Los Angeles' 1943 War on the Zoot Suit

For several days in June 1943, uniformed members of the U.S. armed forces rioted throughout Los Angeles, targeting young men in zoot suits. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

In June 1943, Los Angeles witnessed some of its most surreal scenes of street violence: Navy sailors coursing through the city streets in their military uniforms, carrying sticks and targeting anyone wearing the colorful zoot suits that were in fashion among the city's Latino population. In terms of personal injury and property damage, these so-called Zoot Suit Riots pale in comparison to the later race riots of 1965 or 1992; no one was killed in 1943. But the image of a city at war with itself while the nation was at war overseas has persisted in L.A.'s collective memory.

Long-simmering cultural and racial tensions preceded the actual violence. Racism had long impacted the daily lives of Mexican Americans, along with other people of color, in Los Angeles. But when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, xenophobic passions and notions of patriotism lowered the already-segregated city's tolerance for cultural diversity.

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In his study of the riots, "The Power of the Zoot," Luis Alvarez argues that a distinctive "zoot culture" -- also known as Pachuco culture -- arose in response to racism and the wartime pressure for conformity. Striking a defiant pose, young men of color wore suits distinguished by their vibrant colors, long-cut jackets featuring exaggerated shoulder pads, loose pleated trousers, and adornments like feathers and chains. Young women adopted their own distinctive outfits that often included long coats, sweaters, dark lipstick, and skirts that ended above the knees.

Examples of zoot culture fashion. Courtesy of the Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

As Eric Avila writes in "Social Flashpoints," an essay from the Blackwell Companion to Los Angeles, the outfits helped disaffected youths fashion "a distinctive identity, one that flaunted its defiance of the middle class conventions of society at war."

But among civic leaders, law enforcement, and many in the city's white majority, the zoot suit came to be seen as an un-American challenge to the war effort. "In the midst of a global war with an uncertain outcome," notes Avila, "when the strains of wartime rationing and the calls for patriotic loyalty minimized public tolerance for expressions of social difference -- even sartorial ones -- the zoot suiter tested the political and moral expectations of the moment."

Tens of thousands of servicemen streamed into the Los Angeles area after the United States' 1941 entry into World War II. Drawn from all over the United States and trained to fight the Japanese in racialized terms, these soldiers, sailors, and marines -- serving in a segregated military -- adopted a contemptuous stance toward the zoot suiters.

By August 1942, L.A. law enforcement had begun to target the zoot suit. After the body of a Mexican American teenager was found in a reservoir in Maywood, police initiated a murder investigation and rounded up hundreds of young Latinos -- despite the lack of proof of foul play. On January 13, 1943, nine of those arrested were found guilty of murder, though their convictions would later be overturned on appeal.

Young men arrested during the so-called Sleepy Lagoon Murder investigation. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Young women arrested during the so-called Sleepy Lagoon Murder investigation. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

During the riots, sailors, soldiers, and marines roamed the streets of Los Angeles, carrying makeshift weapons like baseball bats and wooden sticks. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Rioting servicemen stripped some zoot suiters of their clothes in public. According to the Examiner's caption, this arrested teenager took the turn of events 'philosophically.' Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

A police officer questions one of the zoot suiters arrested in the riots. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

By the night of June 3, 1943, the stage was set for the Zoot Suit Riots. Violence erupted between zoot suiters and servicemen on shore leave from the nearby Naval Reserve Armory in Chavez Ravine. As a group of 11 sailors walked down the 1700 block of North Main Street near Lincoln Heights -- according to the sailors' account -- a gang of about 35 young men in suits ambushed them. LAPD officers responded to the predominantly Mexican American neighborhood and promptly arrested several of the alleged attackers.

Though the sailors suffered only minor injuries, rumors soon circulated among the naval barracks at Chavez Ravine of serious injury and other affronts, including assaults on servicemen's girlfriends. Sailors poured into the downtown L.A. streets in search of vigilante justice.

The violence lasted for four full days. Mobs of sailors roamed the streets with makeshift weapons, beating anyone they found wearing a zoot suit. Some victims were stripped in public and left naked on the street.

On June 4, the rioting sailors enlisted a fleet of taxi cabs that transported them to minority communities far removed from Chavez Ravine. The violence spread east to Boyle Heights and south to the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts. Three days later, the mobs swelled in size as soldiers and marines from nearby Fort MacArthur and El Toro joined in the rioting.

Though zoot suiters fought back -- at one point organizing expeditions to local military bases in search of a fight -- they bore the brunt of the violence. According to an official report, 94 civilians, compared to 18 servicemen, suffered serious injury.

Official inaction prolonged the rioting. Police often arrested the victims rather than the attackers, ostensibly for their own protection. In the end only two servicemen were taken into custody, while authorities arrested 94 civilians.

The mobs may have operated with the tacit support of local law enforcement, but they earned the explicit praise of the Los Angeles press. On June 7, the Los Angeles Times ran a story with a lead paragraph that read: "Those gamin dandies, the zoot suiters, having learned a great moral lesson from servicemen, mostly sailors, who took over their instruction three days ago, are staying home nights."

Peace finally prevailed soon after June 8, when embarrassed military officials finally declared Los Angeles off-limits to enlisted personnel. MPs and Shore Patrol officers, backed by the LAPD, enforced the military's order. The Los Angeles City Council also offered its own response to the riot: a resolution -- introduced but not passed -- that would have made the wearing of zoot suits in public a misdemeanor punishable by jail.

After several days of rioting, military officials finally sent MPs into Los Angeles to quell the violence. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Mayor Fletcher Bowron (standing) meets with military officials and LAPD Chief Clemence Horrall. According to the Examiner's caption, the officials pledged 'two-fisted' action and not 'slaps on the wrist' for the zoot suiters and denied that their actions amounted to racial discrimination. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Governor Earl Warren meets with an ad-hoc citizens committee formed to discuss plans to prevent a recurrence of the Zoot Suit Riots. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

Read more L.A. as Subject posts here at KCET.org, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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