northanger (northanger) wrote,
northanger
northanger

The Yelp that Burned L.A.

By Magnificent Montague

Montague! My name is Thomas Smith and I go to Jefferson High! Burn, baby! BURN!"

That's what the kids of the Negro area, as South Central was known, would call up and say in 1965 on KGFJ, the black-oriented radio station where I worked. It was what I'd shouted in New York and Chicago in '63 and '64 — what I'd shout any time a piece of soul music — Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder — captured my enthusiasm. A compliment.

And then, on a Wednesday, Aug. 11, Watts exploded in violence after a questionable police stop, and I found myself being asked — no, ordered — to stop yelling my slogan.

First, the station manager told me to stop. I told him no. I was furious. The slogan, this delightful thing, belonged to my listeners. It was theirs! A part of them. How was I going to take that away from them? Then the mayor, Sam Yorty, calls up. "You know," he says in his Midwestern twang, "there's a riot going on and you're very popular among the Negroes. And we'd like to ask you if you can stop using that term, because it tends to incite them."

"I beg your pardon," I said. "What incites them is their problems over there. What incites them is what you white people have been doing….Don't waste your time on me."

That Friday night was the worst of the rioting, the night when it seemed like it would go on forever. I could not sleep when I got home in Brentwood. The television set was making it look like this was unprecedented, that it happened out of nowhere, that it made no sense, that the Negroes were crazy, mindless savages.

Unbeknownst to my listeners, I had been collecting black historical memorabilia — thousands of pieces — since 1956, and I knew something that TV would never tell: Race riots went as far back in this country as black folks themselves.

As far back as 1663, when the Negro slaves rebelled in Gloucester, Va. And in 1712, when a slave revolt in New York killed nine whites and resulted in the execution of 21 slaves. And in the British colony of New York in 1741, when white hysteria broke out over fears that slaves might betray Britain in its war against Spain.

Back to 1906, when Negro soldiers raided Brownsville, Texas, in protest against racial insults. And in East St. Louis. And Houston. All the way up to what had happened the previous summer after I left the air in New York: riots in Harlem, Rochester — even my hometown of Elizabeth, N.J. I was supposed to go back to work Monday; what was I going to say about this?

{An author backstory: Burn, baby! Burn!}

UPDATE [07-Feb|02:51] :: added asteroids #535-MONTAGUE, #2708-BURNS, #2955-NEWBURN, #3127-BAGRATION & #5405-NEVERLAND to Hopper Asteroids.

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