Note: This article draws heavily from the article: California’s Anti-Discrimination Legislation, Proposition 14, and the Constitutional Protection of Minority Rights: The Fiftieth Anniversary of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act by David B. Oppenheimer
In 1958, the Democratic Party made significant gains in the California legislature. The Democratic Party by the late 1950’s was well on its way to becoming a pro-civil rights parry (if you exclude the South). The Democratic Party held a two-thirds majority in the California legislature which prevented anti-civil rights legislators from blocking any civil rights legislation. The Democratic legislators and gubernatorial candidate Pat Brown ran on a campaign of passing a Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA). FEPA would prohibit businesses and labor unions from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on color, national origin, ancestry, religion, or race. Thanks to the Democratic supermajorities, Democratic legislators passed the law in April of 1959 and the law became effective in September of 1959. The Unrugh Civil Rights Act was passed at the same time and would prohibit discrimination by all establishments in access to public accommodations. The Hawkins Act also passed during this time applied to housing, but only publicly assisted housing accommodations.
The U.S. census found in 1960 that 83% of Californians were white and 5% were black. Black Californians lived in near isolation away from white Californians. For instance, in the Golden Gate University Law Review, David B. Oppenheimer writes that of the 461,000 black persons living in Los Angeles fewer than 4,000 lived in neighborhoods that were not majority black neighborhoods. He notes that the city was 99% segregated. The Berkeley City Council passed a fair-housing ordinance in January of 1963. In 1960, the census found that the city was 74% white. The city was about 20% black at the tie of this fair housing ordinance. Within one month of it being passed, there was a repeal petition to repeal the ordinance. The voters of Berkley repealed the fair-housing ordinance 22,750 to 20,456.
Black Angelenos found themselves confined to East and South Los Angeles which included the Compton and Watts neighborhoods. After a series of white attacks on black residents including car bombs, makeshift molotov cocktails, and burning crosses white residents of Compton and Watts fled into the suburbs One way that the racial separation continued was the efforts of blockbusting. The idea is that real estate speculators would buy a home on an all-white street and then sell or rent it to a black family. The real estate speculators would then buy the remaining homes on the street from whites who wanted to flee.
The California Fair Housing Act of 1963 (Rumford Act) was passed by the California legislature in 1963. The Rumford Act protected blacks and other people of color from discrimination for public and private housing. It made discrimination in public housing and in all residential properties with more than five units. The act was supported by Pat Brown, the California Attorney General, and the Assembly Speaker. The Chamber of Commerce, the construction industry, and the real-estate industry all opposed the Rumford Act. With 25 minutes left in the session, the Act was passed by the Assembly and was signed by Pat Brown. The Act was passed on essentially a straight party vote. No Democrat voted against it and only three Republicans voted for it.
Thanks to the repeal of the Berkely fair-housing law, the real-estate industry thought that the Rumford Act could be opposed if put to a statewide referendum. There was an initiative campaign with the slogan, “a man’s home is his castle.” The campaign was opposed by the Democratic Party and its biggest allies including the AFL-CIO and the State Bar. The leading supporters for the campaign included the Los Angeles Times, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan. In the further right, the John Birch society also supported Proposition 14. As Oppenheimer notes in his article, George H.W. Bush was running as a Goldwaterite Republican with a platform that would oppose a federal fair-housing law.
Proposition 14 as it was known did go on the 1964 general election ballot. Lyndon Johnson won the state of California 59-41 over Barry Goldwater but Proposition 14 was able to get 65% of the vote.
On August 11, 1965, a 21 year old black man by the name of Marquette Frye was pulled over for reckless driving. He was found to be drunk and was placed under arrest. Marquette’s brother Ronald walked to their house and gogt their mother Rena. Rena scolded her son, Marquette, for drinking and driving. Someone shoved Rena, Marquette was struck, and Rena jumped an officer. Another officer pulled out a shotgun and Marquette was subjected to physical force. Neighbors began watching the incident and throwing things at the police officers. This quickly escalated to a riot.
The riot escalated further. About 2300 National guardsmen were mobilized to stop the riots. 16,000 law enforcement personnel were mobilized. Blockades were established and signs were posted about the authorized use of deadly force. The riots continued for six days. Arson and looting of white stores in the area were widesperad. Over the course of six days, 31-35,000 adults participated in the riots. There were 34 deaths, 1032 injuries, 3,438 arrests and over $40 million in property damage. It was the worst riot in Los Angeles until the Rodney King riots.
One of the bigger factors in the riots was the passage of Proposition 14. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an article for Saturday Review that made the argument that Los Angeles could have anticipated rioting “…when the state of California repealed a law that prevented discrimination in housing.”
Pat Brown canvassed the Watts area to help determine the causes of the riots and to see what he could learn to prevent a similar riot from happening in the future. Rick Perlstein wrote in The Invisible Bridge that Brown would never forget what he learned.
Women told him they were desperate to work but couldn’t find child care; one told him what it was like to scrounge for her food to keep her baby from starving the week before her monthly relief check arrived. He remembered, too, that the chairman of his commission convened to studt the riot – the conservate former CIA director John McCone – had learned it took a five-hour round-trip by bus from Watts just to file the papers to get on relief- for a stipend that hadn’t been adjusted for a decade.
The McCone Commission also wrote a number of proposals to help the Watts community either move on from the riot or help their standing in poverty to help remove them from poverty. The prescriptions offered by the commission included “’emergency’ literacy and preschool programs, improved police-community ties, increased low-income housing, more job-training projects, upgraded health-care services, [and] more efficient public transportation.” The McCone commission also highlighted the leading problems for the Watts riot when presented to Governor Brown which were (emphasis added): “poor education, unemployment, and inferior housing, transportation health services.”