On This Day

As an organization committed to justice and equity, the similarities between the Watts Riots and the riots in Ferguson, Missouri following Michael Brown’s death compel us to point out that we do not live in a post-racial world.

We at TT keep a calendar of significant dates in U.S. civil rights history. These reminders help our readers and us remember the unsteady march toward equality—and recognize that the march continues today.

Today’s history reminder gave us more than a moment’s pause.

On this day in 1965, a riot began in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The riot was sparked by outrage over the arrest of an African-American motorist and fueled by despair over generations of economic devastation and ongoing mistreatment by law enforcement. The riots lasted for six days.

Images of the Watts anniversary stopped many of us in our tracks because—only this morning—we had seen similar news footage coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. On this day in 2014, Ferguson is reeling from the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, killed on Saturday by a police officer in the economically depressed, racially segregated suburb of St. Louis.

Just as in Watts—almost 50 years earlier—police violence toward a young, black male resident pushed the people of Ferguson to their breaking point. Protests erupted as images of Brown’s prone body began circulating, and the community demanded to know the details of the shooting. In certain areas, vigils and protests crossed over into looting and fire-setting. The police donned riot gear and employed tear gas to control the crowds. The similarities to the half-century-old photographs from Los Angeles are hard to miss.

Ferguson and Watts are not the same place. Michael Brown and Marquette Frye—the young man arrested in 1965—are not the same person, nor did they suffer the same fate. To draw too many parallels between these incidents is to trivialize the history of these communities and disrespect those whose lives were and are affected.

But as an organization committed to justice and equity—and to supporting others as they stand up to injustice and inequity—the similarities compel us to keep pushing, keep working, keep pointing out that we do not live in a post-racial world. That poverty and segregation and racial profiling are still very real problems. That these problems still affect the way people who have power perceive and behave toward people who don’t. And that these perceptions and behaviors still result in very real, very young people dying, sometimes before their lives have even begun.

Oh, and one more thing.

On this day in 2014, Michael Brown was scheduled to attend his first day of college.

Editor's note: For more resources on similar topics, visit our Web package Teaching About Ferguson: Race and Racism in the United States.

van der Valk is the managing editor for Teaching Tolerance.

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