Myth destroyed: The Times publishes a photo Aug. 13, 1965 of Charles Hillinger in the riot area interviewing people.
As next week’s anniversary of the Watts Riots draws near, I am once again hearing the old urban myth that the Los Angeles Times was afraid of sending white reporters to cover the unrest so it drafted Bob Richardson, an African American from the advertising department.
Executive Summary: Totally False.
Here is an account by Charles Hillinger debunking the story, which had been revived by Bob Baker, both of whom have gone to the city room in the sky.
I tried to send along additional info about the Bob Baker (former Times editor) Watts riots reference that L.A. Times white staffers were too scared to go into riot zone and Bob Richardson came to the rescue, etc. But my stupid internet and Email hasn’t been working for several days. I must get a new computer.
Anyway the morning after the riot erupted I was sent to where it all started. Accompanying my story was a photo showing me interviewing a group of Black residents who were witness to the start of the riot.
Like [Eric] Malnic I worked the riot from then until it finally ended. The Times didn’t seek out Richardson to have a Black go into the area. Richardson, a messenger for the ad dept. came into the city room late on the second night right from the scene where all hell had broken out to tell us he was caught in the middle of the riot.
The desk had Richardson talk to me and I wrote a story based on his eyewitness account. It was decided to make my story a first person piece with Richardson’s byline. That was the first time anything from him appeared in the paper. It had nothing to do with white reporters not covering the story.
I worked with different photogs throughout the riot, Ray Graham, Dick Oliver and Bruce Cox. As Eric noted, angry mobs gave us a bad time verbally. But no one threw anything at us or our car.
One wild-eyed woman with disheveled hair ran up to us as we approached a huge fire just set — Graham and I were the only whites in the area –and grandstanding before the assembled crowd shouted, “What are you white MFs doing here?”
I told her we were from the L.A. Times, there to cover the story.
She said “You better get your MF facts right or we’ll burn down the L.A. Times.”
Larry, I thoroughly enjoy your postings about historic Los Angeles.
This story about covering the Watts Riots brings to mind my father’s connection to those events. During the mid-1960s, he was the Los Angeles County District Health Officer for Southeast District. His health center was located in the heart of Watts on Avalon Boulevard (42nd & Avalon? 49th & Avalon? I don’t remember the precise location so many years later.) He was white, virtually all of his staff was white, and most of the neighborhood residents were black. I don’t remember how — in the days before the Internet and a 24 hour news cycle — he learned of the rioting. He and his staff were restricted for going to the health center while the riots continued. Upon his return, after many tense hours, he was surprised to find that the building was minimally damaged, despite widespread devastation surrounding it. For the rest of his life, he spoke of his belief that the Watts community was grateful for the “well baby” clinics (helping pregnant women and infants), immunization clinics, venereal disease screenings, and other services his staff provided to them, and they protected the health center.
Thank you for debunking myths and uncovering real stories behind headlines. And I’m still awaiting your upcoming book!
Thanks for sharing!