New realities take hold in once-frightening urban neighborhoods

August 19, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Retired Black Panther leaders are trying to trademark the 1965 riot phrase "Burn, baby, burn" to use on a barbecue sauce. That, to me, is the most bizarre filing since Fox News Channel tried to claim exclusive rights to the phrase "fair and balanced."

But it also seems ironically appropriate, especially at a time when Bob Dylan is doing commercials for Victoria's Secret. Why shouldn't the Huey P. Newton Foundation, which also wants to trademark the phrase "Revolutionary hot sauce," cash in, too?

A further irony: "Burn, baby, burn," a street slogan during the 1965 riots in and near the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, actually came from an on-air catchphrase used by the popular black Los Angeles disc jockey, the Magnificent Montague. The Newton Foundation, named for the late Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the militant 1960s-era Black Panthers, is bringing the phrase back to the commercial pop-culture realm.

That's about as appropriate a way as any to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Watts riots, which marked what I call the end of innocence for the black civil rights protests. The riots brought long-overdue attention to the nation's urban racial divide. They also opened new divides along lines of race and class from which American cities today are just beginning to recover.

It is important to remember that the riot that erupted in Los Angeles 40 years ago from Aug. 11-16 was not an isolated eruption. It was only one of the earliest and most spectacular of dozens of riots that erupted on urban America's streets during the middle to late '60s.

In 1964, summer racial violence blew up in the Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant sections of New York City and in Rochester, N.Y.

In July 1966, racial tension erupted in Omaha, Chicago, Brooklyn, N.Y., Cleveland and Jacksonville.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent federal paratroopers to quell a riot in Detroit, where 47 civilians died and thousands of homes were destroyed.

In 1968, after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, racial violence flared up in more than 100 cities, including Chicago, Baltimore and Washington.

A presidential riot commission, headed by former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, blamed the riots on the existence of "two nations," one black, one white, separate and unequal.

It took about three decades of simmering racial fears, suspicions and resentments before a new era of cooperation between city halls, downtown corporations and urban neighborhoods began to replace race-based confrontations.

Today we are seeing the old divides replaced by new ones, and city neighborhoods no longer look as frightening.

Housing prices have soared, and blacks, whites and a rainbow of other races have grown more comfortable with each other. Gentrification now threatens to displace the poor from neighborhoods that used to be written off.

Blacks who once were prevented from obtaining reasonable mortgages or home insurance by redlining practices now have to defend themselves against the relentless and dubious easy-money offers from predatory lenders.

For African-Americans of my generation (I was starting college when the Watts riots broke out), it has been dazzling to see how much has changed in urban neighborhoods.

We used to complain about white flight; now we worry when white gentrifiers move in. We used to complain about being redlined out of home loans. Now we need to worry when lenders want to throw money at us.

History offers important lessons. It's better to invest in our neighborhoods than to set them on fire. It's time to learn, baby, learn.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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