We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the so-called Watts Riot, an emblematic moment of the 1960s. Coming the year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the unrest in Watts, California—which started, as have so many urban conflagrations, with the interaction of a white police officer a young black man—mocked the idea that legislation in Washington, D.C., no matter how important, could instantly improve the day-to-day lives of African Americans cut out from post-war prosperity due to discriminatory policies in lending, housing, transportation, and employment. Unfortunately, the riot devastated the people who could least afford it—poor blacks in their own neighborhoods. Represen-tatives of “law and order” saw this as further evidence that such neighborhoods needed to be aggressively policed.
Several months after the riot, an AP Wire photographer visited Watts and took this photograph of a black girl and a Christmas tree. The photographer crouched down to compose his low-angle shot: the frame includes a majestic Canary Island date palm rising above the rubble—a suggestion that in Watts, at least, the California Dream had turned to a nightmare. And yet the cherubic smile on the girl’s face placed the photo in the “feel-good” category.
The syndicated story that accompanied the image—a kind of ethnographic puff piece—ran all over the country on Christmas Eve, 1965. The text is composed of snippets of interviews with neighborhood residents about the Christmas season. The tone of the author—a white man, Dave Smith—is a mixture of condescension and empathy. Smith describes going to a local bar, the Canadian, to speak to Negroes. He finds that “the spirit of Christmas is bitterness for the young, resignation for the old and, all too rarely, a flicker of hope, like tree on the Canadian Bar.” When the jukebox plays “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” the drinkers “howl” with laughter.
Each AP member newspaper wrote its own headline. In the San Bernardino County Sun (below, right), the local editor placed the illustrated story about “Black Christmas” next to Dennis the Menace and a “news” item about the enduring popularity of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
(For a detailed history of palm trees in Los Angeles, see part 4 of my book Trees in Paradise.)