so people said, 'We have to get a poverty program.' It speeded up local action all over the country."