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The Watts Riots: School Photos Before and After

Manhattan Place Elementary School class photo in 1964. | Photo: Courtesy Kris Aubry
Manhattan Place Elementary School class photo in 1964. | Photo: Courtesy Kris Aubry

Poring over old family photos this past week, my siblings came across a few of our oldest brother's grade school class pictures from Manhattan Place Elementary in South Central. It was our neighborhood school where all five of us went, and from which three of us graduated.

My brother's first-grade class picture from 1964-65, the year we moved there, is decidedly mixed; roughly half the kids are white, the other half black. The teacher wears cat glasses and a complicated, bobbed hairdo that hasn't quite made it out of the 1950s, and she is smiling. In its perfect diversity that predates the word by several decades, the picture has a snapshot-in-time innocence, an un-self-conscious idealism, that made me flash on Obama's revival of "One America" that got everybody so excited back in 2004.

Obama was preaching the possibility of togetherness that we'd had once, or always had but stopped recognizing; my brother's class seems to be proof that such community did exist, and it was growing in sync with the civil rights movement that at that time was beginning to peak. Quite literally, the promise of America was all coming together.

The photo was an illusion. The next school year in 1965-66, the number of white children in the third-grade class picture are far fewer, countable on one hand. In a few more years, when I got to Manhattan Place, they had disappeared altogether. The pattern was the same in big cities across the country, the black influx into desegregated neighborhoods that became an influx into previously white local schools, which in turn led to white flight that became total.

Manhattan Place Elementary School class photo for the 1965-1966 school year. | Photo: Courtesy Kris Aubry
Manhattan Place Elementary School class photo for the 1965-1966 school year. | Photo: Courtesy Kris Aubry

In L.A., that flight was hastened by the Watts unrest of 1965, a fact reflected in the contrast of my brothers' class pictures. Watts is considerably southeast from my Manhattan Place neighborhood around Century and Van Ness, but it was close enough, and black enough, to be suddenly undesirable and potentially dangerous to whites, and they pulled up stakes. Not that I missed their presence; I was very happy at school thought it idyllic in its own way.

It was only when I was bused across town in my fifth-grade year to an almost exclusively white school that had "advantages" that my idyllic school didn't have that it began to dawn on me what had happened. I was encountering white peers in Westchester whose families had likely lived where I was in South Central not very long ago. Yet in a few scant years we had become strangers, people with no history or connection to each other. That became the norm. It took me many more years to understand why things had happened this way, and why it's been so difficult, if not impossible, to undo the effects of re-segregation that happened instead of the actual integration promised by the rising civil rights movement that was captured briefly but critically in my brother's second-grade class picture.

A recent issue of The Atlantic has a devastating piece on the persistent and pernicious effects of public school segregation, how it corrodes hope and opportunity across generations and most importantly, how it corrodes in black students a sense of belonging and of being equally valued. These last two things are the most important lessons of any education. The Atlantic story looks at Tuscaloosa, but it might as well be L.A.

We are in some ways worse off because the black population here is not as large as many cities in the south or east or Midwest, and never has been, and therefore it's been politically easier to neglect. But the corrosion has been exactly the same. Resegregation is now an old enough phenomena to include Latino students who increasingly define South Central. But the outlines of the original tragedy are clear, its effects very much present. In my two years at the Westchester school, I collected a couple of class pictures from '74 and '75 that looked as racially ideal as my brother's had ten years earlier, down to the smiling white teacher; to look at them, you would have thought we were on the verge of solving the togetherness problem for good. In truth, it was just beginning.

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